Sunday, July 13, 2008


As a language teacher, I am often asked what is the “best” method of learning a foreign language and, as someone who went through 23 years of changes in the accepted view in the British state school system, I have to say that there is no one failsafe method: you have to combine several , keep an open mind and be able to make connections between different languages.

What will not work, in my opinion , are these so-called “this is how to train your memory” methods that are pedalled so often: you know the sort of thing? “Bicyclette is French for bicycle. So picture a great big B in a child’s drawing book, then a great big C and then think of your children begging you to ‘Let me ride it, mummy!' ” What an extraordinary process and how doomed to failure it is! Why not just focus on “bi” indicating two of something and the similarities between English and French? With this sort of approach, whatever is going to happen to you when it comes to grammar?!

And you need grammar – yes, you do! All right, we can teach you to book into the ubiquitous imaginary campsite [as ubiquitous and irrelevant in GCSE oral exams as bulls in French fields were in the written exams of my youth] in as many languages as you like, but it won’t help you if and when things go wrong! Modern foreign languages teachers were not helped, during the reforming 70s and 80s, by English departments that refused to teach grammar [though this was partially put to rights by the National Curriculum in Britain] . “Verbs”, said my own first teacher of French , “are the backbone of the language.” You also need what I like to call grammar patterns, by which I mean that you should acquire the ability to adapt the language you know.

I repeat: ADAPT THE LANGUAGE YOU KNOW. Do not, especially in an exam, try to use unpractised vocabulary or structures, because you risk using them wrongly. In fact, try to use new vocabulary or grammar in sentences as you learn and then let your teacher advise you on appropriate usage.

This brings me to another point: Which is best? In situ or in the classroom? I have to say that you need a mixture of both. Of course you can “pick up” language quickly if you are in the country where it is spoken, but you may be picking up inappropriate registers [using the wrong kind of language for a given situation, an easy example being the minefield of “you” forms in the Romance languages and others] or end up using slang [which I would advise a foreign learner never to do, as it dates so quickly]. Wherever you are, there is always a place for time with a good tutor and some formal instruction.

Never forget, when learning another language, to use a skill which we automatically employ with regard to our own and that is your PREDICTION SKILL. When we listen to someone speaking our mother tongue, we “switch off” our auditory programme and think about something else far more often than we imagine, simply because we are confident and we can guess what filled the gaps. In the learned foreign language, we can’t afford to switch off, but we can put our prediction skills to good use by simply asking ourselves, “What is he / she likely to be saying?” After all, if you walk down the street, meet your best friend and remark, “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”, he / she is hardly going to reply, “I’m worried about the NASDAQ”!

Let go, also, of the idea that you have to understand everything whilst reading or listening: you don’t. Usually it is enough to get the gist and be able to reply in some way. Again, this is largely what we do in our own language.

Do realise that no one is perfect, even in their mother tongue: if they were, and if everyone knew every word, crossword compilers and language game show hosts would not have their jobs, would they? So accept that language is a living thing; it will never stop changing and you will never stop learning. That’s what makes it exciting!

Accept that THINGS ARE EXPRESSED IN A DIFFERENT WAY BUT MEAN THE SAME and you are half-way there. Otherwise you risk speaking the language in a non-idiomatic manner. [This, by the way, is the problem with those online translator things.] And accept that sometimes, just as in English, there is no explanation for the way in which something is expressed: it just is!

Last but certainly not least, try to be a CULTURAL FROG: Recently, during oral exam practice [the exercise was from an actual past paper] , I asked a student of mine what companies could do to relieve employee stress. “Nothing”, he replied. “There is no stress in Sicily.” Now, whether that is true or not is another matter, but his answer hardly helps the oral examiner to ask a follow-up question, does it? “Well,” I went on, “in some UK companies the management has set up a gym for the employees to use at lunchtime. What do you think about that?” “That’s stupid”, replied the student, “because we all go home to our families at lunchtime.” Obviously, the student who at least attempts to make the cultural leap by trying to visualise what life might be like in the target language country will do a lot better here, for a little imagination is always necessary; it is not possible, you see, to divorce the learning of the language from some knowledge of the culture.

So be open, give due attention to grammar , accept that some things are just so, be aware of the the subtleties of register and be a cultural frog whenever you can!

Here endeth Welshcakes Limoncello’s language learning sermon for this Sunday evening.


Guthrum said...

I was once told by a French language teacher in Poitiers twenty five years ago that all you need to be fluent in a foreign language are 1000 words of vocabulary and the ability to be humble and learn from every mistake you make, and always try no matter how bad the construction of your sentences, to have the courage to try a few words

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, guthrum. Your teacher gave wise advice for it is not the vocbulary, but the structures which join it together, which are important. Having the courage to try is, of course, important, and that is where the continentals have the edge on the shy British!

CherryPie said...

I didn't do too well at learning languages. I do seem to be able to get by in other countries with just a few words phrases from the language. Maybe it is partly down to understanding other people?

jmb said...

Good advice Welshcakes indeed. It seems these days the study of a foreign language is how you learn the grammar of your own. A fellow student of Italian (who herself was a college professor in fine arts with higher degrees) once asked me about molto. Why does it require agreement sometimes and others not. I said when it is used as an adverb it does not change but as an adjective it does. She said, what's an adverb? I was totally astonished as you can imagine.

Sackerson said...

Interesting and authoritative.

James Higham said...

Excellent advice and I'll certainly employ it should I become a language teacher, especially about those pesky tranlators. :)

Trubes said...

That was extremely interesting Welshcakes, I thoroughly enjoyed your Sunday Sermon.
To use a clichè, (I Loathe clichès)
'I have taken board all that you have said'..... I wonder how that would translate into French?
I hope to return to my French studies in October at Liverpool University, which I had abandon last year, because of health issues.
By the way, How is your ankle? I hope it is improving.

Di. xx

Dragonstar said...

This sounds like excellent advice - but then, coming from you that should be taken as read!
I find understanding less difficult than using. Too lacking in confidence I think.

Eurodog said...

When learning languages in the French system, my children had to learn pages and pages of vocabulary and were tested on it. And it works.

Indigo-Daisy said...

This was a very informative post and I like the term cultural frog. I have learned a little bit of several languages, and when I try to speak one, they all come out in the same sentence. Focusing on learning the grammar and verbs I agree though is a vital part.

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

I am the same as Cherrypie...I also get by...Before I go on my hols, I try to learn at least how to greet, Thank them, Goodbye, and from there I get more courage and can start ordering at the markets or asking for things at the supermarkets.

Whispering Walls said...

It's the imperfect, perfect and pluperfect Italian subjunctives which kill me.

Shades said...

As well as the field of bulls, did your Aunt have a Fountain Pen?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, cherrypie and Anne: I think it is to do with having empathy for others, yes, and having the courtesy to try to speak their languqge. Then they will go out of their way to help you.
Thanks, jmb: I am sitting here feling totally astounded myself at what you have told me!
Much appreciated, Sackerson.
Mind you do, then, James!!
Many thanks, Trubes. My ankle is always threatening to flare up again but ice on it for at least half an hour every day seems to help. Thanks for asking.
Ciao, dragonstar. It is normal to understand more than you can produce for quite some time. Confidence helps. You just have to accept that you will make mistakes but no one will worry about them in a conversational situation in the country if you are trying!
Yes, it does work, eurodog but the structures that join thr vocb are also necessary. Agree that emphasis on lexis is needed.
Many thanks, indigo-daisy.
WW, I think they kill everybody!
Shades, she did indeed!

Liz Hinds said...

That's very interesting. My first reaction when someone spoke to me in French was to panic but I realised that if I listened and 'reacted' I could tell more or less what they were saying. Enough to get the gist anyway.

I was best at latin in school though!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Liz. "listen and react" - that is so important, as you say.

marymaryquitecontrary said...

welchcakes, recently I had my niece, her fiance and their little eight month old baby staying for a few days. Babies Daddy is Italian,mummy English. Daddy speaks to baby in Italian,Mummy in English. I was so excited when I realised that the little darling could understand both languages. His father was chatting to him one morning and suddendly baby started clapping his hands;daddy had asked him to,in Italian. He understands when Mummy says the same thing in English.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

What a lovely, happy story, MM - you must be very proud.


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