Updated: Sep 24
Carfax Humanities tutor, Olivia Halsall, explains why it is important to learn another language, investigates what makes a good language learner and dispels the myths around why learning a language is hard and shares some top tips on how to improve your language skills.
Throughout human civilisation, the ability to speak foreign languages has been held in the highest regard. Nelson Mandela himself professed, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart”. Today, the ability to communicate, empathise and relate to people from cultures so drastically different from our own is more important than ever. The USA and China are bickering. The UK is wriggling free of Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to cover our smiles with masks and close our borders. In 2020, the Arab proverb, “learn a language, and you’ll avoid a war” is as pertinent as it is pressing. The key? Communication.
Learning a foreign language comprises of many elements such as: translation, reading, writing, listening, speaking, interpreting and intercultural awareness. Confronting certain fears of foreign language learning head on can help manage expectations and provide the necessary tools to keep going when the going gets tough.
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Throughout my time learning, teaching and researching foreign languages, I’ve helped students from all backgrounds overcome a range of fears, many of which I’ve dealt with myself. Below are my responses to the most five common fears of learning foreign languages.
“My brain just doesn’t work that way”
The world wouldn’t be as vibrant as it is if everyone was good at and enjoyed the same thing. Some are more mathematically inclined, whereas others have an extraordinary ability to memorise historical facts and figures. Based on what kind of learner you are (auditory, kinaesthetic, visual or verbal) learning the elements of a foreign language ought to be embraced with an open-mind and resilience!
Academic research on what the “good language learner” can teach us points to three ideal attributes:
In terms of foreign languages, a motivated student is one who goes out of their way to practice their language skills wherever they are. Good language learners embrace opportunities within and beyond the classroom such as watching foreign language Netflix series, changing their Instagram language settings or participating in foreign exchange summer schools, for example.
The varied nature of learning a foreign language means there is likely to be an element of language learning that your brain takes to. There are also many transferrable skills that come with learning a language that will not only be valuable in other subjects but also as you go onto study at a higher level. Aptitudes such as rote memorisation ability, inferring linguistic forms, rules and patterns and a more rigorous understanding of grammar!
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“It’s embarrassing when I make mistakes”
Humans are social beings. Feeling embarrassed when you make a mistake in front of a group of people (whether strangers or friends) is completely natural and something many of us can relate to. Some methods my prior students have employed to overcome the embarrassment sometimes associated with speaking a foreign language are as follows:
1) Speak to yourself in the mirror; you’ll be able to see what shape your mouth is making when you speak your new language and get comfortable with the new noises coming from your mouth.
2) Watch films and repeat certain phrases or words you think sound nice or might be useful.
3) Speak to your friends and family about your new language, whether introducing them to a new word, telling them about a grammar structure or about a historical event in the country where your new language is spoken. This will make you feel more at home with your new language.
“I am too old to reach fluency”
Many learners start their foreign language journey at different points in their life. Some are brought up in multilingual homes, some attend extracurricular classes from a young age, and some must start in adulthood out of necessity. You are never (ever) too old to learn a foreign language.
Bear in mind being fluent and being a native speaker are not the same. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is fluent in English but she is not a native speaker. Your accent may never be 100% “perfect”, but whose definition of perfect are you aspiring to?
“It’s laborious and time-consuming”
Yes, the grammar and vocabulary learning can be laborious and time-consuming. I can’t sugar-coat this, but I can reframe it. There is a certain element of memorising conjugations, tenses and when to use the subjunctive. In some regard, foreign languages are like mathematics, whereby the first few building blocks are essential, yet once these are solidified, they build on top of one another and progress can be exponential.
Foreign languages ought only to be taught in an entertaining, embarrassment-free and enticing way. Dictionary Expert Susie Dent suggests that on average, native English speakers know 40,000 words of which 20,000 are in active use. In reality, however, you only need around 500 words to qualify as a “functional beginner” and up to 3,000 words to qualify as “conversational”. Hence, the journey to reaching “conversational” may take no more than a few months.
“I’ll forget everything in no time”
This final fear is rational and relatable. Ultimately, it is up to you how much you maintain your language once you have reached a level you are happy with. Keeping up to date with new music and film releases, contemporary affairs, literature, celebrity gossip and friends in your foreign language can help to keep the fire aflame. Keeping an interest active engages learners more directly and includes, for example, discussion-based learning, problem solving and role play.
And Finally …
Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein declared, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. Learning a foreign language truly does open your mind and heart to people from all corners of the world. I hope the above has helped tear down barriers of fear.
Olivia has recently completed a Master’s in Second Language education at the University of Cambridge. Having achieved a 1st Class Hons in BA French and Chinese Mandarin with Business Management at undergraduate level, she would be would be delighted to take on students with an interest in, or already learning these two languages.