(Spanish and French editions of Harry Potter)
British people are really, really bad at learning foreign languages, because we can arrogantly rely on English being an international language, and it can be quite an insular culture. People whose native language is spoken by fewer people have to learn another language, unless they want to spend their whole life in their home country only exposed to local things or whatever someone has translated. I don’t think our school system helps at all either. Everything is focused on exams and box-ticking, and learning and regurgitating vocab lists and grammar points gets you better grades than genuine communication. Most of my lessons at school were in English, with endless exercises from the textbooks and little opportunity to have real conversations or make mistakes.
With my own history with languages, I learnt French as a child, and have no formal qualifications in it. My spelling is still appalling, like a dyslexic French person, but I understand pretty much everything, and happily read books in French without a dictionary. I don’t speak it often though through not having many opportunities to do so, so I struggle for words sometimes talking on the fly, and don’t feel like I express myself in the way I’d like to. I know the words, but I can’t quite summon them to mind fast enough these days.
I learnt German the “proper” way, via school lessons and a year at university. I took 6 years of classes at school, resulting in an A-level, and took a C1 level class at university. That was thirteen years ago though, so I’m not sure where to officially put myself on the level system now. I used to visit Germany and Austria a lot for work, and spoke it a lot more then. My A-level classes weren’t that great, and what we were doing in class didn’t reach the level that was expected from the exam, so I had to find ways to study on my own. University was another step up again, we were reading Kafka stories and historical texts, and watching Expressionist films and having debates. Quite a few of the other students hated it, because it strayed outside the safe confines of the school textbook material, but I loved it, and would have continued it throughout my entire degree if that had been an option. I also took a year’s accelerated class in Italian for speakers of French or Spanish, and a year’s course in Modern Greek.
Once I left university, I started teaching EFL. I had a lot of students who had studied English at home under much the same conditions as me at school and who hadn’t really got anywhere, and had come to the UK to try to improve matters. They found it frustrating not being able to communicate with people in real life, and wanted as many tips as they could to help themselves. I also used to teach a lot of teenagers both in the UK and abroad, and the tips worked for them as well. It’s a common New Year’s Resolution to study another language. A lot of people buy a cd set, and play a bit of Duolingo, do some grammar drills, maybe even pack an evening class into their tiring schedule and then give up because they’re not getting anywhere. Here’s some tips to help you get somewhere, and hopefully enjoy the process
(Whenever I write “the language” here obviously I mean the language you’re studying).
1) Don’t be afraid of looking stupid by making mistakes
At school in a lot of countries it’s often better for your grades if you just stick to the material taught and try to replicate it as accurately as possible, and you’re often penalised for trying to say something more ambitious and getting it a bit wrong. Unfortunately in real life you can’t stick to discussing how you played tennis with Jean-Baptiste and Rachida last Wednesday and asking people how many brothers and sisters they have. In real life you’re going to have your own ideas and opinions and things happen to you, and have real conversations with other people who say things that weren’t in the textbook. Try to have proper conversations with people and piece together what you’re trying to say with words you already know and ideas you have about how sentences work. You might not get it 100% correct, but hopefully people will understand. If you don’t know the word, try paraphrasing. If you don’t know the word for coat hanger, try saying “the thing you put clothes on in the wardrobe” and the person you’re talking to will probably provide the word. A lot of people will be thrilled you’re trying to learn their language especially if it’s not one that’s often studied abroad, and will be keen to help you. No one is deducting marks or failing you on some eternal marksheet of life. That time you got the irregular past tense of that verb wrong doesn’t go on your permanent record.
No matter how long you’ve been studying, you’re going to make mistakes, and sometimes they’re very weird or funny mistakes. I once cheerfully told my landlady in Austria that when I’d been for a stroll in the mountains I’d nearly fallen in some open graves full of slurry. She looked at me in horror, until we both realised that I’d got the words for graves (das Grab, plural die Gräber) mixed up with ditches (der Graben, plural die Gräben), and I remembered that the German word for mud Schlamm can also mean slime or slurry. “Ich bin fast in zwei Gräber voll mit Schlamm gefallen” turns out to be quite different to “Ich bin fast in zwei Gräben voll mit Schlamm gefallen”.