Only one-third of all Brits can speak another language. So having already learnt three, Anna Bastek gives us her top tips for effective language learning.
The British are officially the worst language learners in Europe! According to a survey published by the European Commission, their bad reputation when it comes to learning foreign languages is totally justified. 62% of people surveyed can’t speak any foreign language. The average for people in the EU is 44%. So, if you are learning a language, well done – you are in the minority! Learning a language is something humans are born to do. It's an instinct we have. However, a lot of people say that learning languages is too difficult, or they just aren't good at it, and they very quickly give up. It's a constant battle trying to learn a different sentence structure, tenses, new vocabulary, idioms and verb conjugation. A lot of people try to memorise long lists of new words or try learning independently from textbooks. But this can get really boring very quickly and people inevitably lose interest. When learning your first language as a baby, it’s highly unlikely that your parents just gave you plain, drab textbooks and bored you with complicated grammar. You probably started off just listening to people, and for the first year or two you would have repeated their sounds, but not anything that made any sense. But all of a sudden, with practice, things begin to fall into place. You would have started using new words and building sentences without understanding the grammar. Eureka! This is how learning any language works. The sounds come first. You familiarise yourself with the sound and rhythm of the language before you start to speak it. It's like a melody. So what learning methods should we be adopting? From my experience of learning three foreign languages, the book and grammar approach is the slowest and the least engaging. Your motivation can disappear very, very quickly. Memorising huge lists of words and verbs with no context can turn learning a language into a chore and you just won't enjoy it. Studying in context rather than purely the language itself is a lot more effective. Learning about the culture behind the language first, then reading and (more importantly) listening to stories and conversations which are of interest to you will be far more engaging and will keep you motivated. You’ll be able to actually pick up on the rhythm of the speech, understand how native speakers construct their sentences, and acquire the vocabulary. It’s very important to choose resources that are right for your level, because if the percentage of unknown words is too high it can be difficult for your brain to figure out what they mean. If you can understand at least 70% of the words being used in speech, your brain will fill the gaps in more effectively. Some people have the confidence to repeat the words and sounds they learn from listening to other people speaking. They like to practice through speech. However, others are afraid to converse until they have a good enough level of vocabulary and grammar. They are afraid of making mistakes. However, it's important to just start saying things even if you are making errors. It's essential to get used to creating sounds which might sound strange and uncomfortable. Don't worry about not being correct. Native speakers always appreciate when you make the effort. So what about the grammar? My native language is Polish, and when I was learning English I focused so much on the grammar and writing that I wasn't able to understand what people were saying to me. It took me years to reach fluency. According to the latest research, focusing on grammar might help you speak more correctly but the results aren't as drastic as you might think. Spending the same amount of time listening will help you learn the language much faster. I took a completely different approach with Spanish. Before starting to learn the language, I set myself the target of being able to speak it with confidence within a year. Most people thought it was rather ambitious, but I do like a challenge! I wanted to be able to hold a conversation quickly. I started studying the science behind learning a language in more depth and I quickly discovered that “total immersion” was the way to go. I downloaded loads of apps, dictionaries and podcasts; I changed my iPhone menu to Spanish and started my journey.
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