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They say to speak a language well you shouldn’t learn it, you should live it.
It makes perfect sense. Most of us want to speak another language so we can communicate with real people in real life, not reel off a list of kitchen items we spent two weeks rote memorising.
Learning a language is about word lists and verb tables. Living a language is about people and experiences.
Learn by doing
Imagine you’re having breakfast with your Italian exchange partner. You point to their cup and ask in broken Italian “come si dice?” How do you say…? They say “tazza”, slowly and clearly. You repeat it and get feedback on your pronunciation – “tazza”. You say it in your head a few times, “tazza, tazza”, then try to use it in conversation with your exchange partner, who helps if you get stuck – “tazza”.
Compare this way of learning to the traditional way of memorising the word tazza in a list of kitchenware your teacher gave you. Learning a language in this way is like trying to play the guitar by studying sheet music. The two are related, but unless you actually put your hands on the guitar, you’ll never be able to play.
The problem with language classes
I tried traditional methods for several years, to no avail. Most of us have – it’s the way they teach languages in school after all. I had five years of German lessons and a couple of years of uninspiring Italian courses under my belt and I wasn’t even close to being able to speak either of them. Languages were confusing and boring: I was demotivated, thought I wasn’t a “languages person” and never did my homework.
Seven years later and languages have happily taken over my life: I’m currently on my fifth and not planning on stopping any time soon.
So what changed?
Learning through people
It wasn’t until I did my first language exchange that my real language learning journey began. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I signed up for an English-Italian language exchange. It was my first attempt at stringing some words together with a real Italian person. It was painful and excruciatingly awkward. For both of us. We struggled to communicate and there were lots of embarrassing cultural faux pas.
But we persevered with our weekly sessions and soon became part of each other’s lives. We went to the pub together and met each other’s friends. Suddenly, learning a language became part of my social life: I was speaking to real Italians in real situations, not in a watered down classroom version. It was fun and exciting. And I started to see progress. Slow, awkward, Bambi-style progress. But more progress than I had seen in years of classroom study.
Turns out I wasn’t confused and bored at school because I was bad at languages, but because I’d been studying in an academic bubble, removed from all the good stuff: connecting with human beings and exploring new cultures. Learning a language wasn’t about memorising word lists anymore, but about building relationships with people. I’d finally learned how to live the language and it was a joy, not a chore.
Find someone to talk to
Most people feel they should wait until they have a good grip of a language before they use it to communicate with people in real life. I think it works the other way around: you’ll never get a good grip of a language until you start using it in real life.
Much of learning is task-specific. If we want to improve our cooking skills, we cook more. If we want to get better at running, we run more. So if we want to get better at communicating in another language we should, well, communicate more.
The first step is getting out there and connecting with native speakers. This is the hardest part because our natural instinct is to keep putting it off until we feel ready. But that magical day will never come! The secret is to start before you feel ready.
Language exchanges are a good way to ease yourself in: usually you’re both there for the same reason and most people are like minded, friendly and supportive. Also, because exchanges are based on peer relationships as opposed to student-teacher ones, it’s easier to build relationships and create opportunities to use the language in social situations. In other words, to live the language.
With the growing community of online language learners, there’s never been a better time to find native speakers to connect with. That said, I believe there’s no substitute for making friends with real flesh-and-blood folks whenever you get the chance.
It won’t always work perfectly. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably feel tongue tied and awkward, especially at first. Or you might meet someone you don’t hit it off with. These problems are easily overcome with a bit of perseverance. Stick with it and you’ll soon find the people and situations that work for you.
Studying a language will only get you so far. If you want to use your language to communicate with real people, it’s time to jump out of the classroom and into the real world. String some words together, forget things, make mistakes, laugh. But most importantly, start building relationships with native speakers. They’re the reason you started learning the language in the first place.
Katie is a teacher, blogger and language junkie. On a mission to bring out the fun in foreign languages, she gives smart and unconventional advice to learners over at joyoflanguages.com. She has an MPhil in linguistics from Cambridge and an MRes in speech, language and cognition from UCL. Based in Milan, Italy, when she’s not teaching or learning languages, you’ll probably find her sitting out on the terrace with a beer in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other.
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