The key to success in learning languages

Key to learning languages

It’s a question that gets asked a lot: “What’s your secret?” “How do you do it?” “What methods do you use?” However it’s phrased, when it comes to learning languages people are all after one thing: how to go from being mono- to multilingual, and how do it in as short a space of time as possible.

The fact that this question gets asked so much is quite telling. We’re growing more impatient with the inconveniences of the natural world;  technology can replace long and tedious processes with simple clicks and buttons, and almost instant results. We’re not as interested in the journey nowadays, we focus more on the destination. But even in this fast-paced world, there are some things that you will never be able to just ‘do away with’, and there are still times when you have to be patient, and wait. Unfortunately, that includes learning a language.

But it’s a nice idea, isn’t it? When you meet people who have successfully studied five, ten or twenty languages, wouldn’t it be great if you could just ask them for that magic spell that will make you a hyper-polyglot overnight? – OK, so nobody really thinks there’s a spell – but surely there is a method? There must be a secret? Is there something you’re doing wrong that they’re doing right? Can you tweak your brain to start retaining vocabulary, absorbing grammar structures, and make you sounding like a native? And can this all be as effortless and instant as doing a system update on your computer?

I’m afraid not. If you want to get free, fast and fluent language skills this instant, click here now! Good luck with that. As for the rest of us, we’re stuck trying to go about this the long way. Let’s see who gets there first.

There isn’t just one thing you can do, try or buy that will bring you success in your language learning, although plenty of people and businesses will try and convince you otherwise. Learning a language is not just about the books you bought and the methods you’re using. Your success depends on your state of mind, and right here, right now, in this very paragraph, I am going to reveal to you my own secret method. This is my technique, my trick and my number one tip for anyone who wants to be successful in learning languages: be confident.

It sounds obvious, but it isn’t. It’s actually the biggest problem that anyone has when starting out with a new language. Being confident enough with what you know to be able to start using it is the difference between learning a language, and learning about one. Using what you know is what will transform your language from just a theoretical grounding to a practical knowledge of it. That is really what we mean when we say whether we “speak” a language or not. Languages are about talking to people, they’re about taking the plunge into a situation where you might not always feel comfortable, and swimming back up to the surface victoriously. This really struck me when I watched this video of Benny Lewis and Moses going around a shopping mall in Ohio trying to speak as many languages as possible with as many people they could find. Obviously that is particularly brave, and it’s not something that I would necessarily want to do, but the point is that they managed to build up the confidence to give it a go. It doesn’t matter that they’re making mistakes, it also doesn’t matter that not everyone they talk to is reacting positively – what matters is that they’re out there, using what they’ve got, and learning from it.

Once you start believing in your own abilities and stop saying that you’re “learning” a language and start saying that you “speak” it, things get going fast. You’ll focus less on the things you’re getting wrong, and think more about what you’re getting right. OK, maybe you did use the wrong construction or had some gender issues when you were talking about the table, but you were understood. That means you’re speaking. The more you do that, the less you’re going to fret about the verb tables and declensions that you scrawled on the back of those flash cards. Even if you’re only hitting 50% accuracy in your speech, take a step back and remind yourself that only a short time ago you probably didn’t know a single word of your new language. Any progress you make is absolutely phenomenal, and means that you’re doing something right!

Once you’re confident enough to make mistakes, you can think about putting them right. Noone likes being corrected all the time, but if you have friends who are native speakers agree on a certain time for which you will correct each other, and make an effort to increase your accuracy. Being confident with languages is also about taking all those other times you got caught out on the chin: laugh about it! You said something ridiculous and it sounded funny!

The stupid things we do when learning languages.

We all do stupid things when we’re 15 and on a foreign exchange. We also all make stupid mistakes.

When I was at school back in the days of MSN Messenger, there was one time when I was getting someone I met on an exchange to help me with my German homework. I was so overjoyed when I finally got it done that I wanted to tell my German friend that she had saved my life: “Du hast mein Leben gespart!” What I hadn’t foreseen was that this sentence would cause such an uproar of laughter somewhere on the other side of the North Sea that the rumours of my error would spread quickly throughout their school, to everyone’s immense amusement, and that by the time I turned up in Hamburg months later, I was almost be assaulted by the tirade of laughter at the airport as I walked out with my bags. I understood my mistake: ‘sparen’ is to save money on something. The word I wanted was ‘retten’, and I never confused the two again. What I’ve never understood though was why it was so funny. Nobody could ever explain, because just the thought of it would make them erupt into another unstoppable fit of laughter, from which they never seemed to recover. (If there are any Germans reading who can elaborate on why ‘Du hast mein Leben gespart’ is just that funny, please leave a comment or send me an email – I’d be extremely grateful to finally get to the bottom of this!) But the message here is actually an important one: if I hadn’t had the confidence to try speaking German to a German, aware of the fact that I would probably make some horrific error, I may never have remembered the difference between the two words. To be successful, you need to get out there, get speaking, and get learning.

So the question is how to be confident about your learning. Firstly you need to prove to yourself that you know far more than you think, and secondly that that can get you a lot further than you might imagine. I’d recommend that you go on holiday and sit in a bar for two weeks talking to the locals. See how far you can actually get: when you need to, you can work around the gaps in your vocabulary by using what you do know. Anthony Lauder gave some fantastic statistics in his talk at Budapest about how even vocabulary of just a smattering of words can cover an enormous amount of what you need to say – and it’s true! If you find you don’t know the German word for boiler, just call it something like a “große heiße Wasserflasche” or a big hot water bottle. So long as you’re not saying that completely out of context, someone will probably understand you and even tell you what the word actually is (incidentally, it is just ‘Der Boiler’).

But we all learn differently, and some people can get that confidence boost from tests, exams and certificates. I’ve never bothered finding out if I’m B2 C1 A3 or F9 in any of my languages, but I do know that plenty of people like to, and can use it to measure their progress and plan their learning. If you’re one of those people, take an exam at your local language school or even do one online. See how you do, and display your certificate with pride!

Like with so many other things in life, being confident with your languages is about coming to terms with where you are. Don’t set your sights too high at the beginning, and embrace the fact that you’re definitely going to start off sounding like a foreigner. But hit the ground running, and prove to yourself what you can already do with relatively few words and a not perfect grammar. If you make that kind of start, in the long term that will all change. You will improve, and soon speaking foreign languages will feel so natural that you might even start to think there is a trick to it. But remember: you can’t predict your progress with your new language, and you can’t compare it to anyone else’s. There’s no point giving yourself a hard time, it’s much better when you’re on your own side.

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