I actually really enjoy my foreign language course. Despite it taking up two nights per week I always look forward to it. I like my fellow participants and consider the classes a great opportunity to meet like-minded people from different countries, backgrounds and professions. I like the fact that we’re all at the same level, I don’t get put off by other people’s amazing linguistic abilities compared to mine. However, there are things I wish I hadn’t had to find out on my own – my life would have been made much easier as a result…
1. Understanding is a SLOW, step-wise process. I can’t be the only person who turned up to their first foreign language class and expected to be fluent by the end of the course. Or at least see some…any…noticeable improvement after a month. In fact it took many months before I noticed a concrete improvement in my ability to understand what others were saying. Foreign language learning doesn’t seem to be like, say, learning crochet where output (ability) is linearly proportional to input (teaching). Language is more like a parabolic curve or a series of steps: once you obtain a critical mass of input you suddenly see a sharp spike in output.
Language teachers rarely emphasis the fact that you NEED to stick at it for 6 months before you start seeing progress, or that it’s OK to still experience difficulties when you think you “should” have grasped the basics.
2. You need more than foreign language classes to learn a foreign language. Sometimes I feel that the standard foreign language class system is just a conspiracy to keep us in said standard foreign language class system and shell out money rather than actually learn anything. Hence they don’t encourage us to do much more than the textbook exercises. Hence there is never any discussion or mention of language acquisition & advice for personal study. Which is a shame, because I think retention & re-enrollment in these classes would be better if people were officially taught HOW to learn, too. As it is we think we’re getting nowhere because we lack natural ability…thus we give up.
3. The most important tool for comprehending foreign languages isn’t the nouns, verbs or adverbs…its the filler-words. The standard language courses follow an identical structure. You start with letters & numbers; basic introductions and questions. You move through different scenarios: shopping, asking for directions, food, the house; learning common phrases, grammar rules and lists. I could successfully order food in restaurants…but I still couldn’t understand what the people around me were saying. I found that deeply frustrating – I knew stock phrases, but I didn’t have the tools to start translating what I heard. And if I can’t at least partially translate…then I can’t understand…and I can’t learn.
However, my ability to understand took a leap when I started to look at common filler words. The kind of words you use all the time in sentences (e.g, “always”, “sometimes”, “both”, “never”, “different”, “similar”, “and so on”). If you know what those words mean then automatically you understand 50% more of the average conversation.
Websites such as AJATT and Anti-moon are firmly against language classes, advocating solo study and immersion tactics instead. While I agree with their arguments, I personally think that language classes play an important role, and that it isn’t especially fun learning a foreign language by yourself. Getting the balance between classes and effective home-study is what I’m all about…