Things they DON’T teach you in foreign language classes

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.

Newspapers are a brilliant resource for learning a new language. In my case because it's so easy for me to annotate the text.


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…

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10 thoughts on “Things they DON’T teach you in foreign language classes

    • True. You can go for months of dance lessons and feel you’re not really “getting it”…and then suddenly it all just clicks and the rest is easy.
      I need to wait for my German to properly “click” though…then I’ll get back to you. 🙂

  1. We had an Italian exchange student in our class. When she arrived she could not speak any English a few months later she said the following when referring to her house mother, “She is a cold person.” We told her that she had “arrived” as far as speaking English was concerned.

  2. Studying French right now as a full-time job (8 hours a day, 5 days a week), and you’re absolutely right. We’re actually forced to get out and do more than just our exercises, because it’s impossible to pick up on small nuances in a classroom. Good job, and good luck!

  3. I teach French to adults in Switzerland and I can tell you why most teachers don’t explain all these things to their students: because most students would run away before the end of the first lesson! I wish people were more aware of the difficulty, effort and deep personal investment learning a foreign language requires. From my experience, most learners believe that coming to an hour of lesson every week will magically imprint the language in their heads…. Anyway, good luck with your learning, you seem to have the right approach 🙂

    • I appreciate that there is a balance between (a) ensuring students stick at the course (b) ensuring they are equipped with the knowledge to make them fully benefit from it, even if it’s tough to swallow.

      The issues I’ve come across derive from a problem with the classroom-based langauge learning system itself and the common perceptions/expectations of language learning rather than a fault of teachers or individuals.
      Thanks for the encouragement – it’s appreciated. 🙂

  4. Oh boy, I totally agree with you about the in-between words. Chinese has these particularly nefarious in-between words that are called “measure words,” and for the life of me, I cannot manage to keep more than three of them in my brain at once. Year 2+ of learning Mandarin Chinese: I still can’t order any food but noodles (and I haven’t tried that, so it’s only a theory). I can buy a blouse, but only if it’s yellow or red (the other colors have yet to stick in my brain). And the most interesting thing I can say is still to insult your mother by calling her a microwave. Or a table. Or any of the other useless nouns I’ve learned. Which, given that the language is attached to a culture that venerates its elders, probably wouldn’t go over very well.

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