“Don’t do it like that, do it like this!” you might have heard from a teacher. Or perhaps, “THIS is how you should be organising your notes / reading / pronouncing that word.”
Assuming your teacher was/is competent (I normally don’t), and that you choose to follow their advice, then you should be, more or less, on the right track. Stick at your language-learning for a few years and you should notice significant progress towards your goals, whatever they may be.
But what about those of us who are teaching ourselves a language for whatever reason – stubbornness, lack of any suitable/affordable class or teacher, whatever?
We could attempt to solve the problem by dedicating much of our free time to a famous, and very addictive, app.
Or we might opt to spend our way to fluency, with self-study courses that promise the earth and everything in it, and soon!
Teacher, course or app, it appears that success is the result of two factors: 1.) making an appropriate inital choice of teaching medium or method; 2.) sticking with your choice for long enough for it to show the desired results.
But anyone who knows the language-teaching industry will probably admit that picking the right ‘method’ or ‘course’ is likely to be purely a matter of luck, at least at first. That’s because we’re all different and what might suit you could be anathema to me.
So, if you’ve no experience whatsoever in these matters (don’t worry, that state doesn’t last for long) you may as well close your eyes and pick something at random.
The problem of course is 2.). Having decided the route you hope to take to your destination, whatever technology or no technology that may involve, there is every likelihood that you’ll take just a few steps down the path then quit.
Or never actually begin that expensive course with its 150 CDs at all.
Many people’s idea of what language-learning is like is based on their experience, however miserable and fruitless, of learning a language at school. They remember the grammar (especially the TENSES, the CONJUGATIONS) and the general tedium of it all.
But they also recall that they started with ‘Le stylo est sur la table’ and five or more years later were confident enough to have a stab at chatting up girls in ‘le discothèque club’. Conclusion: learning a language the way we were taught at school must make some sort of sense, right?
But the difference was that you HAD to go to school. It was a legal obligation. You weren’t allowed to quit.
Also that, however uninterested you were, you had to sit in that French class for five or more years, so it was likely that at least something was going to sink in. That doesn’t make it an efficient use of your time, though, or one that you should necessarily repeat as an adult.
So now we are big, and faced with a choice: (partially) absolve ourselves of responsibility for reaching our goals and trust others (a teacher, an app, a blogger) to decide for us?
Or learn to make decisions for ourselves, let’s call it ‘self-teaching’, as opposed to ‘self-study’, in which the job is the learning not the deciding what and how to learn.
Should you choose to teach yourself, and there’s no reason you can’t change tack later and call in an professional to bear or share the decision-making load, but should you do so, the challenges are myriad:
- what goals to set
- in what timeframe
- with what focus
- whether to focus on one thing
- or to pursue a ‘portfolio’ of study activites at the same time
- what materials or learning opportunities to exploit
- how much to spend on them
- how to evaluate progress made or lack of it
- whether to change track if progress is not evident
- when to reassess your goals and set new ones
- (almost) last BUT NOT LEAST, how to stay interested
- and what you’ll do when, inevitably, your motiation evaporates
Does that seem like a lot of decisions to make?
That’s because, actually, it is. And you know what?
Even professional language teachers do not have to, often would not even know how to, make all of those decisions for the courses they teach.
Language schools, and language-teaching in state education systems, typically follow a syllabus, or if not, they use ‘course books’ which are organised into a syllabus that includes a gradual increase in the difficulty of the grammar and vocabulary and a mix of skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening), subskills, strategies and so on.
If you took a random language teacher, abandoned them on a desert island with a group of students of a type that they had never taught before (adults for a state-school teacher, kids for a language-school teacher), if you said to them – hey, I’ll be back to pick you guys up in a month or two, but you’ll only be getting back onboard this air-conditioned luxury yacht to sail back to civilisation if all the students have made a significant improvement…
Well logically, that would call for a plan, right?
But I suppose our random language teacher, with a different type of student from those she had taught previously, without a published course, without a Director of Studies or Head of Subject to point the way, would have little more idea of where to begin than you would.
Insomma, teaching someone a foreign language is a complicated process, with no definitive research showing precisely what works and what doesn’t, and a different approach needed at different levels, for different content and skills, and with different client groups.
What makes it manageable most of the time is if the teacher is used to a particular type of students and so has accumulated experience of meeting their needs.
A newly-qualified middle-school teacher is likely to have a horrible time (kids that age can be a nightmare) but give her a few years to settle in, assuming she doesn’t quit for a more profitable and less stressful career, and she’ll probably be making a decent fist of her classroom teaching.
Teaching adults (say a U3A class) is suposedly easier, but as the foolhardy and inexperienced soon learn, elderly ladies can be demanding, if not viciously unpleasant.
In any case, they are all likely to want to focus on different things. One will insist on dication, another wants to read a novel in the original, a third thinks free speaking practice is the only way to learn, the fourth wants to chant model sentences with her every mistake being immediately being corrected, for isn’t that what teachers are for??
As in every profession, teachers learn by their mistakes and from their sucesses, a process which takes time. But here we’re talking about SELF-TEACHING, right?
Which brings me to my point. You, (potential or actual) self-teacher, are both the decision-maker and the client. You may know the way that you the ‘student’ prefer to learn, but is that the way that you the ‘teacher’ should choose to teach, so as to optimise the learning process for your client?
And if you ‘student’ don’t actually know how you like to learn, then you’re relying more on you the ‘teacher’ to make the right decisions for you. But you the ‘teacher’ might be a rookie, too, so working it out as she goes.
It seems hopeless, right? But it isn’t.
For the process of ‘learning how to learn languages’ is as natural and easy as the process of ‘learning languages’ IF:
1.) You are willing to learn from your mistakes, to experiment, to optimise, to evaluate; and
2.) You allow enough time, so several months, or years
The starting point is to know what you don’t know – and I’m not talking about irregular verbs or pronunciation, which are easy to learn when you know how.
But you don’t know how, do you? Or maybe you think you do, but there might be a better way, and you won’t know that unless you admit that what you think you know might not be all there is to know about how to best do things.
Concluding remarks – every day I read comments, emails, wails of distress, from club members who either think they know exactly what they’re doing but aren’t finding it easy to make the progress they desire, or who have no idea what to do and equally aren’t nearing their goals.
Sometimes, too, I hear from people who actually are making great progress, by anyone’s standards, but are unhappy anyway, usually because they don’t recognise just how well they’re doing.
In both cases the same thing is missing – the willingness to think ABOUT the self-teaching process, often at all, or not in an analytical way that allows easy changes of direction.
For instance, if you’re not MEASURING your progress in some way, well how will you know if you’ve made coherent decisions about what and how to learn?
If you set goals, choose activities and materials, and decide when and how to evaluate your progress, then that doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be wasting your time, that you will be learning. But it does mean that you will, at some future point, be aware how effective or otherwise your choices were, and so know to maintain your route or plot a new one.
And when you’ve made a duff decision, realised it, switched to a better option, evaluated that that one is indeed more effective for you the ‘student’ in the current situation, then you the ‘teacher’ will no longer be a rookie.
Don’t know where to begin?
Begin somewhere, begin now, but reevaluate that decision soon, then learn from your (probable) mistake.
I tried to write down everything I know about learning a foreign language in this article on the club website: How to learn Italian (or any language). You might want to take a look.
And of course, comments on this topic are welcome. Click through to this article on the website, scroll down and fill in the comments box. Comments will be pre-moderated (to eliminate spam) so it might take a few hours before your thoughts are visible to the world. But they will be!
A mercoledì, allora.
I’m not trying to sell anything this week, but next week we’ll be publishing the third ‘easy reader’ in our ‘Literature’ series. Catalog
And Saturday’s (free) bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here.