We all have attitudes, which may be helpful or otherwise.
Our attitudes, to many aspects of our lives, including our approaches to language-learning, are likely to affect the outcomes of our actions. Think, for example, about work, about relationships, about bringing up children. What we think about these things affects what we do and how we do it, at least to an extent.
We are, perhaps, the sum of our attitudes.
Here are some attitudes to language-learning that I come across quite frequently (people write to me, or comment on our websites, or they’re things my students believe). There’s one of my own, as a control. I’m paraphrasing, by the way, not having a go at anyone in particular:
- “I don’t want to do speaking practice until I’m confident with the grammar.”
- “A dictionary is useful when reading so as to understand everything.”
- “Listening to ‘normal speed’ Italian is too difficult, as hearing every word clearly is impossible.”
- “I find it difficult to remember grammar and vocabulary when I study it, so I don’t bother.”
- “I like to translate what I want to say from English before starting to speak.”
- “Italians don’t use all of their tenses in everyday speech , but I like to know them all anyway.”
- “I’ve used my learn Italian app for a year now without missing a day.”
- “I don’t have the time/energy to learn Italian.”
You may agree or disagree with some of these attitudes. That’s absolutely your right. Think whatever you want. About anything.
However, I have a question.
If an attitude of yours happens to run up against reality, and reality comes out better, what would it take for you to change your mind?
Here’s a for instance: suppose you’ve been taking Italian evening classes for, what, seven years now. You’ve gone from the crowded beginners’ group, through the more sparsely-populated intermediate groups, and are now one of the very few advanced Italian students at your local adult education institution.
Every step of the way you’ve done your homework, studied the grammar that the teacher has introduced you to, memorised the new words you’ve come across, and so on. You’ve been a model student. For seven whole academic years!
Granted, the Italian evening courses don’t allow for much time practising speaking. No one feels comfortable working in pairs or small groups with other students, and it’s not possible for everyone to be interacting with the teacher at once. In a typical three-hour class, you might be actually speaking for just a few minutes.
And given that the lesson is taught in English, perhaps because you and your colleagues like to ask questions and receive explanations you can understand and debate, you’re aware that your listening skills aren’t as good as they’d need to be in order to hold your own in a conversation with native speakers.
But hey, you have a solid basis in the grammar. In fact, if you were to take a CILS, CELI or PLIDA exam, perhaps at B1, B2 or C1 level, you’d likely do well on the ‘use of language’ (grammar & vocabulary) section.
But ‘reality’… An international Italian exam, despite being rather picky and old-fashioned compared to what’s available in other languages, such as English or Swedish, will also be testing reading comprehension, listening comprehension, speaking and writing. Fall down on one or more of those and any number of rarely-used but satisfying-to-learn tenses are not going to help you. You’ll fail.
“…what would it take for you to change your mind?”
You could have been reading graded and authentic texts in Italian, listening to native speakers, and actually speaking, for the whole time you’ve been learning Italian. But you weren’t.
You went with the way you knew: the grammar explanations in English, the memorising, the safety of silence, the avoidance of any form of testing or evaluation that would highlight your weak spots, the preference for learning activities that allow you to show off your strengths…
“…what would it take for you to change your mind?”
A lot, probably.
It’s much, much easier for us, as human beings, to find explanations for our choices and decisions which justify them and excuse us from sharing the responsibility for outcomes which aren’t what we’d hoped for.
“I don’t LIKE doing that. So I didn’t. And won’t! And in any case, this other thing that I chose to do instead was just fine!”
“And what do you know about it anyway? Who are you to tell me what I should/shouldn’t be doing?”
My ‘control’ attitude example was no. 4 above, in case you didn’t guess.
I don’t ‘study’ the languages I’m learning for three reasons, two good, one bad. See if you can figure out which is which…
- I don’t like reading grammar explanations and memorising lists of words, so I choose not to
- I tried learning languages that way in the past, but got nowhere
- Studying grammar and memorising words would take up time I spend reading, listening, and speaking the languages I’m learning
“…what would it take for you to change your mind, Daniel?”
Do I need to adjust my attitude to studying grammar and memorising new words?
I’m aware that a balance of ‘learning by doing’ and ‘studying’ would likely get me better results than what I do at present (the former…) Also that I might enjoy it!
If I was preparing for an international exam in Spanish, French, Swedish, etc. then I would definitely introduce a more formal ‘study’ component, along with or in partial substitution for what I do already. At least until I’d passed the exam!
But right now, I’m not.
So I’ll keep on with the fun stuff, which I know works!
And ignore the way I was taught a language at school, which mostly didn’t.