Well, we’re all pretty exhausted here at club HQ, after a week of Spring Sale (now concluded).
Processing hundreds of orders, which come in day and night from every time zone, is very wearing, especially when we run up against the odd ‘problem customer’. The vast majority of people are very nice, though, and many feel like old friends, after all these years, so on the whole it’s very rewarding.
Anyway, enough of grubby commerce, let’s get back to language-learning! I have to admit, mine has suffered of late, due to an unexpected demand on my time, family stuff that I can’t go into here.
But today I have a Swedish conversation lesson, so I’ll find half an hour beforehand to listen to the main stories on the national radio website, and ideally glance through the news website too, at least looking at the headlines, maybe read a whole story if something piques my interest.
Tomorrow is French, with a nice young woman who’s currently visiting my city on some sort of exchange. It’s still online, though. My spoken French is rusty in the extreme, but I’m much more at ease reading and listening to it now, compared to a year or two back when I began again with the language.
Wednesday is Turkish, the second language I started taking regular conversation lessons in (after Swedish), several years ago. It was the first language I had learnt as an adult, three decades ago, so my objective has been to resurrect it, then maintain it, which weekly conversation with a native speaker has achieved. I don’t suppose I’ve learnt any grammar though, beyond what I already knew, and still can’t read!
And Friday is Spanish, where I’m in the same state as with French, except without the dubious benefit of years of lessons at middle school and high school, way back in the ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. Again, reading and listening is getting easier, though from a much lower base. When I’m not so exhausted, I listen to the radio and read the newspaper, which helps a lot!
People often ask me whether I don’t often get mixed up with these various foreign languages, and of course some of that is inevitable. But context helps a lot with that – I find the brain adjusts very quickly and picks up what it’s supposed to be doing from the contextual clues.
Take reading and listening, for example – you might occasionally confuse a sentence in Spanish with one in Italian, especially if it was very similar, or one of those maddening false friends that so bug Italians learning Spanish and vice versa. But most of the time, I click on the French newspaper app and my brain is unsurprised to be reading in French, after which I click on the Spanish newspaper app and the reading comprehension module in my brain segues into Spanish without making any fuss.
Speaking can be more problematic at first, though I find mixing the languages is an issue only when I’m very tired. BEFORE a lesson, Spanish say, I might run through in my mind what I have to tell my Mexican teacher, but find that I can only think of what to say in Swedish, which I’ve been learning much longer, and actually, briefly, studied!
BUT, when I sit down at Zoom or Skype and the first greetings are exchanged in the chat box “Que tal?”, “Hola Daniel. Bien, gracias. ¿Y tú?” that acts very effectively to cue up the right language, and the door to the Swedish section of my mental archive slams shut automatically and for the duration of the conversation.
Another question I get asked often (and indeed, ask myself) is why I only do conversation, even in the languages that I barely know at all, why I don’t ever ‘study’.
There are lots of reasons, and I’ll admit I’m not sure whether some of them are just excuses for laziness. But probably the primary explanation is this: my objective, for all of the languages I’m learning (not studying, learning) is ‘communicative’. Which means interacting with ease and familiarity, understanding what’s said to me, responding appropriately, and having the resources (vocbulary mainly) to chat about familiar topics.
It’s not grammatical accuracy, or knowing how to conjugate all the stuff that I see in books or newspapers, that matters. Not at all, really. It’s what I can DO with the language, and extending that, to the point of ‘ease and familiarity’, requires practice, lots and lots of it. Get that it’s not that I’m speaking to practice the grammar I’ve studied, it’s that I’m speaking to be better at speaking (and listening, and interacting postively with another person.)
But what about the actual knowledge of the language? A past tense, for example, is very handy! Indeed it is, and I often find myself stumped by a lack of stuff like that when I’m chatting. But… will doing more ‘studying’ and less ‘practice’ necessarily lead to a better outcome? It might, it might not. It really isn’t as clear as a glance at a school syllabus or course book might make it seem, you know.
My ‘best’ languages (Italian, followed by Turkish) were just ‘picked up’ with an absolute minimum of studying (there was some at the beginning, I admit.) In contrast, as I mentioned, I did years of French at school, and can read it, and understand the radio much of the time, but the speaking is a lot harder. Why? Some problem with the school? Not really. It’s just that I’ve done a fraction of one percent as much practice speaking French compared to the other two languages I feel I know better. I’ve spent a few weeks in France in my life, but a few decades in Italy. I had a French girlfriend for several days in 1985 or 1986, but married a Turk who didn’t speak English at all. You get the idea, I’m sure.
For my newest/weakest language, Spanish, then, I’m consciously boosting the speaking component EVEN AT THE COST OF ‘STUDYING’ STUFF THAT WOULD DEFINITELY BE USEFUL. Because that’s what worked for me on two out of three previous occasions. It was slow, but it was fun, and it worked!
And I don’t only do conversation, speaking practice, remember. I also listen as much as I can, radio mostly, and read regularly, if not as often as I’d like. In a year of learning Spanish, I must have done 25 or so hours of speaking, but 50-100 hours of listening and perhaps a few dozen hours of reading, too. It all adds up – vocabulary, ‘general familiarity’ with the grammar, pronunciation, cultural knowledge (what topics people who use this language talk about), and so on.
A final point is the importance of creating positive habits: when I cook or wash the dishes, I listen to the radio, but not in English, NEVER in English. First thing in the morning, I look at the news apps in at least some of the languages I’m studying. And I try never to miss my weekly chats with native speakers.
Once you figure out that something is beneficial, usually after you’ve been doing it for long enough to start seeing results, it’s not a big jump to figuring out what else might be helpful, and what could be a less profitable use of your time.
I have a portfolio of language-learning habits (though it’s been sadly neglected in recent weeks). If I had more time and energy, I could also attempt to create a habit of ‘studying’, which would doubtless give a good return on my investment. The question, though, is always the same one – is there some other, better use of my time?
Learn how to learn, not just how to study. Learn what works for you, what helps get you closer to your objectives, whatever those might be. Ideally do multiple different things, focusing on different skills. And if what you’re doing isn’t working well, then keep experimenting, until you find something that does!
Saturday’s edition of ‘easy’ Italian news is available to read/listen to, if you haven’t already. It’s free. Click here.