Confessions of a Language-school Director
You may be surprised to hear this, from pen of a language teacher, but by the age of 23 I had already tried, but completely failed, to learn at least four foreign languages.
By 23, I had succeeded in learning… well, almost nothing at all, of how to communicate in a foreign tongue.
It wasn’t for want of trying, though. At school, I had tried German and done years of French, and even passed an O-level. But when it came to sweet-talking the French girl I met while hitch-hiking or even just reading a French newspaper, I was nowhere.
I went on to study Russian history, economics and political science at university- but never got to the stage where I could order a glass of vodka in a bar.
Visiting India in my early twenties, my Teach-Yourself-Hindi book weighed down my rucksack and my morale, until discarded in a guest house near the Taj Mahal just a week or two into my trip.
“Maybe I’m just not very good at foreign languages”, I reassured myself.
Why most people fail to learn a foreign language
It’s not that they “aren’t very good at it”.
In over 20 years of teaching English as a foreign language to adults, I remember maybe a handful of people who really couldn’t learn! Those desperate cases, for whom nothing at all could be done, have been, and are, very, very rare.
There are plenty of people who CLAIM they are no good at foreign languages, but it’s usually just nervousness – with a month or two of competent teaching they tend to feel much better about the whole business.
Rare too are those who are fantastically talented at languages – I recall just two “language-learning geniuses” in all those years of teaching. Both were teenage girls, strangely enough, and both exceptionally good for no reason that I, or they, could explain.
So, if YOU are struggling with Italian or any other foreign language, don’t worry: there’s almost certainly nothing wrong with you. You are almost certainly neither particularly able, nor particularly inept. You possess, like 99.9% of humans, the potential to learn a foreign language, in the right circumstances.
So, if we are all, at least in theory capable of learning a foreign language, what are the reasons why we so often fail?
Well, here are the biggies:
- lack of opportunity – you live in the UK or the USA (or somewhere really far away like New Zealand!) but are learning Italian. You don’t hear it in shops or on the TV. None of your friends speak it. Obviously, that’s going to be a limiting factor.
- lack of time – had I continued learning French after the age of 16, I’d probably have reached the linguistic level necessary for seduction by about the time that I had matured enough to need it, if you see what I mean. In short, I stopped too soon.
- lack of expert knowledge – you don’t need to be an expert to learn a foreign language, but it helps. Study the right materials, in the right order, you’ll make better progress. Waste time on the wrong stuff and you won’t.
- lack of motivation – well, frankly, there ARE better things to do than learning a language. Most people are busy doing them, most of the time.
How to learn a foreign language, even if it’s your first time!
Above all, you need to recognise the immensity of the task.
I’m 45, so I’m investing nearly half a century of practising English into writing this blog post. Could I write it as well in Italian? Nope. Why not? Because I’ve only been writing in Italian for 5 years or so.
It’s the same for speaking and listening. I’m just not as good in Italian as I am in English, and don’t expect to be.
But enormous tasks are not impossible. People achieve incredible things all the time in their lives – they pass difficult exams, master complex professions, or simply develop an encyclopedic knowledge of areas that interest them, such as jazz trumpeters or detective fiction. It just takes time, and motivation.
So, expect it to take a long time. You won’t be disappointed.
Secondly, you need a plan. Given that this is going to take a long time, best to get organised, right?
Have you ever seen the film “The Great Escape”? The POWs dig a long tunnel, working in shifts with primitive tools, in order to finally break out of the prison camp. That tunnel could only have happened as the result of an effective plan, to ensure the work was sustained over time and for a common objective.
Finally, you MUST maintain your motivation. Which means, you have to find a reason or reasons to stay interested in the language you’re learning. Studying grammar books can work well for a few days or weeks, but unless you are a very special person, you will quickly get bored with that approach. If, on the other hand, you are developing a passion for Italian cooking, following Serie A, or planning a retirement in Tuscany, then you may find it easier to maintain your interest in the language for the time necessary to acquire it.
In short, if you see language-learning as just study, you will probably fail at it. Whereas, if you see language-learning as part of life, and integrate it with your daily routine in some way that makes it easy to maintain your interest, then success is pretty-much guaranteed!
Where to get help
Have you seen our directory pages? Italian language schools and courses in various countries? Maybe there’s one near you?
Then there are our FREE ONLINE ITALIAN COURSES, still very much in development, but much better than nothing..
Discover the 10 Secrets of Language-Learning Success
Get our FREE e-mail series!
We’d love to hear your ideas and experiences!!
Please leave a comment to tell us about your language-learning success and failures. And any advice you have for others in the same situation!