Do you remember the point in your school life when you decided which career path you would follow? Was there a moment when your mental magnesium burst into a searing white flame of clarity and you determined to become a chemist, or when you first calculated thirty-four multiplied by twenty-one quicker than the teacher and decided to paint your world in numbers?
One of the imperatives of any teacher is to communicate the purpose of learning; the present and future utility of the information taught. I knew very early on that I wanted to be a world-famous sportsman. I derived so much joy from simply accelerating into big open spaces that no teacher had to convince me of the utility of it. I approached other subjects with a much greater degree of scepticism; why read Shakespeare? Why figure out the length of the longest side of this triangle? Why learn French when they all speak English anyway?
I remember vividly how my French teacher would stand at the front of the class with twenty boards that he would repeatedly shuffle and display. Every week he would show the same boards and we would garble the same sentences. In hindsight, it was most probably a method of crowd control to deliver students into a trance-like state of compliance, but it still despairs me that one of the displayed sentences was Je gagne au loto (I win the lottery), taught in isolation and virtually impossible to use in the present tense.
In an article published in the Guardian, young learners were asked what motivated them to study languages. Interestingly, only a small number considered school a fundamental drive behind their language learning. Exchanges in foreign countries, conversations with native speakers, watching foreign films and new methods of learning via online games and mobile apps proved much more significant.
Since leaving school I’ve learned three languages, two of which I’ve learned to a high degree of fluency. I’m by no means a natural, and certainly not a polyglot. Here are a few tricks on how to learn once you’ve escaped from the confines of your school walls.
1. Throw yourself in at the deep end
Many people will look you in the eye and tell you with utter conviction that the only way to learn is to move to the country of your target language. This isn’t strictly true, but it obviously makes immersion more likely. You still have to seek out opportunities for the lengthy and laborious conversations that really affect the rate at which you progress. Define your new environment early on and in the language you want to learn (don’t forget your original imperatives and slip nonchalantly into groups of fellow countrymen). When I moved to Spain I purposefully moved in with two Madrileños and played weekly games of football and basketball with natives. Speaking is easy when you’re in the mood and you have a beer in your hand, but it’s much more taxing when you’re expelling words between pants after a madcap game of baloncesto. Order your thoughts in these moments, however, and your thoughts will order themselves in less demanding situations.
2. Speaking with natives for one hour is more useful than studying for weeks at school
When you’re just starting out, equip yourself with questions. As you stumble through your first exchanges, you may sometimes perceive yourself as an eye-rollingly tedious conversation partner. Remember that people love to talk about themselves. Expand the range of questions you ask when you meet people and prepare your own answers. If your counterpart is vaguely practiced in the art of conversation, your questions will be duly returned. It is through these exchanges that you will begin to mimic your counterparts, develop and judge register, and even construct a personality in your new language. This bizarre process of personality building is fascinating and infuses the whole experience with an emotional salience that will continue to drive you forward.
3. Blur the lines between your free time and your learning time
There’s a great Eddie Izzard sketch where he pokes fun at the morose inactivity of British film when compared with the bombastic sensationalism of Hollywood. Different countries tell stories differently, and they often have a whole cast of acting royalty that is barely known beyond their borders. At the age of 18, I never would have thought that some of my favourite films 10 years down the line would be in Spanish, German, Portuguese or Italian. I didn’t think a German sentence would move me to tears, or a single scene in a Mexican film would jolt me into the immediate purchase of a ticket to la ciudad. Y Tu Mamá También, El Mar Adentro, Cidade de Deus, Hin und Weg, Biutiful, Le Conseguenze Dell’Amore, Im Juli (and anything else with Moritz Bleibtreu… ) are all films from which I gained so much by watching them in their original, unadulterated versions. And that’s just film. Try listening to Freiheit by Marius Müller-Westernhagen – and to how the crowd reacts to this gawky, poetic homage to freedom itself – and you may struggle to repress a saccharine emotional rush.
4. Travel as much as you possibly can
If you travel, you will enjoy the enormous utility of languages first-hand. Your languages will facilitate your movements, ensure a richer diversity of more authentic experiences, and may well even reduce the cost of your trip. I never really returned to French after school, but in the summer of 2014 I took a train from Berlin to Madrid, stopping off at various points along the way. Between Freiburg and Dijón I hurried through a course all about hotel vocabulary on my phone. When I arrived I asked the cantankerous receptionist tentatively;
“Vous parlez anglais, allemand ou espagnol ?” – Do you speak English, German or Spanish?
I thought the assertion implicit within this question that I was not a stubborn monolingual would placate him, but his reply came venom-lined;
“Non, seulement français.” – No, only French.
“J’ai réservé une chambre pour ce soir. Mon nom est Wood.” – I reserved a room for this evening. My name is Wood.
It wasn’t perfect, but it sufficed, and he perked up enough so as not to eject me from the establishment. I disappeared into my room and proceeded to do the next few courses on how to order food, and then I ventured out into the city of mustard.
5. Take control of your own class
How would you like to learn? How do you think you learn best? Do you know the answers to these questions? Have you ever asked yourself these questions? Remember that the most important question is how you like to learn, not how you learn best. If you enjoy the learning process, you’ll stick to it, and even if it takes a little longer, who cares? You’re enjoying it, after all. So relocate your class to a park, listen to music in your new language while walking to work, or best of all, meet up with a friend who’s a native speaker or also learning, and immerse yourself in the simple pleasures of coffee and conversation, just like the protagonists of our video.