July 3, 2020

Learning languages – Work that muscle!


You know how language learning apps send you those annoying little notifications daily about how you should be practicing that obscure language that you learned a couple of words in on a whim and now it’s interrupting your precious cat video time? Well, I can absolutely relate. I decided to take the time to increase the number of Russian words I knew from five to a respectable twenty-seven or so during lockdown, and now that I’ve done so and have no further aspirations for the immediate future, the app now keeps interrupting my invaluable daytime TV hour(s), and those amateur dinner parties aren’t going to judge themselves, you know!…

The lesson here, other than “you can simply turn off those notifications”, is this: they have a point. If you’re planning on learning a new language or brushing up on an old one and you’ve decided to allocate a one-hour slot every week to this endeavour because surely that’s enough, I urge you to think again. If you took up ballet, for instance – and why shouldn’t you? – or training for a marathon, you wouldn’t do so for one hour a week. You would do a little every day, for as long as you could spare, to the bafflement of your friends and family who would probably diagnose you with an existential crisis but conclude that as long as no-one gets hurt, it’s probably nothing to worry about.

This is the one thing I always tell my clients on lesson one. Well, this and “I will correct you every step of the way, no matter how irritating you find it, and yes, I know that you may end up throwing something at me, but this is how dedicated a tutor I am, risking my own safety so you would know what you got wrong” – of course now, with most of my lessons being online, that risk has significantly diminished, although you’d be surprised how creative people can get when pushed to their limit. The reason I draw the comparison with sport is that languages have a strong reputation for being an “Academic” topic, and as soon as you say the word the image is conjured of the over-caffeinated learner buried in dictionaries, pencils in their hair, dark circles around their eyes, conjugation sheets stuck on the walls peering at them from every side of the chamber, will to live slowly fading away into that forgotten realm of declensions and Dative pronouns. And the even more frustrating thing about this is there is some truth to that – I mean, when you’ve spent a semester immersed solely in the fascinating saga of Tudor history, desperate times like

the Syntax and Morphology exam call for desperate measures. But that is not how it should be.

I speak from experience both as a learner and as a tutor. Nothing teaches you a language like living in a country where it is spoken. I mean, when you find yourself in an obscure town in Southern Spain with only one bar (that means tiny town) and just one cathedral (that means minuscule town!), trying to explain veganism to a bar owner whose main snack is crunchy pig ears, that’s when you discover the real extent of your Spanish vocabulary. But when that is not an option, the next best thing is trying to recreate those conditions for yourself. Drop yourself into that fictional little village in the Bavarian woods. Embrace those annoying five minutes a day that Duolingo keeps emailing you about. The green owl is right. Pick up that coffee mug, ask yourself how to say “mug” in French, note down the word and the gender of the noun, and sit down to your ballet lesson. Stretch those language muscles a little every day, and I guarantee you that you will see results much easier than the desperate student having another espresso at 4 am with two more chapters to go, wondering if they can somehow detract the professor’s attention from Suppletion in Irregular Verbs by delving into the fascinating story of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall. Do it for your tutor! Showing up on your next lessons with five new words in five brand new sentences that you’ve made all by yourself will give them a sweet dose of that much-craved reward that shines a light on the grey “Academic” universe that they live in, but above all, do it for yourself. In the immortal words of my professor of Applied Linguistics, “Speaking in tongues is cool!”.