June 8, 2020

Language learning through the eyes of a teacher


Studying a language can be daunting and frustrating at times. You want to express yourself as you would in your mother tongue, but you just do not have the vocabulary. You may worry about getting things wrong and sounding funny! All language learners have been in this situation at one time or another, me included. When learning a language, it is important to try and let go of your inhibitions and focus on the main purpose of a language; to communicate.

Throughout my teaching career I have often been met by comments such as ‘I can’t do languages’ or ‘Languages arn’t for me’. Such comments are often used by students who have developed a fixed mindset in their learning, often from an early age, but this can be changed with the right activities and supportive environment. In lessons I try to develop a ‘Growth mindset’ which has been a buzz word within education for many years. Fixed mindset students do not like to move out of their comfort zone for fear of failure and feel more comfortable undertaking activities in which they know they will succeed. Growth mindset students, however are eager to push themselves and even if they do make mistakes they conclude that this is not a failure but see the process as an opportunity to try harder next time, examine how they could tackle the task differently and improve. Thomas Edison said, ‘I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 that won’t work’. In Languages mistakes will happen, mispronunciation is common but having the right mindset that embraces challenges will have a profound impact on Language learning.  When it comes to language learning making mistakes is a good sign, it means you are taking risks and being creative.

Students often ask how long they should be spending on learning outside of lessons and I always advocate a ‘little and often’ approach. Try and do something each day, whether that be a grammar exercise, naming things around the house, commenting on what the weather is like; the more creative and relevant to you the more the words will stick. You could sit and learn endless lists of vocabulary but when practiced within a sentence and in a conversation, they become more memorable. I have often used songs and poems to demonstrate different patterns and vocabulary which bring the language to life and promote cultural awareness.

Studies show that varying your study methods and materials will enhance and improve your retention and recall. Whilst studying for my Masters in Education I have looked into the principles of the learning pyramid which suggests that students remember 10% by just reading and textbook activities but can retain and understand up to 90% by teaching and explaining to someone else. I find that this method is good for grammar acquisition and understanding in languages. Grammar can be challenging for some students and there is not a one size fits all approach. For a student to fully understand the rules, make mistakes and learn from them, they need to put them into terms that they understand so that they can remember them. The act of teaching and explaining their method reinforces it in their minds for the future. I have tried this approach many times with great success at all levels.

When studying for GCSEs and A Levels we can sometimes get lost in the necessity to stick rigidly to the course content and lose sight of the joy that learning a language can bring. Languages can provide us with interesting and funny sounding words and phrases. Just because vocabulary is not immediately linked to the course content, they still have a role to play in pronunciation, verb patterns and motivation.  Take the adjective ‘abracadabrantesque’ for example. In English we use a similar word ‘abracadabra’ to add a flourish before revealing a magic trick. In French they have made this into an adjective which means preposterous and exaggerated. Not only is ‘abracadabrantesque’ great to say, I think it really embodies its definition. Languages are ever evolving and introducing concepts such as this keeps language learning fun and inspiring.

Finally, the question both loved and feared by language teachers; Why do we have to learn a language? As a newly qualified teacher I used to struggle uncomfortably with this, responding with offerings such as ‘it’s good for future employment’, ‘it looks good when applying for University’. However, learning a language and the ability to speak a language at whatever level shows your ability to embrace new cultures, improve your communication and listening skills and can even improve your English vocabulary and grammar.