August 18, 2020

Why children shouldn’t be afraid of difficulties when learning a foreign language


For some, learning a foreign language is easy, but for others, it can be a daunting, almost impossible, process. While for some students learning a hundred unfamiliar words is not an issue, others struggle to pronounce the first ten words they are facing, immediately get discouraged and continue their lives with a belief that learning a foreign language is something they should not even consider.  

But the reality is that everyone reaches a plateau at a certain point, quite possibly because the learning style a student has relied on is no longer effective. Identifying the learning style (e.g. aural, visual, verbal, physical) is useful for both the educator and the student; they can both rely on methods associated with that style to a large extent in the learning process. However, always structuring teaching around a preferred style can greatly hinder this learning. A simple example: a student with a very strong verbal learning style and well-developed skill of memorising lists will have no problem learning words, but may falter when asked to use them in a sentence. Quick retrieval of words is clearly not sufficient – remembering the sound of full sentences from films, songs or practice in lessons is essential as well. In other words, to achieve better results, this student would need to acquire an aural learning style, as well as others. 

It is a well-known fact that an increase in our effort correlates with an increase in our chances of success. This concept is visible in the process of learning a foreign language – the easier it is to learn certain things, the more chances are we will forget them in a month or in a year. Recent research has provided evidence that massed practice (learning through endless repetition) for a short period of time is not as efficient as one can expect. Retrieval of the learnt material after a period of time with a chance to elaborate, to look at things in a new context, or apply a concept in a new way, is much more helpful in a long run. However, this approach is naturally more challenging for students.

Therefore, the teacher’s most important task is to keep encouraging students; that is, reminding them of the ultimate goal but simultaneously teaching students to experience the other joys of learning. It can be a joy of recognition; a joy of achievement; a joy of being commended or being able to impress a teacher or peers; a eureka moment (the sudden feeling that everything ‘clicks’ together); a joy of feeling persistent and focused. A good teacher won’t strive to make lessons easy for students, but will instead provide material to elaborate on existing knowledge, and find personal motivation which will enable students to master a foreign language to an advanced level.

It is worth remembering that finding something difficult is not the result of a lack of aptitude but rather a reflection of a serious personal approach to the subject. Try talking to a scientist working on his project, or an artist working on a sculpture. Would they say they find their work easy? I very strongly doubt that! Will they refer to their work as enjoyable? Not always. Frustrating, difficult – these are more likely words one will hear. Parents should not be scared to hear complaints like these from their children but rather feel proud of their efforts and appreciate the need for hard work and difficulty to achieve a lasting improvement.

And so we share.  We share what we have had the privilege to learn and experience ourselves, and we continue to learn together.  To cultivate our innate capacity for growth, to foster our natural curiosity, to inspire and ignite the spark of imagination, to move beyond what we thought we knew, this is what teaching and learning is about.