The Lost Art of Language Learning

It’s been a while since the last blog post – I’m going to blame a huge workload and family commitments (both true) rather than procrastination (also true). But seeing as you’re all(!) a very forgiving lot, I’m going to steam ahead with the blog post, because it’s something that’s been bubbling up for a while now. The Guardian has recently been running a series of pieces under the banner of “The Case for Language Learning” – it falls under their Education section, for obvious reasons, and it has been absolutely superb. It’s certainly garnered interest on the likes of Twitter, with lots of language specialists posting links to the articles – I just hope that, well, other people read them too. Don’t get me wrong I love linguists, cunning or otherwise, but if we’re the only ones reading these articles then it’s a bit like preaching to the choir. But audience aside, the content of the articles is absolutely fantastic – from profiles of unexpected public figures who speak one or more languages  (Eddie Izzard, you dark horse) to inspiring pieces on what drives multilinguists, as well as strong provocative pieces on how we tackle the issue of teaching languages.

And it’s that last point that I want to talk about – teaching languages. I am not a teacher. Having had one pitiful foray into the world of TEFL, I am not qualified to wax lyrical on how to teach, or maybe, if it’s not too controversial, if to teach languages. (My answer, in case it wasn’t obvious, is a big fat YES to teaching languages). I am fairly qualified to comment on how to learn languages, but even at that, I’m only really qualified to comment on how I’ve learnt languages, as language learning, just like every other type of learning, is incredibly personal.

One of the biggest debates that needs to be had about all the learning we do (as adults and young people) is what are we doing it for? We need to look at the practical application of our studies – what does it equip you for? Or at the very least, if your subject of choice leaves you more familiar with the mating dance of the six plumed bird of paradise in Papua New Guinea rather than how to write your resumé, then maybe we need to work on having courses which are supplemented with skills which are bit more “working world” friendly. When it comes to languages, we need to emphasise the career possibilities which are open to those who undertake a language, whether it’s alongside another subject or whether it’s on its own. Our language courses need to focus on language fluency, perhaps by other subjects being taught in the language, thus killing two birds with the one rosetta stone, so to speak.

One of the key ways I found to increase fluency was reading, listening and watching things that I was interested in, in other languages. That way, you’re familiar with the subject matter, whether that’s fashion, films or playing the flute, and you’ll already feel like you’ve got a bit of a leg up on the vocabulary. Don’t be ashamed to start with kiddies’ books – the first book I read in Spanish was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal) – I picked it because I’d already read it, I liked it and I thought it would boost my confidence. And it did. It felt so good that I’d read an entire book in another language!

If we change our attitudes to see that not only are languages relevant, but vital, then we might start to make some headway. As an industry, we need to make sure that people know what can be done and (perhaps more importantly for many) what can be made easier, if we are able to communicate with others around the world.

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