Learning a language – the secret’s to keep talking

There’s a persistent myth that learning a new language requires a particularly high level of intelligence or a special aptitude.  Yet almost all of us had become fluent communicators in our native tongue even before our formal learning had really begun.  The ability to talk – the thing that “unleashed the power of our imagination”, according to Stephen Hawking’s guest vocal on the Pink Floyd track “Keep Talking” – is clearly a power we all possess. 

For some, the experience of beginning to learn a new language is a painful one, and that’s a great pity.  For many of us, the introduction to “foreign languages” had traditionally been the learning of a formal grammatical structure to which reams of vocabulary were added in a seemingly haphazard fashion with little apparent attempt to rationalize or ensure a sense of relevance.  While of use for some, this more traditional learning method can be more harmful than beneficial. 

Most people learning a new language find that it’s easiest to do it in the same way in which you learned your first one – by speaking, by imitating, by making mistakes and, ultimately, by gaining the confidence to use it.

The attraction of the phonetic approach

While using recorded media, such as CDs and DVDs is a great tool for language learning, it can leave the learner a little isolated.  Without the additional relevance of using a language for its prime function, that of communication with other real-life people, the motivation – a key component of successful learning – can wane quickly.  The addition of a study group, where practising the language, usually with a mentor, is helpful but true immersion in the language remains elusive.  This is why homestay – living and learning with a host family – has become so popular as an option for learning almost any language, as this article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper reveals.

The use of a phonetic approach to learning allows you to dive in headfirst to the learning experience.  There’s always someone there to talk to and, because its everyday real life, the conversation is real and relevant too. 

Where to learn?

Clearly, most homestay opportunities require a trip to the country in which the language you’re looking to learn is spoken.  However, given the increased trend towards globalization, this isn’t necessarily the case.  Organizations such as Daily English, which facilitate teaching English in France and place French students with native English speaking host families in Paris, for example, provide an alternative to the need to travel in order to take advantage of a homestay linguistic immersion experience.  There are some advantages to this approach.  Cost is an obvious one, but the approach also gives something of a safety net for the learner; while allowing the learner to live and communicate as part of the family, many of the cultural aspects remain familiar, thus preventing the student from feeling totally cut off from everything that’s familiar.  For some learning styles, this retention of a safety net can be an important factor in keeping happy and motivated.

At the same time, the context of living with a host family, and the license to make mistakes, watch and imitate the speaking style and formation of the language and even to stretch the boundaries of your comfort zone are some of the reasons why this style of learning a new language has become so successful and popular.  It’s also true that, as we relax, learning becomes more fun and therefore easier.

There are many ways to go about learning to communicate in an additional language, but the key to success is, exactly as Professor Hawking says, to keep talking.  Any language learning method which encourages the student to do just that must be likely to have a higher success rate.

About The Author

Paul Sheehan is a language teacher and educational author with a number of publications to his name.  He has provided a number of written teaching programmes for language training providers and also runs seminars and courses for new and more experienced language teaching professionals.  He divides his time between London and Paris, and claims to feel equally at home in either.