Learning a Language Made Difficult
There is a sickness endemic in the public education system with regards to language acquisition. Over 50% of the global population speaks 2 languages. In the United States a mere 20% of citizens are bilingual, and that number is heavily carried by those who speak ENGLISH as their second language. But before we begin discussing the disease and how to cure it, let’s discuss the things that are caused by it. How is this illness choking the life out of every student who is seeking to acquire a new language? What symptoms are being focused on rather than treating the illness itself? And what can you, the aspiring learner, do to set yourself up for success after we have remedied the disease?
We know that something is wrong, but we are not sure what precisely that is. Memorization has taken precedence, sit and memorize these words and these phrases then regurgitate them onto the paper for the exam. Once the exam is over, why bother remembering them? There are new things to memorize and regurgitate in the next week! And don’t you make the mistake of thinking that there are ways to connect these things, that would be plain silly!
Did you make a mistake? That will not do, you must be punished. Brave enough to speak in class I see? How dare you even try without being absolutely perfect? In fact, since you made a mistake I am going to make an example out of you in front of the entire class. Wait, why won’t anyone speak in my class? Well, at least the test scores will secure my public education job for another year.
I was recently speaking with an apprentice of mine who was “made an example” in her high school French class. After that day she never spoke in class again. This is absolutely disgusting to me as she could be working on her third or fourth language, but instead she speaks only one. If this isn’t an indictment of the public education system with regards to language acquisition I don’t know what is.
The public education system as it stands is built to instill fear of failure into its students. This fear compounds and, eventually, leads to mass paralysis through analysis. Then schools wonder why people they send out into the world never excel. It is impossible to build something you never begin; and it can feel impossible to build something if you are afraid to fail. Whether negligence or incentivized failure (system grading on attendance/EOY grades), the public education system has objectively failed tens of millions of eager language learners.
The Fail Test
I am far more impressed by the student who came in knowing nothing and spent time failing and learning who ended up with a C in the class than I am by the student with an aptitude for memorization who got an A in the class.
Memorization and regurgitation is the worst possible way to learn a language, and there are many ways not to do it. How this model was introduced and adopted by the public education system writ large will never make sense to me. Not just that, but the things students are told to memorize in language classes make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Let’s assume you are able to store x amount of words per day. If you spend time memorizing which word is masculine/feminine or colors and numbers you will not have the bandwidth to memorize words you would actually use. Who cares if you know what “the” to use if you can’t even put together three sentences in a coherent fashion?
This issue goes beyond language acquisition, want proof? Tell me everything you remember from your high school chemistry or biology class. What about the social studies classes?
The memorize and regurgitate method simply does not work. Luckily, if you are reading this, you are in control of how you approach language acquisition now. What the difficulty now becomes is breaking out of the mindset that the public education system forced on you and reinforced for years and decades.
After having worked with multiple apprentices at this point, I think it is fair to say that, by and large, many people have never enjoyed learning another language. This is absolutely bonkers bananas to me. The very first exercise I recommend has been fun for each and every one of my apprentices. Language acquisition should be an enjoyable endeavor, irrespective of how challenging it is. If you are not enjoying it, you are doing it wrong.
One of the reasons you may not be enjoying it is because your goals are not well defined and, without a target to aim at, you will miss every time. Most people approach language acquisition with the idea that they need to be fluent and that it needs to happen as fast as possible. This is akin to walking into the gym for the first time and immediately setting your goal as a six pack as fast as possible.
Can it be done? Absolutely.
Is it an effective strategy to ensure long term progress and success throughout all of life’s daily challenges? Probably not.
It is my very personal opinion that, if you are embarking on this journey, you should be aiming at a very specific target. Fluency is nearly impossible to measure, if you don’t believe me spend five minutes looking into the differences between B2/C1/C2 and how arbitrary the differences are. As far as I am concerned, unless you are looking to get into technical writing, practice law/medicine, or work on extremely complex translations, B2 should be your goal.
I say this because with a B2 you will be capable of reading just about anything (as much as you can read in your native language), you will be able to converse with any native speaker, and you will be able to listen to any song/audio recording and understand everything. Then, if you do those things, you will naturally get to C1/C2 simply by using the language more often at a more advanced level. With a B2 you are able to enter university, do you really think they would let someone who is not fluent into university?
Second Language Strategies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Some Actions to Take NOW
Now is the best time to start. You are in control of your future and this means you are in control of your education, for better or worse. With that in mind, let’s discuss some ways to overcome everything you’ve been told since day one in PubEd.
- Start failing immediately.
My apprentices write to me every day. They write to themselves every day. They make hundreds of mistakes every day.
I hate to tell you this, but if you are working to acquire a language, you will make thousands of mistakes, even when you are “fluent”, but that is okay.
Every mistake you make in training is one you are less likely to make when it’s game time. This idea that failing to be perfect in your target language is failing to learn it is completely wrong. The only way you fail to acquire a language is if you fail to try.
So start small. Write yourself a message on your first day detailing everything you want to accomplish, when you want to accomplish it, and how you plan to make it happen. In as much as possible write it in your target language and make as many mistakes as you can. Then, revisit that commitment you made to yourself once per week and revise it. Add more words you learned from your target language, correct the conjugations as much as you can, and try to make sure everything is cohesive line by line. Do this all in pen and only cross out your mistakes with a single line.
Being able to visualize your progress week over week will be huge. This is not something that is done in most cases and then we wonder why students get demotivated. You owe it to yourself to stack your progressive Ws.
2. Focus on things you enjoy
This is probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. If you get this right, everything else will fall into place.
In school, we are given things to focus on and rarely encouraged to pursue things we enjoy outside of that. The Second Language Strategies approach is the complete opposite of this. We will provide you a framework, you fill it with things that fit your life.
If you focus on things you enjoy and things you are good at, you will discover a passion for them. Instead of memorizing pages out of a workbook, read things you find engaging in your native language. By focusing on things you already know well in your native language, you may just notice that you recognize more words in that crazy foreign language than you had originally anticipated. An immediate confidence boost to jumpstart your language acquisition is just what most people need to overcome that pervasive fear of failure.
Have an interest in sports? Read articles in your target language that are centered around sports.
Interested in the outdoors? Read articles about the wilderness from a country that speaks your target language.
Can’t seem to escape the politics feedback loop? Read articles about global politics or the politics of a country that speaks your target language.
Aside from the obvious benefit of these things being interesting to you on the outset, reading about these things in various languages is extremely beneficial as it adds to your understanding of peoples and cultures around the world.
3. STACK. THE. Ws.
This is, at the end of the day, all that really matters. If you do nothing else, stack the Ws during your language acquisition.
Learn 5 new words/day. Jump on Duolingo/Memrise/Pimsleur instead of social media even ONE of the times you would have every day. Read a paragraph in your target language and take as much time as you need to translate it and make sense of it. Write three sentences every day, or at least four times per week, as complex as you can muster. Find 3 new songs in your target language to listen to and maybe even watch a lyric video simultaneously. Practice singing along in the mirror to ameliorate your pronunciation.
These wins will compound and snowball until the momentum becomes unstoppable. You do not have to win every day, you just have to win more days than you lose. Doing these things more times than you don’t, week in and week out, will put you in prime positioning to crush your language acquisition goals.
If you can only do one, choose to WRITE. The simple act of visualizing your progress will do more for you than that A+ on your paper once/week ever could.
There are many ways to acquire a new language. Anyone telling you they have the secret sauce and that their method is the only way is selling you something. Everyone learns differently. Everyone is interested in different things. Everyone needs different forms of motivation and encouragement. It is on you to dictate to yourself what is best for you. Sure, we can help, and we are happy to do so, but at the end of the day the framework needs to fit your life and your goals. Get started today, and if you are interested in supplemental guidance, we are always available for consultations.
In the end, there is no comprehensive guide, no tips or tricks to carry anyone across the finish line. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing.