Learning a language should be fun and practical; it should allow you to take your new skills to the real world. But, oftentimes, it’s difficult putting into practice what you learn in the classroom. Have you ever tried to hold a conversation with native speakers before? Or tried having a job interview in another country; or watching a TV show in its original language? Did you feel like it didn’t go so well? Why is it so hard to learn another language despite hours of classroom work?
Well, we have news for you! It’s not you that’s the problem, it’s the method and how you learned the language.
Language classes usually have a formal or antiquated methodology: the Grammar-Translation Method. This was created to teach you grammar structures, which is something we learn many years after becoming fluent in our first language. In a university or high school language class, we often learn to read first, then write, then listen, and finally, speak. For our first language, we listen first, then speak, then read, and then write.
That’s why we collected a couple of suggestions on how to change the typical language learning method; so you have a fun experience and are able to handle real-life situations while speaking your new language.
What Happens in Most Classrooms?
Usually, formal classroom settings focus on grammar rules and memorizing lists of vocabulary for quizzes, rather than trying out the language in a real setting or hearing real conversations. Because of that, the traditional foreign language teaching method becomes boring and inefficient. In short, a waste of time.
These formal language classes also tend to have three language targets: grammar, vocabulary, and listening, leaving speaking out of the picture almost entirely, except for a memorized introduction of yourself that you present before the class.
1. Worksheets vs Conversation
What doesn’t work well: Worksheets
What works: Real Conversations
Teachers tend to use the classic fill-in-the-gap or organize-the-sentences exercises. Those might help you understand grammar structures, but that’s all they’ll do for you. They won’t prepare you to have a real conversation. A more interesting way to educate in a classroom is by doing pair or group activities where you can try out the language, make mistakes, hear yourself, express yourself and search your brain for the words you want to use.
Teachers can create conversation topics and make you talk with a partner or in a group about the topic of your preference. Teachers should listen to correct your mistakes; if there are many groups, teachers should walk from group to group, helping them move the conversation forward if anyone gets stuck. This way, you get to use the learned grammar concepts in a real way, while you talk about something you’re interested in. If teachers allow you to talk about your passions, it’s more likely that you are practicing a conversation you’ll actually have.
If classes are just with you (private lessons), of course, have a real conversation with the teacher. One-on-one classes are the most effective since you will get the most time speaking. Conversation with corrections will ultimately get you fluent more quickly than memorizing grammar rules.
2. Memorizing Lists vs Learning in Context
What doesn’t work well: Memorizing Vocabulary Lists
What works: Learning Vocabulary from Stories
Usually, in a formal class, the teacher will give you a vocabulary list to memorize, maybe classified by topics: animals, fruits, numbers, and more. The only problem is that there’s no context, and when you learn all the fruits at once, it’s easier to mix them up! It is easier for you to retain new words if there’s a situation or story behind those words. This way, you’ll know when to use them and what they mean. This is how we learn words in real life. As a baby, we don’t eat 10 fruits at once! We try them one at a time, touch them, taste them, see their colors, etc. A real experience that we can’t forget.
One example of learning language through context could be reading a book – even better with pictures (think children’s books or comics). If you’re reading a story and you come across a word that you don’t know, you can guess what it might be due to the situation/context/story/what’s happening. In a classroom, the teacher could create the story and add the new vocabulary into it. As a result, you are engaged, learn new words, and even more, learn new words in the way they’re supposed to be used.
When you look up words in a dictionary, you can find many ways to use them, so this can be confusing. This can lead you to use the word in the wrong context for a long time. If you are more advanced, you can create the story with certain words given by the teacher; maybe even tell a real anecdote that happened to you. Telling stories from your real life is the best way to learn, because you’re likely going to tell those stories again in the future.
Showing pictures also helps. The teacher presents an image or an object and says the word that corresponds to it, maybe gives an explanation and a context. This way your brain observes something and puts meaning behind it: a name, a definition, and a shape. It’s a creative way to engage everyone in the class.
Remember: you can memorize the words, but you need to know how to apply them to your life.
3. Teacher Talk vs Questions and Answers
What doesn’t work well: Just Listening
What works: Listening and then Talking About It
When teaching a new language, most teachers use a recorded conversation between two people from a textbook. The problem: the voices sound like robots sometimes, or they aren’t realistic conversations, or they speak slower than native speakers (not realistic). Listening to conversations is a good way to train your ears, but you need to go further than that, because in a real conversation someone tells a story, and then people ask or answer questions about it.
After listening to a conversation, movie clip, etc, the teacher can ask various questions about what you just heard and you need to answer in complete sentences. Preferably listen to a conversation that is interesting and provokes conversation. If there are more students, after the teacher has asked a couple of questions to you, the teacher can ask others the same questions so that everyone can hear the responses multiple times. Then, the teacher can begin to ask opinion questions so that you all get a chance to not only confirm what you heard in the conversation, but also your own opinions on the topic.
It’s important for the teacher to join in the conversation too. You can hear the teacher’s accent and train your ears to understand it and imitate it. You should practice asking others questions as well, since no real conversation would be one-sided.
A note: the teacher should talk about 50% of the time in a beginner class, then less and less as you progress. Just like we learn our first language, we listen for hundreds of hours first, and then we begin to speak. And then, we need hundreds of speaking hours to get comfortable and confident speaking. Our brains need this time to practice saying what we think, searching for the words, and finding ways to say what we want without all the words we would have in our first language. But first, you need to listen to the language you’re learning in order to master it. So if you’re a beginner, start with listening – a lot.
4. Mindless Repetition vs Significant Repetition
What doesn’t work well: Repeating without Meaning
What works: Repeating Words or Phrases Learned in Context
It is not very effective to repeat something without knowing its meaning or its usage. We don’t really learn that way, at least, not in a significant or profound way. You can repeat words or structures using the methods above, which help you solidify key structures, commonly used phrases, and grammar used on a daily basis. For example, repeating one word in a story so you get familiarized with using it, and then reading that story which will focus on that word. Or the teacher could repeat a question at the beginning of every class, so you’ll know how to use it and answer it.
It also works in this way when learning grammar or vocabulary from a song. You’ll hear the chorus over and over again, so you’ll get used to certain phrases or grammar structures. Even when reading a book, the author might repeat certain words and sentences, so you’ll learn them eventually.
You can even pick a phrase and use it during your daily activities. For example, when you cook, you can say “I’m cooking my favorite food” in the language you’re learning; or when you go out with your friends, you can say “I’m having fun”.
What doesn’t work well: Learning and Forgetting
What works: Learning and Reviewing Every Month
Additionally, it’s very important to review past lessons, so you will be forced to remember what was learned, and teachers will see what you need to keep working on, what you’ve forgotten. A review is good to strengthen what has already been taught and learned.
What You Can Do to Learn a Language Outside the Classroom
Even if you have a great teacher that gives dynamic language lessons, you should still try to improve outside of your classroom. This will help you acquire the language more quickly and become more confident when speaking your new language. Don’t worry, we’re not talking about doing homework, but about having fun and getting real-life experience with the language.
Listening to music and podcasts, watching Netflix in its original language (sure, put subtitles from time to time), reading, watching YouTubers, and talking to native speakers or other students. These are all very effective ways to push your fluency forward.
Always remember to learn with things that you love. So, if you like suspense, maybe watch a thriller in the language that you’re studying. If you are a musician or love music, try learning through songs. If you have specific needs, ask your teacher if you can have a lesson regarding your goals.
In fact, here at TruFluency we have customized lessons, so you’ll achieve the personal and professional goals you have regarding your new language. Just go to the language of your choice, choose a teacher, and try out a class for only $35. You’ll see how different and effective our language method is.