Learning a new language: why is it so difficult?!

23 Apr

I have always appreciated the determination and skill it takes to properly master another language; however, despite my best efforts, I have been rather unsuccessful on the language front.  I went to a grammar school for girls and had to undergo painfully bad Spanish and German lessons for several years, which seems to have psychologically affected my attitude to language-learning.  Language classes at school, and I imagine for most UK state schools, were a bit of a joke.  We would have classes of around thirty pupils, the majority of whom viewed foreign language lessons as the time to muck around and emotionally torture the language teachers.  They were often naive and young native Spanish or German speakers, fresh from studying their PhD in England in the hope of pursuing their dreams.  I have a memory of my Spanish teacher in year 9 in the middle of what can only be described as a nervous breakdown – sobbing uncontrollably under the desk – because one of the girls was standing on the table and shouting, trying to spark some sort of frenzied revolt among the rest of the class.

Anyway, anything that was learnt was learnt via painful memorising and inefficiently cramming for weekly tests in which cheating was commonplace.  There was supposed to be a focus on speaking but in reality, in a class with 30 pupils, we were lucky if we said one sentence during the whole lesson.  We were given musty old textbooks that smelt and gave us information about scary-sounding things like ‘declensions’, and the GCSE oral was the most dreaded exam for many – who actually likes listening to their recorded voice?!

I did OK compared with many of my peers – indeed, I was even considered ‘good’ at languages but this was all relative.  I was hardly ‘good’; I simply had a good method for memorising that stood me in good stead in exams, which allowed me to get good grades.  However, as soon as I would finish an exam, any knowledge that I did possess – and most of it was rather tenuous anyway– would literally fly out of my head.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t try – at 16, I went to Santander in Spain for what was possibly the worst week of my life to work in a bookshop.  Instead of improving my Spanish speaking skills, I was stuck with a group of hormonal adolescents that I didn’t know and spent most of the time in dodgy nightclubs, nursing a headache sparked by one too many WKD’s and watching precocious British teenagers getting with greasy older Spanish men.  I definitely learnt why Brits get such a bad rep abroad so I guess it was a learning experience, definitely, but not in the way I intended.

Our school did make some half-hearted attempts at getting us enthused about learning languages involved a trip to the ‘Europa’ centre when we were about 13.  If possible, this actually made me less enthused.  It was sold as this centre where you were effectively in Germany; the brochure showed various shops and cafes and the idea was that you could explore this town using the German you had learnt.  There was literally a pharmacy and one shop, a vintage clothes shop (but not in the cool sense) and you were not actually able to buy anything – you just had to pretend that you wanted to buy the stained puffer jacket on the rack.  If you said anything incorrect, the woman in the shop would basically reprimand you quite aggressively.  The cafe sold soggy microwaveable chips, so at least I got to use a phrase that we repeated in lessons – ‘Ich möchte Pommes Frites kaufen bitte’. Please see the picture below of the shop at the Europa centre to give you an insight into how incredibly unexciting (and stuck in a time warp) this school trip was:


Obviously, language-learning needs to be an active process, something which is cultivated and practised regularly.  It’s no surprise, then, that I remember very little of what I learnt and it is an embarrassing fact that I probably couldn’t hold a fluent conversation in Spanish or German despite studying them in sixth form.

This weekend I am going for a city break to Munich and I was intending to brush over my German – die Einheimischen beeindrucken (that’s ‘to impress the locals’, just in case you were wondering ;)).  However, the more I look into it, the more I realise that I’m not simply ‘brushing over’ anything – I literally have to learn things again.  Perhaps it is my laziness or a general lack of dedication that prevents me from really getting my teeth into a different language.  A couple of years ago, I went to some Beginner Mandarin classes at SOAS and while I began the course feeling highly motivated, I soon found myself getting annoyed with the teacher and the rest of my group and decided to slide into the background very quickly.

I suppose what I have gathered is that it is about addressing what learning style suits you best.  I know that I would be best suited to a disciplined teacher in a one-to-one setting.  In groups, I become lazy and demotivated and I am one of those annoying people that need the slight fear factor to do well.

Maybe I will try again and shake off the old associations I have with learning languages.  But the problem with me is that I find myself getting so disheartened when I don’t see immediate results – something that needs to be overcome if you plan on really mastering a language.  I’m always looking for a quick-fix solution, which is something that is simply not feasible if you want to speak another language fluently.  However, I do feel to succeed in mastering a language requires an element of fun, something which was completely missing in school lessons and indeed, in many of these evening classes that suddenly seem to be all the rage. Without this, the process will most likely resemble a chore and you will have wasted valuable time, energy and resources in return for not very much at all.

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