Native English speakers have an unusual relationship with foreign language learning. I am often regarded with a strange look, as if I had admitted to being involved in witchcraft or base jumping when people find out that I speak more than one language. Parents of pupils have frequently told me that ‘we’re no good at languages in our family’, as though language learning could be inherited like blue eyes or curly hair. So how do we break through the mental block that learning a foreign language is only for witches and lunatics?
The truth is that all that is lacking is opportunity and necessity when it comes to communicating in a foreign language.
These two crucial factors in language learning are what I will be looking at in my first post on how The Language Gap can provide the right environment to make you a better linguist.
British and American English speakers can be remarkably isolated in their experience of foreign languages. If you have ever visited the Netherlands, Scandinavia or Germany, you will have been shamed by your lack of knowledge of the native tongue, and the fact that most of the locals have a pretty good knowledge of English. Of course, it is easy to see why; most popular music is in English, English language films and English speakers on the news are subtitled rather than dubbed. In English lessons, the teachers teach grammar through the medium of English rather than the native tongue. Children are hearing English from an early age. This is opportunity: the brain gets used to the sounds of English, it tunes into the structures and vocabulary, and it tries to make sense of it.
We all have this experience with our own language; we are immersed in sounds and language from conception onwards. Babies are desperate to communicate and understand, and we are hardwired to use language to communicate with those around us. However, if we are only given the opportunity and necessity to learn one language, that is all we will do. It is necessity that will drive us to learn another language. If you don’t need to communicate, the motivation to learn will disappear, and you will remain a monoglot.
My first experience of this necessity came from my parents. They both spoke some French, and used it to keep secrets from me and my sister. The irritation and desire to understand what they were saying to each other drove my initial desire to learn French. I was absolutely determined to know what was going on. When both my sister and I were given the opportunity to learn German at school, we took it, and turned the situation on its head. By the time we were both teenagers, we were able to converse in basic German without our parents understanding a word. The motivation was perfect, and the sense of satisfaction enormous!
I had other experiences which were motivational in my language learning journey: being placed with a very irritating and rather unfriendly French exchange family in my early teens drove me to learn to argue with them in French. My French exchange demanded I translate the whole lyrics of The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me from English, and I was so bored that I read the enormous La Redoute household catalogue from cover to cover, learning useful words for everything from kitchenware to contraceptive devices.
I realised then that the way to learn a language was essentially to be abandoned in a place where English could no longer be used as a prop. My idea for the Language Gap has grown from these experiences. How can we recreate situations where we have both the opportunity and the necessity to learn a foreign language? We must go and live the language, doing something we want to do, something we want to communicate, and the motivation will push us to learn. If you surf all week in Spanish, the instructor will have told you to bend your knees so many times, that you will never forget the phrase. You will want to ask questions about how to improve, how to wax your board, where to catch the wave, and you will make mistakes. However, the first time you communicate and understand the response, you will feel a toddler like joy, and it will motivate you to learn more of the skill and more of the language.
So choose your language, your activity, and find some free time: a week, a month, a year, and I’ll start you on the thrilling ride to being a linguist.