One of the trickiest bits of being a teacher is that you are usually very good at the things you are trying to teach. It is hard, therefore, to figure out how to teach it to someone who doesn’t find it easy. You have to go right back to the beginning, and figure out what builds on what, and how you can get the ‘what’ across in the first place. My ‘area of difficulty’ has always been languages. I spent five years learning French at secondary school, and I came out at the end with both an ‘O’ Level in the subject, and a complete inability to actually speak French. I just don’t seem to have an ‘ear’ for languages. I find them really really hard.
So how is it that I can now speak Portuguese pretty fluently? I’ve travelled there for many years because we have family there, and I worked in an international school for a while, so I’ve been exposed to the language for a long time. I’ve studied it a bit in books, I know how to conjugate verbs, and I took a handful of lessons as well. But it is only in the past year that I have actually learned to speak the language.
Here, in my case, are the essential elements for actually speaking and using a foreign language, as opposed to just knowing it:
1. I found some background knowledge useful
A basic understanding of vocabulary and grammar means that I have a base of knowledge to get me going. But ‘book study’ is not enough – I can know and yet still not be able to do. (Interestingly, children learning English in international schools typically learn through immersion, rather than book study – they learn to speak through hearing and doing rather than reading. This of course mirrors the way we learn a language when we are tiny.)
2. I needed an imperative (or ‘a strong motivation’)
For me, the imperative came in the form of a serious house fire, which happened when I was in Portugal with family early this year. I’m not going to go into the details, because it was very traumatic, but let’s just say I was put into a situation where I had to speak the language. I had a very strong motivation to make myself understood, and so I began to try.
3. I had to be willing to make mistakes
It’s embarrassing when you’re rubbish at something. You don’t want to do it, because someone else might tell you you’re not doing it well enough. Luckily the Portuguese are typically so delighted that I can speak their language, that they are happy to accept my mistakes. The more I speak, the more I hear, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I speak, the more I hear. But I have to be willing to do it badly first.
4. I had to engage with other human beings to construct learning/meaning
A language only comes to life when it’s used to make meaning – otherwise, what’s the point? (The same applies to much learning, surely?) I’m lucky enough to have family and friends in the country, and so I can use those connections with real life people to practise my new found ability. By bouncing my own learning off other people, in real life interactions, I have figured out how to do it better.
5. I had to experience it
I guess you could become fluent in Portuguese without ever visiting the country. But what would be the point? It is through day-to-day experience that I get to use the language, in situations where it actually matters to me.
6. I had to relax
For me, the fear of not being able to understand has always lead me to tense up when I’m around a foreign language. I think this might come from the visceral fear I felt in school when I was put on the spot and asked to speak in front of an audience. By relaxing, and not trying too hard, it suddenly becomes much easier.
So there you have it: this is how I learned to do something that I find really difficult. It’s worth remembering that some of our students won’t find learning easy, especially the most needy or deprived or those with special needs. If you’re very clever, and you’ve never found anything difficult in your life, then I hope that this explanation of how it feels on the ‘other side’ has been of help.
“If you teach a child something the same way a thousand times, and he still doesn’t get it, then maybe it’s not the child that is the slow learner.”