Two Secrets that Make Learning a Foreign Language Easier
It’s hard to stay motivated to learn a language if the learning experience is not both relevant and contextual. I learned this from my two and a half attempts at learning French. My first experience lacked both context and relevance, the second provided relevance but lacked context, and the final attempt (when I actually did became fluent in French) had both relevance and context. Let me explain...
Attempt 1: High School
No Context, No Relevance
It is no surprise that my high school language education did not result in bilingualism. I feel like this is probably the case for most high school foreign language students in the United States. To be honest, I don’t even think most teachers expect their students to have a true functioning grasp of the language either (and I was lucky enough to be taught by native French speaker! Imagine the countless students taught by other Americans!). I mean, sure, you might score well on the exams (I certainly didn’t) but it’s unlikely that you have the practical ability to function in that language.
Thinking back, learning to speak French in the context of high school could never have worked for me. First of all, I was only speaking French a couple times per week in a classroom where the teacher allowed us to use English as a crutch. Second, and more importantly, I was attempting to learn a foreign language in an environment where that language would not serve me. When was I going to have the opportunity to truly attempt to express myself or get something done in French while living in the United States? Basically never.
I would have taken Spanish in high school if it was offered. Instead I was stuck taking French with the Capretz Method, which I never believed I could truly use, and Latin, which has been “dead” for years. In this way my early language learning attempts were not relevant to me. I am not the kind of person who can just learn something “because.” I need a reason. I need to understand how what I am learning directly applies to something I am interested in. To be honest, even learning Spanish would have been a bit of a stretch because i didn’t have any friends with whom I could speak Spanish so it was another skill that I would be learning “just because.” Don’t get me wrong. I fully advocate for language learning as a way to expand and exercise the mind but especially when you’re younger, sticking to a language until fluency is pretty rare unless there is a true reason to learn it beyond curiosity.
Attempt 2: College
Relevant But Still No Context
Full disclosure: learning French in high school wasn’t a total failure. I mean i pretty much failed the class but I managed to retain a few basics, about 70% of a Victor Hugo poem (Demain Dès L’aube - we had to memorize this for an oral exam), and most importantly I retained the joy I experienced the first time I tried to pronounce French words and the first time I’d heard French being spoken. It is this final reason that motivated me to give French another shot during my final year at university. It also didn’t hurt that I was in the midst an irrational quarter-life crisis which made me decide that I had to be bilingual before I was dead.
Executing the Mission
On the first day of class I made it clear to the teacher that I wanted to become conversational by the end of the year, I wanted us to meet for extra time outside of class so that I could speak French more than three times per week and I wanted to move to Paris the following fall.
More Relevance: The Opposite Sex
With that goal in mind, it was only somewhat difficult to stay motivated learning French while still in the United States. I needed a little bit of extra relevance to stay on track and boy did I find it. That year (like every year at my school) there was a French exchange student. That French exchange student eventually became my girlfriend.
At this point French was truly relevant. Not only did I have my mind set on moving to France but having a French girlfriend meant that French could actually serve me in my day-to-day life. Speaking a foreign language in a place where that language is not commonly spoken is like having your own secret code. It’s an amazing feeling. I wanted that with her.
Alright enough with the love story.
I had my relevant reasons to learn French but I was still in need of the context. There’s only so much you can learn in a stateside classroom meeting 40 minutes, 3 times a week.
Attempt 2.5: Paris
Relevance and Context
First of all, how does this very real attempt warrant only .5?
Because attempt 2.5 is really a continuation of attempt number 2 with a summer in between. When I got to Paris I couldn’t really speak a word of French. Understanding was an entirely different battle.
Relevance is huge and context is key. Back in high school I never imagined I would have a French girlfriend or live in France so French was just another “thing” and not a tool. Now that I was in France as an au pair and was expected to take care of three unilingual French children, French became a necessity. This was the context that I needed. After a few months and a few meltdowns I had surpassed what I thought was linguistically possible for me and at the 6 month mark I was beginning to feel, dare I say, fluent.
Living in Paris satisfied the need both the relevance *and context.*
Learning a language broadens the mind and it is easiest when you have a reason. I am not saying you have to move abroad. I was fortunate enough to have had this opportunity but I know it’s not the case for most people.
What to do if your next language isn’t spoken around you?
I feel that learning French in the USA would have been really difficult for me unless I was very interested in watching French series or movies (I wasn’t - I didn’t even know of any good ones). You can expect future articles with foreign language media suggestions (movies, youtube personalities, and music).
I didn’t mention this before, but another reason I wanted to learn French was because of a film called La Haine starring Vincent Cassel. I can remember watching this film with my friend Ned and thinking, “damn, these dudes sound cool.” Ned is a friend of mine from high school and at the time we watched this film, he’d recently come back from a 3 month stay on a French Vineyard.
I needed the subtitles. He didn’t. He kept telling me throughout the film, “dude, if you only spoke French, you’d see how much is lost in these subtitles.” I hated the idea that I was missing the true sentiments expressed on screen. That I was only getting the abridged version.
I think there is a real advantage for anyone wanting to learn english because of the broad reach of american movies/music/cultural artifacts. Most people worldwide are probably already watching an American series with subtitles or dubbed. Let that be your motivation. With subtitles and dubbing, you’re missing out. The true meaning, the way the show was supposed to be consumed, isn’t communicated through subtitles and anyone who knows a second language knows that there are some things that simply cannot be translated.
Television series and particularly cartoons intended for children were invaluable to my understanding of French. During my early-stage meltdown in France, I spent entire days looking at a grammar book while watching episodes of Regular Show, The Amazing World of Gumball, and Adventure Time on Cartoon Network. Now, all three of these cartoon series are American but they are also popular in France. Normally I can’t stand overdubbing (in the US we are simply unaccustomed to it since pretty much all of our media is created in English) but with cartoons, the mouth movement is much less important. I also make sure to watch all animated series and movies in French if I can find them.
Youtube is great. I love watching youtube personalities (like Norman Fait Des Vidéos) in French because I can hear how normal people speak in that country. It’s not movie-structured language. It’s not overly dramatic or hard to interpret. It’s raw and it’s real.
Friends have recommended iTalki.com to find tutors. Although that costs money, you can speak with a native for free by organizing language exchanges where you spend some time helping them learn your language, and they in turn help you learn their language. You are in-demand for language exchanges if your native language is english!
If you are having trouble finding a community of people who are learning or native in language you are learning, you should consult Meetup.com. There is probably already a Meetup for your target language but if there isn’t, make one! Be proactive. If you just want to read and write your language you could create a literary Meetup/book club to stay motivated but if you’re like me, the only reason to really learn a language is so that you can speak! Meetups are great for that as well.
What does it look like to have context but no relevance?
It looks a lot like me living in Berlin and not being able to speak German.
Upon arrival, I was afraid that learning German would mean the death of my French. Untrue. Especially if you use the chaining method [link], and I wasn’t yet sure how I felt about living in Germany so I didn’t really see a need to learn. At the time of this article I have decided that I would like to learn German. Living here, it’s relevance is right around the corner.