“I’m The Worst At Languages”

I’ve heard so many variations of this sentence that it surprises me when someone says they like learning languages. Nevertheless, no matter how often people tell me they are the worst, I don’t buy it. Maybe you won’t become a translator of medieval literature, but you can learn a language well enough to enjoy a wee summer holiday, or even a year abroad.

To begin with, you learned to speak your mother tongue, right? Whether you speak like a true poet or express yourself in short direct sentences, you always manage to get the point across. That’s all anyone expects of you when you speak another language – to convey the message. Even if your grammar is inaccurate, when you make the effort to express your idea in a foreign language, people will try their best to understand and will usually succeed. Expecting yourself to perfect a foreign language after just a few years of learning is crazy. Don’t reproach yourself for occasional mistakes (hell, from time to time you probably make mistakes in English). If you can say what you mean in simple, relatively correct terms, then you are doing well.

Secondly, if you have only tried one or two methods to learn a language, you can’t say that “learning languages is not for you”. Most people say this having the experience of studying a foreign language in high school, but the methods used in classrooms don’t work for everyone. There are many ways to learn a language and different people do better with different methods. For instance. You can listen to music, watch movies, play Duolingo, go for a pint with a friend who’s a native speaker, (maybe do a ‘tandem’ with a them – half  the time you speak English to help them and half the time they help you with their language), do online courses, do a language course in a specialised school, practice grammar at home with course-books… the possibilities are endless, plus most of them are fun. Trying them out won’t hurt, I promise.

That being said, miraculous results won’t emerge in a few months. Learning a language, through whichever method, takes time. I know those stories circulating online about learning a language in 3 months seem seductive, and it can be disappointing when, after a year, you can only order food or ask for directions.  The reality is that the people who truly did learn a language in 3 months normally speak additional languages and can simply appropriate a lot of grammar knowledge, instead of learning grammar rules from scratch; or they moved to the country where the language is spoken and vowed never to speak their own language. If you are not in these two categories, give yourself time.

My last point is that if one foreign language is not your forte, don’t assume languages in general are not your strong suit. I learned Spanish and Italian rapidly, while I struggle with German year after year. And I have been arguably studying German the longest.  If one language is not working for you, try another, perhaps from another group. Don’t necessarily go for the one everyone studies, but for the one you like best, even if it’s ‘smaller scale’.  While everyone preaches about the benefits of knowing the “big languages”, knowing a “smaller” foreign language is better than nothing. Actually, you’ll be unique on the job market and that’s never a bad thing.

My general advice is to see yourself as the most adventurous language learner of all time. Explore methods and languages, and give yourself time and space for mistakes. Speaking a foreign language will improve any trip, but it is especially useful if you plan to study abroad. Sure, you can survive being abroad by speaking English, but you will never truly understand other cultures without knowing the basics. Learning that language also means learning their jokes, sayings and insults, which in turn gives insight into their mentality and values. It enriches you as a person and makes finding friends abroad much easier. Finally, people appreciate when you try speaking their language while visiting their country – it’s a sign of respect. You expect me to speak English here, after all.

[Žad Novak]

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