Let me just say that the title is misleading, there is no easy way to learn a language – it takes, time, practice and exposure to the language and culture in an authentic setting. However, it doesn’t mean that it is an impossible task nor that it isn’t pleasant and rewarding, because ultimately, it is.

As I discussed in a previous post on language learning, there are many myths that exist about the right way to learn a language, which are so glaring illogical and untrue that by trying them out, adult learners become totally demotivated and often entrench themselves in feelings that they cannot learn a language.

Well, let’s dispel some of the myths straight away. If you are reading this, you are indeed capable of learning a language as you have experiences of learning your own language – now I can see no valid reason why, after learning one language that you cannot learn another. Can you?

I agree it will not be easy, but there is a difference between not being able to learn and not wanting to put the effort in, there is no nuance between the two, they are two totally separate concepts.

Going to a foreign country is not going to help you. There are many English families living in France for 10 or so years, who just about manage to cobble a few disjointed words together to do their shopping, and this is no denigration to them, there is a difference between living in a country and actually pushing yourself to communicate. Some have arrived with the Peter Mayle inspired stories and tried to integrate, only to realise the steep uphill-climb that learning a language really is, and many do not stay the course.

There is also a different skill set used in writing the language and speaking it – it is quite difficult to become proficient in writing at the same time that aural comprehension and oral expression are developed, this allied to the incredibly complex French grammar -, at least compared to English, makes it a hard task.

Oh, I hope I’m not putting any of you off – it can be done, I promise you and I’ll give you my opinion how to do it from my own personal experiences.

The key to language learning is the ear. When the ear works – everything works – hearing is an important step on the way to understanding but it has to be developed and understanding a language cannot be achieved. Hearing entails being able to distinguish sounds which are unfamiliar to us, rhythm, intonation word-stress and later, accents.

At the beginning, when we hear a foreign language it just sounds like a rapid-fire, wall of sound and we quickly lose all but the odd word at the start and end of a sentence.

What needs to be developed is the “helicopter ear” – yes, I know, sounds funny but it’s quite a good image and is an exact replication of how we listen in our native language.

The “helicopter ear” is much like, well, imagine that you are listening to the TV or the radio whilst doing a chore such as washing the dishes (the helicopter is in the air)  – we have an unfocused ear on the radio or tv whilst carrying out the chore, then an interesting news item is broadcast and we stop what we are doing to listen in more detail (the helicopter touches down but the rotors are still running) then after this we get back to our chore (helicopter in the air again) whilst half-listening to the radio or tv.

The exact same thing happens when we are in a meeting, caf̩ or sometimes even during a conversation Рthe point is we are not always focused 100% on the task of listening Рbut we can manage this effectively as it is our native language.

Now, take the same situation in French, the TV or radio, we have to completely concentrate to understand what is going on – we cannot get into the helicopter, it stays on the ground with the engine off. The result is not even telling as we don’t understand more, but we do feel more frustrated, and will generally give up if this scenario is repeated too many times.

The secret here is to adopt a clear, logical and coherent listening strategy – I won’t go into this at this time, but you need to be able to hear the ‘music’ of the language and this takes time and practice .

Listening in a foreign language is generally achieved in steps:

  • Being able to hear the sounds that make up the language
  • Being able to globally follow a simple monologue
  • Being able to globally follow a simple dialogue
  • Being able to understand a large percentage of a monologue
  • Being able to extract specific details from a simple dialogue
  • Being able to understand most of a normal speed monologue
  • Being able to follow a more complex dialogue with two or more speakers without losing concentration.
  • Being able to understand the bulk of a complex dialogue with more than two people speaking at normal speed

So that is the listening side dealt with, at the same time you are building your expression skills – this is inevitable, but there are so many aspects to this, including:

  • Pronunciation
  • Grammar
  • Rhythm and Intonation
  • Spontaneity
  • Vocabulary
  • Register
  • Slang
  • Formal /informal language
  • Word order
  • etc.

We will leave accent out, as I consider this so unimportant, as long as you can pronounce words so as they are intelligible and that you are able to put stress on words in a sentence to communicate meaning effectively.

A lot of what goes into a language you can do on your own- you can listen online to podcasts, the radio, news etc., you can read and even write but you will need to find a way to speak and listen in a way that is totally spontaneous and authentic with a French native speaker. Lessons can help but are not essential if you are able to organise your learning and your interactions with the language effectively. A French native will act as a mirror for you so you can practice all of the above and also agree on the way that you will be corrected.

It is not a good idea to be picked up on all your mistakes at the outset when the goal is to attain some level of ease and fluidity with the language – “you need to run before you can walk with language learning”, the ideal scenario is to learn from the times that you stumble and fall, but not to get too worried about falling – it is a vitally important step to take – falling too often at the same place can be harmful though..

Writing effectively will come much later, which doesn’t mean that you cannot practice writing.

Basically there are only four skills in a language and a balance needs to be struck to achieve fluency and competence in the language using all four:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

People will tell you that the only way to learn a language is to go to the country where it is spoken.

This is both true and false – I know people who work in the same city as me and have been here for over 10 years and are not able to converse even simply in French.

Think about where you live now, you can probably go out to a bar or to a restaurant with friends and enjoy a nice evening with friends talking and enjoying yourselves. Now, what would happen if you moved 500 miles away from where you are now, to a new city?

It would take time to meet new friends and to converse with people and that is in your native language – add the complexity of moving to a foreign country to this and you can see that it is no mean task.

Of course there are residential courses but these are often with people who speak your language so the actual time spent in French is as limited almost as if the course were carried out in the US or the UK.

In my opinion the only way to really effectively learn a language is constant exposure to the language and culture by all means of communication available – we can replicate some of these at home, but not all of them.

Then we need to ask ourselves, “What do I want to do in this language?” Often people want to become bilingual – a noble venture but, I’m afraid if you are over 14 years of age the chances of really becoming bilingual are slim to  no chance, but that also depends on your understanding of bilingual.

I consider bilingualism to be a complete transition to the second language (L2) which is totally seamless, this is most telling when people try do do mental arithmetic, that is there is not a trace of translation from your native language(L1) to the L2.

Imagine someone calculating the number of floor tiles in French – they automatically count and multiply in French with no need to dip into their L2 – this may be contended, but I find it a good rule of thumb, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t traces of an L1 accent either.

In my opinion the best way to learn a language is through facilitation – especially if you are an adult learner. All resources available can and must be used:

  • Audio
  • Video
  • Books
  • Internet
  • Native speakers
  • Radio
  • TV
  • Exercises
  • Etc…

The facilitators job is to ensure that the resources are used effectively and to help the learner more with their process of learning and not the content, which they can find themselves. Facilitation entails setting up situations where what is learnt is practiced and accompanying the learner through stages of self-efficacy that result in autonomy and not dependance, but also building programs that encourage inter-dependency and collaborative work between learners -all resources have a value and are useful, but only in as much as the learner is able to apply and use them effectively.

As a final note, I would say that if you are going to embark on an adventure learning a foreign language, have a goal in mind, in terms of steps in the process where you are going to be able to use the language, but also where you can realistically expect to get with the language given the time and the effort that you are able to consecrate to your learning – it’s not impossible, it is very achievable, good luck!

Active Consultants build bespoke language learning solutions integrating social media and Blended Learning to help adult language learners achieve their personal and professional goals – through group / one-to-one and distance learning courses.

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