I’ve tried all the possible ways to learn a language, I’ve signed up for multiple different courses in language academies, I’ve also tried apps, online courses…, and it hasn’t worked out and I can’t really speak my favorite language.
Can you relate to the last paragraph? Don’t worry because this is actually normal looking at the way languages are taught through the traditional grammar approach. It’s not your fault and there’s a solution. A solution that, ironically, will make you enjoy the process while you truly acquire your target language.
Let’s get started with the reasons why it hasn’t worked out so far for you.
WHY HAS IT NOT WORKED OUT SO FAR?
The main reason why nothing’s worked out so far is the fact that every single course, strategy, app… is based on consciously learning the language and its grammar rules. You may sign up for really traditional courses that don’t help you at all or you may also bump into more flexible courses that look for alternative solutions with the best of intentions in order to improve the experience and the results, but at the end of the day, most of them are based on the same idea: learning the language consciously.
What do I mean by consciously learning the language? I’m talking about basing our progress and our knowledge of the language on memory and the conscious or measurable knowledge of it, that is, on wanting to somehow have conscious control over everything we know. Let me give you some examples so you get a better picture.
I believe you can get this idea more clearly in traditional grammar courses in which we consciously learn the grammar rules of the language and memorize vocabulary lists, hoping that it’ll help us improve our knowledge. I’ve already mentioned several times that the problem is that we need to consciously think about everything we want to say when facing a real life conversation, and we just don’t have it in that case.
We’ve also watched and bumped into courses and videos that are based on things like “The 5 most common greetings in Spanish” or “How to order in a restaurant in English”. We’ve all seen examples of those and I’m sure we can think of many more. Although they could be useful in a particular situation and I believe they were created with the best of intentions, we’re once again talking about consciously learning the language. They’re based on our memory and the “measurable” or conscious knowledge of certain words, phrases or structures.
I’ve already talked several times about how “amazed” I was by a particular situation I used to experience when I first live in Poland. I used to ask my friends, “how do you say this or that in Polish?”. The unbelievable thing here is I’d forget the word just a couple of minutes later. I’m not talking about a week or a month, I’m talking about a couple of minutes!! What is even funnier is that the exact same thing would happen to all my non-Polish friends and I’m pretty sure you can all relate to that situation.
My first reaction was always to think “What the f… is going on here?”, and I also thought that it was my fault and that I was dumb or any other similar belief. Now I know that the problem is that we’re talking about conscious knowledge, but I was really amazed at that time.
I believe this is a pretty illustrative example of why consciously learning the language just doesn’t get it done and why so many people end up giving up on languages believing that it’s their fault, that they just don’t have talent for languages… Does it ring a bell?
The problem obviously comes from thinking that the conscious grammar approach is the way to learn a language, and not from the particular features of each individual.
Let’s get to a new example. We all know about the famous and trendy language learning apps. Although they certainly improve a traditional grammar class’ experience and I believe they were created with the best of intentions once again, they’re also based on consciously learning the language.
They’re based on consciously learning certain words and phrases and translating different structures. Although they’re certainly funnier and more interesting than traditional grammar classes, they’ll be of no help when it comes to actually communicating in a real life, because once again we’ll need to consciously access them every time we want to talk.
I actually used some of this apps myself to learn Polish at the beginning and even got all the way through in one of them. As you can imagine though, none of it helped me be able to actually communicate in real life. This is just a personal opinion with no research to back it up, but I’m convinced that when it comes to Polish or any other language that is very different from your mother tongue, you could consciously study the language for 20 years and you wouldn’t get anywhere.
With that being said, I do believe the conscious knowledge from this apps can help you in a particular situation as I said before, and even to get used to the sounds of the language, ultimately making real life speech a little more comprehensible. But it’s never going to help you actually use the language and communicate effectively.
Because we’ve tried it all and we still can’t use the language, we end up believing that it’s our fault, we tell ourselves that we’re just not good at languages, and end up giving up.
This traditional conscious approach makes us believe that we should be able to produce what we’ve consciously learnt before, and pretty much from day one, and that’s why frustration comes up. This is just not possible because the process doesn’t work like that.
We’ve already seen why it hasn’t worked out so far and the reassuring fact that none of it is our fault, so let’s get now with what we can do to finally acquire our target language.
HOW ARE LANGUAGES ACTUALLY ACQUIRED?
Through getting comprehensible input in context, our brain or the language mechanism in our brain processes the language, makes associations and builds a mental representation of it. After getting multiple repetitions of certain words, phrases, structures... , we’ll finally acquire them subconsciously and our ability to speak will start to show up. To put it all in a simple way, we improve when we understand what is being said to us (I’m talking about the message and not about every single one of the words).
As strange as this may sound, we just have to look at the example of kids and their native languages once again. They get comprehensible input in context all the time (it is comprehensible due to their parents’ effort through simple language, the use of gestures...) for more than a year, until they’re ready to start speaking. And when they’re ready to start speaking, their speech is natural and spontaneous, they don’t need to consciously think about what they want to say. And that’ll be the case for the rest of their lives. We all acquired our mother tongue that way and our speech is always spontaneous, and we don’t need to consciously think about what we want to say. It’d be extremely tiring otherwise.
Through this process, the language mechanism in our brain also develops the grammar rules without having to consciously learn them. If you pay close attention to it, our brain also develops a kind of feeling of correctness that is totally independent from the conscious knowledge of the language. Have you not had that feeling of “this just doesn’t seem or sound right”, despite not consciously knowing the grammar rule?. Even with foreign languages. This is all a result of simply getting comprehensible input.
So what can I do to get comprehensible input in real life?
WHAT I CAN DO TO MAKE THE PROCESS WORK?
First of all, any language class that is based on the right principles will be an appropriate resource. The TPRS method, for instance, is mostly based on stories in which the student’s attention is focused on the message and communication, and not form or the language itself. Because the student is focused on the details of the story and on finding out what’s going to happen next, the language is truly acquired subconsciously (as long as the input is comprehensible, of course).
Reading books and watching movies, series, sport events… we’re interested in, are also wonderful resources in order to keep improving. Obviously, these resources need to be comprehensible for our improvement to come about, and interesting so our attention is focused on the message and our motivation remains sky high. You just need to keep the principles of Free Voluntary Reading in mind and rule out anything that you don’t find comprehensible and interesting. Then, you just need to find something easier. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just means you haven’t gotten to that point yet.
Making language exchanges with people from other countries is also a wonderful resource in order to keep improving, as long as we keep those principles in mind and the message is comprehensible.
Does this sound better than the traditional grammar approach?. Ironically, all these resources are way more effective.
Right now, I’m pretty close to being able to communicate in a 6th language, and believe me when I say that I don’t waste a single minute of my time consciously study languages and their grammar rules. I’m telling you all this to try to convince you that not only is it possible to learn any language, but it can also be a pleasant journey.
I’ve also been in the situation in which I tried everything in order to learn languages with the traditional conscious approach and now I’ve been able to see the difference in motivation, attitude, pleasure and, ultimately, results. A difference between almost giving up and finding out that languages are actually my passion. What a huge difference the right approach made in my life!
I truly hope this article has helped you realize that there’s hope for everyone and that we can ALL acquire ANY language while enjoying the process and regardless of our individual features or skills. I’ll be happy to answer all your questions, suggestions, opinions... in the comments section below.