I can’t believe there are people who think you’ll learn a new language properly by doing the things I’m going to write about. And yet when I look on the internet, I find a lot of ‘advice’ recommending that you do exactly these things. But the only thing that’s clear is that the person giving the advice knows little about language learning. Many of these nuggets of wisdom are pretty much on the level of conspiracy theories. Some are partially true, but they often omit important information. Let me provide that information for you!
A. “You can learn languages in your sleep.”
[Big sigh] For goodness sake! How can anyone in their right mind possibly believe this cr… this crazy notion. And yet if you look at the most popular internet searches, very high on the list is ‘learn French in your sleep’ or ‘learn German while you sleep’. And if you look on YouTube you will find channels that simply read out an endless list of words, first in the foreign language, then in English and you are supposed to go to sleep with your device playing and hey presto, in the morning you will have ‘internalized’ all the words. Quatsch! Ordures! Rubbish! Whilst sleeping, your conscious mind switches off. You don’t normally hear or understand words while you are asleep.
It’s true, I have had dreams in German when I left the radio on and I incorporated the voices coming out of the radio into my dream. I even had a conversation with Angela Merkel on one occasion.I am able to do that because I know German already.
You cannot learn a new language while you are asleep. Und jetzt Schluss admit! Ça suffit! And that’s enough of that!
My advice: Do individual or group tuition combined with effective and structured self-study. Tip: Make sure you are awake!
B. “Learn from word lists.”
The ‘learn in your sleep’ YouTube channels that I checked out (for about five seconds) used word lists as a way to learn a language. And there are many people who believe word lists are the best primary method of learning new vocabulary. This method has been used in the past. In my French classes, we had to learn 10 new words a day. Then the teacher would walk around the class and ask each student to produce the word – in French – if we didn’t know or got it wrong, he would give a sharp tweak to our sideburn.
It doesn’t work and there are some important reasons for this.
1. Words are only truly memorable when they are used within a specific context or situation. Words were created to carry meaning. If the word is taken out of its context and loses its meaning, it is more difficult to learn. Yes, it’s still possible to learn, but an out-of-context word will have probably have dropped out of your conscious memory within a few days.
2. The second reason why learning words in a list is not the right thing to do is that very often, words have multiple meanings or shades of meaning. The meaning is only clear when the word is in context. For instance, the word ‘der Schlag’ in German has multiple meanings. The basic meaning, usually listed first in the dictionary, is ‘hit’ or ‘blow’ but there are shades of meaning, such as ‘blow’, ‘punch’ or unrelated meanings including ‘whipped cream’, ‘mould’ and ‘flared trousers’. Which of these are you going to choose for your word list?
The answer is: Don’t learn initially from word lists! Learn new words in the context of a continuous text or dialogue. Where word lists can be useful is as a checklist after you’ve learned them, maybe in preparation for an exam.
C. “Just speak it and you’ll soon learn.”
I hear this advice very often indeed, but it’s wrong, or at least, it’s only part of the truth. When I hear that advice, my question is. “If you’re going to speak it, where are you going to find out the words to use?’ Just speaking is not going to help to learn the language. You have to study it first.
However, this advice is not entirely wrong. Speaking is an essential part of using the language. That’s why we learn the language isn’t it? Unless, perhaps, you’re learning Latin. But you have to study the language first. Learn about the words now to pronounce them correctly, learn a little about the grammar. Once you’ve done this, then you can practice speaking.
The best person to practice speaking with is a private tutor who can correct you and explain any mistakes and ask you further conversation questions. A person who is not a tutor, say just a native speaker, may not be able to explain any grammar questions you may have. On many occasions, I’ve asked native speakers why a particular ending or article was used and the response was: “Keine Ahnung” – “no idea”. In my online sessions, carefully structured speaking practice is built into the lesson.
If you want to find a native speaker to chat with, it may be possible to use a service like iTalki, which matches you up with a speaker of the foreign language. You will spend 50% of the time chatting in English and 50% speaking in the foreign language. I’ve heard mixed reports about these services, I will investigate further and review them here.
D. “Just read, read, read and read.”
[Deep sigh] Yes [frustrated tone of voice] yes, reading is a good way of learning and using the language and gaining more experience, experiencing words in their correct context, but there are two problems with just reading.
1. You are not hearing the language. It’s very important to hear the sounds as well as read them on the page. As far as I can see, most of the books don’t have an audio element, they only use one of the communication routes (that’s an expression I use instead of so-called ‘four skills’) – the written medium. Yes, you can read, enjoy the content and gain a lot, but ideally, you should hear the language as well.
In my sessions, I mostly use a combination of the written and spoken language. Students read but they listen as well, either at the same time, or separately.
But there is another problem
2. Finding the right level of material. As well as choosing written material for its subject matter, you have to choose it for its level. Most content that you’ll find in the media is intended for native speakers and is too far above the level of recent beginners. Even for intermediate level learners, making use of the reading material can be very demanding, if it’s complex and uses lots of ‘category 3’ vocabulary , i.e. important but as common as other vocab.
So simply reading, in and of itself, is not enough to learn a language but it is certainly part of the proces of language learning. It’s an integral part of my language learning sessions.
E. “Just go to the country, you’ll soon pick it up.”
How many times have I heard this precious piece of advice, quite often given by people who have never been to the country and never picked the language up? Take it from me. If you go to the country, you won’t “soon pick it up”. You may never pick it up at all!
Who am I referring to? I’m referring to the countless English speakers resident in Spain, France or Germany for many years and hardly know any words in the local language. Why are they not able to do this? Maybe because they heard from someone that if they simply go to to the country, they’ll soon pick it up. It could also be laziness!
Berlin is arguably the best city in Germany, at least for culture, music, political drama and a free lifestyle.
But it is the worst place in Germany to learn German. There are so many English speakers around you, as well as German people who want to practice their English, it’s difficult to find opportunities to use German.
It is necessary to learn the language using some kind of structured programme, maybe a service such as Babbel, which by the way is based in Berlin, or a language course. The Easy German channel is based in Berlin and they offer language courses there.
If you really want to ‘pick up’ the language by being forced to use it by native speakers who can’t speak English, then the best option is to go to a smaller town, perhaps in a rural area. That might have the disadvantage that there are no local language courses available, but you can always learn online.
However, if you are going to go down this route, then choose your town carefully.
Many people not familiar with Germany assume that the German spoken in all parts of Germany is the same. In the south, most areas have their local dialect and if you’re going to pick it up, you may well be picking up a form of German that’s only used in that area.
But there is another reason why ‘just go to the country, you’ll soon pick it up’ is not true.
Suppose you go to the country to do a job, let’s say working in the kitchen of a restaurant, where there’s lots of background noise, maybe music playing. You can’t hear the words properly and you may only pick up parts of sentences, missing important words.
That’s true of social situations as well, conversing with people in a bar or perhaps in a nightclub with loud music pounding away in the background. That’s an extreme example but the point I want to make is: You can’t learn properly unless you study the language carefully, using the written form of the language as well as the spoken form.
This advice is not completely wrong, but it leaves out some important information as well. To learn the language properly, you have to study it. You have to consciously take the time to engage properly with the language, listen to the spoken form, read the written form, memorise the vocabulary, use dictionaries, practice structured dialogues…
Follow a structured course in the language first, then go and practice it in the place where it’s spoken. Then you won’t just ‘pick it up’ – which really means to half learn it – NO, you will actually learn it… properly!
F. “Just watch TV, movies or listen to the radio.”
Watch movies. Yes, this is something you can do as part of your language studies, it can be interesting and entertaining. The further along the path of learning you are, the better. If you’re at intermediate level you should be able to cope with watching a movie and gaining something from it – with or without the subtitles.
But if you’re at beginner level, well yes, you can watch movies, even with the subtitles on, but what will you learn? Fast nichts! Presque rien! Almost nothing! The same goes for the radio. And in the case of radio, you benefit from the pictures, though you are more focused on the words only, which can be a good thing.
And here is one very important point: You need the transcript!
For my language learning sessions, I go to great lengths to obtain the transcript, or I will transcribe it myself.
So my advice is: Yes, at beginner level, yes, do watch movies and listen to the radio a bit, but just treat it as a way of getting a feel for the culture and learning one or two words. It is no substitute for a proper course of study.
And another piece of advice: Carefully study small sections of movies or TV programmes. There are plenty on the internet. They should have properly corrected subtitles, not YouTube autogenerated ones. Movie trailers can be good.
In my sessions I often use short sections of TV programmes as well as films in my classes, complete with transcript and follow up exercises. That’s how you will learn most effectively
G. “If you want to learn a language you need to start when you’re very young.”
This is just about the most useless piece of information there is for adult learners, and I hear it all the time. Yes, if you’re lucky enough to be brought up by parents of different nationalities, then… Du hast Glück! – Vous avez de la chance! you’re lucky.
But that gives no encouragement to adult learners. it implies that you’re wasting your time trying to learn a foreign language if you’re an adult. That is categorically not true.
According to research I’ve seen, it becomes more difficult to absorb a new language from around 12. after that it gets more difficult – but not impossible. I didn’t start learning German until I was 15 years old. Now I have near native speaker competency in the language. How did I do it? That’s a subject for another article.
People sometimes say ‘I wish I’d made more of an effort when I was at school’. But you can’t do anything about that now. That implies that 14 and 15 year olds have a better learning capacity than adults. That might be true in some ways, but in other ways adults have a big advantage. They are better motivated and better organised.
There is no reason why you can’t start to study a language and progress to intermediate level and beyond at any age – from 18, 28 right up to 88 – I once had a student who was that age. Actually, he had emigrated from Austria and had not spoken it on a regular basis for 40 years. And I – in my late 20s, was teaching German to a native German speaker 4 times my age! It was fun and he made very good progress. There is no upper age for learning a language.