New Year, New Language

Maybe you need to learn French to show proof of proficiency for a Swiss Permit. Perhaps you require a B2 certification to pursue your profession in this country. Or it could be that you simply want to be able to say something more than ’Bonjour’ to the waiter at your local café.

Whatever your motivation, Alex Ginsburg, has advice for her fellow La Chât parents on how to go about achieving your language goals.

Alex, what is your expertise in this field?

In addition to learning a number of languages myself, I was a language teacher for ten years, and ran a language school in Coppet for seven, before selling the business. Over that time I have gathered a lot of experience of what works and of what doesn’t for adult learners.

So what are the key considerations for someone wanting to start language lessons?

First and foremost, have a very clear objective for your learning, and make sure that you tell the language school/ teacher what that is. A good teacher will ask you, but you would be surprised at how many don’t. What you want to achieve will determine the approach to be taken, and the materials used. For example, if you want to achieve your B1 as quickly as possible, for Swiss citizenship, that will require a different teaching method than if you want to improve  your conversation skills. It can  be very frustrating, not to mention expensive, to end up in a group with different objectives to yours, or having bought materials which don’t meet your needs.

Secondly, be realistic about the time required to get to a point of competence.  If you are learning a new language from scratch, don’t start unless you have time to dedicate, on a regular basis, for at least four months. It takes time to learn the basics, and if the learning is stop-start at the beginning, the basics have to be re-learned over and over, which is a waste of time and energy. It’s like going to the gym – if you want to get linguistically fit, you need to exercise regularly! Once you have basic ‘fitness’, further learning is much easier. You should also be aware that, with a new language, the first 3-4 lessons are great, because you go from nothing to something very quickly. However, it can then feel like you are on a plateau for a very long time – that’s completely normal; in fact, it takes 40-60 hours of lesson time to go from one level to another, eg A2 to B1. So don’t get disheartened, stick with it.

The other important factor is choosing your teacher carefully. Liking your teacher, and feeling a connection with them is particularly important for adult learners. Unlike children, who have no choice but to go to school, adults regularly drop out if they aren’t enjoying their lessons. Also, adult learners are often less confident than children about speaking out, maybe because they are worried about seeming foolish in front of others. It is important to find a teacher who makes learning fun for you, and with whom you feel comfortable and respected. The ideal teacher is someone who has had a number of years of teaching experience to draw on – they will already have seen most of the mistakes that pupils make and can explain how to avoid them. If the teacher also speaks other languages, all the better, because they too will have been a student, and they can bring that understanding to their teaching.

Take care to find the right teacher. (Photo – Pixabay)

So how can someone find the right teacher?

Ask for recommendations, especially from people who have similar learning objectives to yours. Ask other parents – the Parent-to-Parent Facebook page is good for that. You could always ask for a trial lesson, before you commit.

What is your view on group lessons versus one-to-one lessons, or lessons via Skype?

People usually learn faster in a one-to-one. There’s no choice but to speak, and the lessons are tailored to your needs. I believe that personal contact is better than virtual contact, although I think that Skype is a good solution if you miss a few lessons and want continuity. If you are time-pressed, and Skype is the only viable option, make sure your lessons are with someone who is well used to working this way, and well versed in how to manage the logistics – emailing stuff in advance, correcting homework virtually, etc.

Groups can be more fun, and cost-effective, than personal tuition. You also learn from other people’s questions and mistakes. I would recommend classes of no more than six students, the ideal being around four. More than this, and you have few opportunities to speak, plus it can be difficult to build a relationship with the teacher.

Once someone has found the right  teacher, what are the factors which influence the speed of learning?

There are factors which you can’t change, and those which you can. For example, if you are well-used to studying, already speak a number of languages, and use your brain everyday to deal with complex issues or concepts, then you are at an advantage when it comes to picking up a new language quickly.

However, everyone can speed up their learning by:

  • Practicing –   We memorise by strengthening our neural connections – the more we revise something, the stronger the connection, and the more likely that we are to remember it. Doing a little bit of work everyday is better than a blitz once a week. The more effort that you put in, the quicker you will improve.
  • Talking – As soon as you have a few words, use them. This, after all, is the ultimate goal. Don’t wait to have a certificate to start – the longer you wait, the harder it will become. Choose a friendly environment and begin.
  • Setting targets – Even if you don’t need a particular DELF level, doing the exam will help to focus your effort; plus it’s rewarding and encouraging to succeed in gaining that certificate – it shows you that you’re going somewhere. Even if you don’t want to do an exam, you should still set yourself a goal to motivate yourself; eg read a book in that language, speak in the language on holiday, etc.
  • Learning in an environment with few distractions – The ideal is to have your lessons somewhere which is adapted to learning, like a language school. If that’s not possible, ensure that it’s an environment where you won’t be thinking about the work call which might arrive, or the washing machine that needs to be emptied, and where you can focus.
  • Finding the right book and method – Your teacher should advise on this. Don’t try to use your old school books – things have moved on; approaches have improved, and themes have changed. Also, focussing on how much you’ve forgotten is never motivating! Books aimed at adults will also be more interesting than those for children.
Improve your language skills by listening to the radio. (Photo – Pixabay)

What other, more informal things can people do to help themselves to learn?

  • Listen to the radio – the news is good to listen to, since you’ll have a general idea of what’s being discussed already. Plus you can listen to it again and again throughout the day, improving your understanding each time. I recommend France Info for French – they speak very well and cover interesting subjects.
  • Watch movies, even with subtitles
  • Watch TV – you can even watch familiar series dubbed into  the language that you’re learning, e.g. Friends or Greys Anatomy. For French, the Swiss RTS is good, because they speak more slowly. On the French channels, they tend to speak very quickly, using lots of slang and jokes, which can be hard to follow.
  • Write a small paragraph for your lesson each week, even if you’re not given this as homework. This will quickly get you used to writing..
  • Talk to yourself – it’s particularly helpful to rehearse in your head before you need to say something – it primes your brain before interaction. Listening to something in the relevant language has the same effect – like heating up your muscles before running.
  • Read magazines – the school library and local libraries have a selection. Good options for French are Hebdo, and 20 Minutes. Magazines help you to develop the  vocabulary to express opinions and talk about your experience.
  • Keep a journal – buy a notebook, and everyday write a thought about the day. This spurs your thoughts about things that you would like to say, and focuses you on the gaps that you need to fill.

Any final words for La Chât adult learners?

It’s going to take time, but learning a language is a great thing to do, not least because it helps to keep your brain healthy and working well. Enjoy the journey.

Interviewed by: Olive Fenton.

Featured Photo: Pixabay 

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