Saturday, 7 April 2012

Patience is a virtue - for language learners

Yesterday I wrote a post about overhearing a bad-tempered, impatient English teacher practically bullying a Turkish-speaking student into buying books he didn't want (and maybe couldn't afford), and the experience has got me thinking a great deal about the character traits which are an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to teaching and learning a language.  Today I want to think about patience, from the perspective of the language learner.

Firstly, learning a language takes time.  Lots of time.  Lots and lots of time.  Even learning enough of a language to visit a country as a tourist does not happen overnight.  Learning enough English to achieve an IELTS score of 7.5 (which some of my students have needed in the past to do certain Master's degrees) takes an awful lot of very hard work, some of it quite tedious.  Many aspects of learning language are great fun, but most people (myself included) do not particularly enjoy doing endless practice exams, over and over again until the exam techniques and strategies have become so automatic that the required score is within our grasp.  You really do need to be patient if day after day you get a disappointing score, and also very determined to keep going and keep trying.  

Secondly, it's very hard to define what it means to 'know' a language, or 'speak' a foreign language.  I have a degree in German, and I am happy to say that I can read pretty much anything in German and know what it means.  There are, however, many things 'wrong' with my German.  For a start, there are several sounds in spoken German that I find very difficult to reproduce, and the result of this is that I have a very noticeably English accent when I speak German.  For another thing, although my 'passive' vocabulary is excellent - I can understand almost everything which is spoken or written - my 'active' vocabulary is horribly limited - I just can't remember enough vocabulary quickly enough to speak with the fluency and accuracy I long for.  But compared to my knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian.... well, my German is brilliant in comparison.    If I compare my knowledge of one language to another language I know, or my language to someone else's ability in that language, I can only make myself miserable.  Language learning is a journey, not a destination.  If you aren't prepared to patiently enjoy the journey, and laugh at your mistakes and forgetfulness, you are in for a disappointing ride.  

Finally, 'learning' a language is not like learning to do many other things.  I remember needing to teach my son how to put on his school tie when he was five years old - although he found it difficult for the first few minutes, within half an hour or so he could knot his tie perfectly, and nineteen years later he can still do it perfectly, even though he now rarely wears a tie.  Most people never forget how to tie a tie, lace their shoes or ride a bike.  It's also true that you never totally forget the language you have learned in the past, but sometimes it gets buried very, very deeply in your memory, to the point that you feel it is totally gone.  However, if you patiently work through some beginners' books, you will find that things start coming back to you - slowly at first, but more quickly as time goes on.  If it took you three years to get to a certain level in the past, you will almost certainly get back to that level in a fraction of the time - but it will come slowly at first.  In an ideal world you would never stop practising your languages, and you would never lose your fluency and accuracy.  In the real world, life moves on and what was your priority one year will be pushed aside the next, often for very good and exciting reasons.  You can do anything you want with the free time available to you, but you can't do everything - there are only so many hours in the day.

So I've stopped fretting about my 'terrible' French, Spanish and Italian, and how much German I've forgotten.  Because Steve and I are planning to be in Berlin for three months in 2013, German has become very important to me again, and I'm really, really enjoying reading novels and an advanced coursebook - now that I've stopped being impatient with myself about how much I've forgotten!


  1. Again, fantastic advice Julia! :-)

  2. I was frustrated for my English because I got a bad mark in a test that I thought I would pass, so I googled "learning a language patience" and I've found this entry and I must say that everything you said is the real truth. To make matters worse, patience is overrated nowadays. You made my day giving me the necessary encouragement and you taught me to relax at such a longlife learning. Thanks Julia =) I will read you more!