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vendredi 21 janvier 2011

Why you need to visit the country where your target language is spoken (and why it isn’t as scary as it seems)

Heidelberg, a picturesque town in Germany


Up until recently, I’ve been a bit of a language scaredy-cat. Sure, I’ve studied 5 foreign languages, but these were mainly in the classroom and at University. Okay, okay, I’ll admit I’m one of those people who enjoys putting up their hand and answering a question and getting it right. There’s something really comforting about knowing there is a right and a wrong answer to a question – particularly with grammar: learn the rules, learn the exceptions, and you’re kind of there.

Unfortunately, languages aren’t really a subject that can be put into neat formulas and rules, because they aren’t dead. Languages are living squirmy things that are constantly changing, and not just that, they are constantly being used in different ways by their speakers.

I’ll never forget when I first went to Germany on a high school exchange with my school when I was 14. I’d been studying German for almost four years, and was towards the top of my class. I got the grammar, knew some handy ways of saying some things, and was good at memorizing vocabulary for class presentations. Boy was I in for a shock.

Those nicely paced recordings of Germans talking slowly and patiently in the audio lab? Gone. Replaced were these people who spoke German as fast as I spoke English – that was hardly fair was it?! My brain took so long to sluggishly process one sentence, that by that time I had understood what might have been said, the speakers were onto another topic. And in shops and other places, these people didn’t follow the nice scripts we’d followed in class. They skipped words; used completely different phrases; and had pronunciations so different that I didn’t even recognize some of the words that I did know!

Fortunately, the Germans I met were all very friendly and helpful to this startled 14 year old who had had her language knowledge brutally pushed into perspective, and of course, a lot of them could speak English.

The point is however, that I ended up learning so much in one week of being in Germany. And it wasn’t just about the quantity learnt – it’s also the skills. Grammar is important, particularly if you are studying German, but more important is trying to create language spontaneously and without fear of making a mistake. I also began to learn to not try to understand every single word spoken, but to try to keep up with the conversation, and try piecing together the words I had recognized. These are extremely important language skills, because you are never going to immediately zoom to Advanced level. For a considerable amount of time you will be in an Intermediate level, a liminal state hovering between understanding and complete confusion! But these skills are also the best way of learning – the more you speak and listen, the more words become recognizable and then actively useable by your brain.

Since leaving school, I’ve spent a year in Norway, five weeks in a Middle Eastern country, and now I’m living in Belgium. In each case, and even on shorter vacations, I’ve always noticed the sudden acceleration in language learning as soon as I’ve arrived in the native country.

This is not discounting the role of schools however. At the moment I’m supplementing my time in Belgium with French evening classes. Language classes provide the excellent opportunity to be corrected in your language (your new friends will often find it difficult to correct you, no matter how much you plead); to learn patterns of grammar which help you quickly understand certain structures of the language; to target specific vocabulary that you may not encounter in your current day-to-day life. You’ll often notice that when having conversations with native speakers you are racing to become understood, and then accuracy can often go out the window as long as you are communicating with the other person. Sometimes native speakers can detect that you speak English, and are very difficult to convince to speak their native language if your level isn’t good enough. Teachers also have many great tips for making the most of your stay in the country, and being native speakers, can often help explain all those bizarre idiomatic expressions you’ve heard being flung around.

What’s really great about language schools in the native country is that they often teach solely in the native language giving you as much practice under the supervision of the teacher as possible. Teachers in language schools also are often trained to make lessons as interactive and fun as possible, taking into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners, and using alternative teaching methods. They know that any language you learn in the classroom will be put into practice instantly as soon as you leave at the end of the day. Some classes even have cultural outings, taking the teaching outside of the classroom.

So go on guys: get out there! Brave yourself and head to the native country of the language you are learning! And if it's a bit daunting for you, remember that you can always use language schools to make that immersion much easier. Watch this space for some tips and information about language schools and how best to use them.