What Cats Can Teach Us About Language Learning

In today's article, I have something a little different for you: cat philosophy! Let me introduce you to Abigail.

She doesn't know a single word in any language, but she's super smart.

Abigail is my cat, and her favourite thing is snoozing at home. Every day, she looks out of the window and sometimes she plays in the back yard too. And today Abigail left the house in an unusual way - through the front door! I was chatting to my friend and barely noticed her sneaking out, until I found her visiting our neighbours.

Abigail's Adventure

Abigail's Adventure

A second after this picture was taken, Abigail got spooked. Like us humans, she is a creature of habit. So she raced towards the front door, only to find I had closed it in the meantime.

And this is where my cat totally blew my mind.

This little animal with her tiny brain had a backup. Within seconds, she ran up the street and around the corner to reach our back door. I had no idea Abigail knew where the back door is, yet the map in her head told her exactly where to go.

This story might sound completely nuts to you - you've come to a language blogger, why on earth is she talking about cats? But in that one moment where Abigail's inner map directed her to safety, I remembered how language learners feel.

Sometimes you get lost. You forget how to ask a question when you're meeting a native speaker or trying to show your friends what you can do. Or you use the wrong word order, even after practicing for hours.

In those moments, it's time to consult a map.

What's Your Language Map?

I believe that a grammar is a solid language map.

Learning grammar doesn't mean that you have to be perfect. It doesn't even mean that you have to know the rules. But when you're looking for answers or instructions, grammar is the map that gives you what you need. Good grammar guides are your companion, helping you understand how to speak.

Next time you're confused about how to say something, try and check a good guide and you will find that there's a back door for you just like there was for Abigail.

My Offer of Guidance

Here at Fluent, I have created easy grammar courses in French and German.

Most people worry that grammar is too complicated. But in these courses, I know that you will finally get it. I have taught each of these languages for many years, so I have created a step-by-step process that can help you understand grammar quickly and easily.

If you would like to try this out for yourself, Abigail and I have got a special offer for you. You can claim 10% discount on any grammar course in October 2016 by using the code ABIGAIL10.

How to Get a Place on the Fluent Grammar Courses

Click here to get 10% off "Finally Get It In FRENCH Grammar"

Click here to get 30% off "Easy GERMAN Grammar for Beginners"

To order these courses, simply sign up, select your payment method and you'll be ready to start learning.

Each course costs less than one semester of evening classes, and it will save you hours of time in the library or book shop. If you're ready to get it in grammar and study with me, then there's no better time than now.

Do Your Pets Help You Learn Languages?

If you have a pet or two, I would love to hear more about how they have helped you learn languages? Leave a comment and tell me more about vocab cats or dictionary dogs. Can't wait to hear from you!

Grammar ♥︎ Practice auf Deutsch: 3 Twists That Trip Up German Learners (And How to Overcome Them Easily)

german language lesson

Before I dive deeper into German grammar for this week's useful blog post, I want to take a minute to say "I know!" to all of you who think that German is a hard language to learn. Today's article is about to prove that you guys are not entirely wrong. Yes, the German language has some Tücken (twists).

But read on to discover how to get over each of these twists without ever worrying about them again.

Just like I did in our French Grammar Practice, I've selected 2 topics for German beginners and 1 twist for advanced learners. So there's something here for everyone.

Twist #1: sie is not Sie is not sie

The little words that can take the place of a noun or a name in language are called pronouns. They are placeholders that make it easier for us to communicate - just imagine how that previous sentence would work if I didn't have the words "they" and "us" for example! When you learn a foreign language, you start picking up its pronouns very early.

In German, this is particularly true as the verb doesn't do all that much by itself. The way pronouns are used is pretty similar to English, but here's the sting: 3 German pronouns look similar when they are not similar at all. I'm talking about the word sie, which you'll spot 3 times in the German pronoun table.

Many German learners are aware that Sie is the polite "you" in the German language, addressing a person from a point of distance or respect. It's corresponding to the French vous in this way. But if you think that's all you need to understand sie, it is time to take a look at the full verb table:

german verb table

Sie pops up three times, but each time this word stands for a different person. There is more to it than just the polite "you".

There are three different kinds of sie

  • It stands for the female 3rd person singular pronoun - that's "she" in English

Sie heißt Melanie. - Her name is Melanie.
Das ist meine Schwester. Sie kann auch Spanisch. - This is my sister. She speaks Spanish too.

  • It stands for the 3rd person plural pronoun - that's "they" in English

Sie kommen aus Deutschland. - They are from Germany.
Das sind meine Geschwister. Sie können auch Spanisch. - Those are my siblings. They speak Spanish too.

  • It stands for the polite "you" (grammatically that's also the 3rd person plural, kinda like addressing a royal "we")

Sie kommen aus Deutschland, Frau Krämer. - You are from Germany, Ms Krämer.
Wie heißen Sie? - What is your name?

How To Know The Difference

The first distinction is so easy to spot that I wouldn't even call it a "language hack". When you see Sie and the first letter is a capital letter, it's the polite you. Make sure you use it this way in your writing too.

If you're in a conversation (and you can't hear the capital letter), check out what the verb is doing.

When the verb ends in -t, you're looking at a "she".
When the verb ends in -en, it's most likely "they" or "you"...and then you have to figure out what the sentence is about and take other clues.

Twist #2: Prefixes are Everything

If you're going to learn one thing about German at an early stage, it's that the little things make all the difference. For example, take the concept of the separable verb. At the heart of it, you've got a verb like machen (to make, to do) or kommen (to come). Add a little prefix (usually 2-4 letters) to the verb, and suddenly you've twisted the meaning.

The good news here is that learning prefixes pays off a billion times over, as you'll be able to add them to pretty much any verb going to make yourself understood in spoken German. Prefixes split off when a verb is used in the sentence, so make sure you look out for them at the end of the sentence. So in other words, the final word in a sentence is very important in German. Sometimes it can twist the whole meaning.

Check out the following video from my German Grammar video Course for a detailed explanation.

Here are a few example sentences:
Wir kommen am Freitag. - We're coming on Friday.
Wir kommen am Freitag an. - We're arriving on Friday.
Ich komme heute. Er kommt am Freitag nach. - I'm coming today. He'll follow on Friday.
Wir fahren nach Berlin. Kommst du mit? - We're going to Berlin. Are you coming?

Test Yourself

How many words can you spot that carry the prefix auf? When you think of it's generic meaning "up", how many meanings can you guess from the following list?

  • aufmachen
  • aufgehen
  • aufstehen
  • auflegen

Let me know what your guesses are in the comments.

Twist 3: For Advanced Learners, werden becomes complex

The dictionary meaning of the German verb werden is "to become", plain and simple.

But watch out for two other ways that the verb is used. It teams up with another verb to build two advanced structures.

When werden works with another verb, the sentence structure is always:

Subject + werden + (any adverbs) + (any object) + the other verb

The other verb is what's really happening. If it stands in the infinitiv (that means it's not changed at all from how you find it in the dictionary), the sentence is in the future tense. For example, Ich werde etwas essen means "I will eat something". If it stands in the participle (this is that past tense form with ge-), then you're looking at the passive voice! For example, Etwas wird gegessen is not future tense at all


Ich werde nach Berlin fahren. - I will drive to Berlin.
Ich werde nach Berlin gefahren. - I'm being driven to Berlin.

Ich werde den Käse kaufen. - I will buy the cheese.
Der Käse wird gekauft. - The cheese is being bought.
Der Käse wird gekauft werden - (combining future and passiv) The cheese will be bought.

So whenever your form of werden pops up, pay attention and make sure that you don't end up confusing future and passive. They're pretty different.

How to Escape The Werden Trap

One easy tip to speak German without the pains of werden is to avoid using the future tense altogether. That's what native speakers do all the time, simply using the present tense together with words like morgen (tomorrow) or gleich (in a minute). It's so simple, it's practically Chinese grammar! (Someone once told me Chinese doesn't have conjugation. I was like "whoah"!)

Where To Look For More German Grammar Explanations

If you're studying German grammar in your first year, you will find answers to every grammar question in my video course Easy German Grammar for Beginners. It contains dozens of simple videos, quizzes and workbooks to help you become a confident speaker.

For advanced learners, the best grammar book I know is Deutsche Grammatik, supported by a great website and useful tables. It's helped me explain so many rules in clear terms, and was a support when I made the full video course.

Which Parts of German Grammar Do You Find Tricky?

Word order, verbs, cases...there's a lot to discover in German grammar. Has any of it tripped you up? Let me know in the comments!

Grammar ♥︎ Practice en Français: 3 Sweet Grammar Tricks for Learning French

Get out the macaroons for some sweet sweet grammaire française. Yes, I've got a treat for those of you wanting to take grammar ♥︎ to the next level with a dip into the grammar of a language I've learnt for 20 years: French!

In this post, you're going to learn the essentials of the French language, explained in simple terms that will have you creating your own sentences in minutes. It is a collaboration with Shannon from Eurolinguiste, who is covering how to use the past, present and future tenses in French on Monday.

I have selected 2 topics for beginners and 1 bonus for improvers, meaning that you can study French and crack on with this post at any level.

Beginner Step 1: Using French Nouns

Sentences are made up of different components, but only two of them are absolutely essential:

  • the verbs, telling you about an action
  • the nouns, telling you who is acting and what they're acting with

French nouns come in two gender variations, feminine and masculine. The gender isn't really visible in a word itself, but it has an impact on the kinds of words you have to use around it.

Firstly, make sure you use the right article with your noun. There are definite articles (like the English the) and indefinite articles (like a or an). You have to choose the right one according to the gender, so here it matters if your noun is feminine or masculine.

Quick Guide to French Articles

Quick Guide to French Articles

New French learners find themselves frustrated when they realize that the gender of a noun is impossible to predict. I agree - it's tricky! There are a few good rules, however, that you can use to spot helpful patterns. For example, words ending in -ment are always masculine, words ending in -tion are always feminine, and according to my French teacher in secretary school "all the bad things are masculine" (divorce being her example!).

What If You Get The Gender Wrong?

There is no big penalty for getting the gender of a French noun wrong as you are learning the language. In fact, it happens all the time! Native speakers will not think that you are bad at speaking French because even after decades it's still difficult to assign every gender correctly.

###Easiest "language hack"?

Just ask: ...c'est féminin où masculin, s'il vous plaît?" (is that feminine or masculine, please?).

Beginner Step 2: Using French Adjectives

Adjectives are descriptive words (for example grand meaning big), and you can just pick those out of the dictionary...and then you've got to change them according to the gender of the noun. So in other words, the adjective will always be looking to its big noun brother.

A bit like that kid who hangs out with the stronger kid in the playground and shouts "yeah right!" every time the big kid does some thing. The agreement also covers if the words are in singular and plural

Here is a Quick Reference List of the Rules

  • When the adjective usually ends in a consonant, the feminine version will take an extra -e at the end. For example, grand and grande.
  • When the adjective ends in -eux, the feminine version will be -euse. For example, heureux and heureuse.
  • When it ends in -ien, the feminine version is -ienne, like in ancien and ancienne.
  • When the adjective already ends in an -e, it doesn't change. Bonus! For example, jeune stays the same.

Here are a few helpful words that you can use to describe yourself. The French for "I am" is Je suis. Try it!

Quelle est ta nationalité? - Je suis..

  • anglais, -e - English
  • allemand, -e - German
  • américain, -e - American
  • canadien, -ne - Canadian
  • autrichien, -ne - Austrian

French Grammar for Improvers: Contracted Articles

Shortly after learning the essentials such as nouns, verbs and adjectives, it's time to get into details. French has so many little details that make it sound prettier!

In fact, I have a French textbook from 1948 at home which was owned by my grandfather during the French occupation of Germany. And this book starts with some ground rules of French. Rule number one: Wohlklang, the principle that everything in French has to sound nice. Hah!

Here's what that has to do with French articles. You already know how to say articles from the table above. But here's something you might not realize. Every time the article connects with the words de (of/from) or à (at/to), the two little words try to connect and form a contracted article.

French Contracted Articles in 7 Minutes

Learn the details of how this works in the following video, featuring Kerstin in the summer!

So as you can see, the French grammar really strongly revolves around this idea of sounding nice...well no, actually it's all about your noun being feminine and masculine and this concept determines how the words around it are arranged. Check out Shannon's partner post to learn about the other essential in a French sentence: the verb!

How to Know if You Should Use à or de with a verb

While grammar has many rules that help us avoid memorizing, the case of "how the verb connects to the next word" has to be learnt with a good verb list or table. Those little connecting words are called prepositions, and they cannot be translated directly. When you look up one of the little ones in the dictionary, you're likely to find about 5 meanings.

So for example, "be interested in" is s'intéresser à but "look forward to" is s'attendre à, giving the French word à two different meanings. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I was lucky to have a teacher who put a lot of stress on learning the verbs with their connectors right from the start, so that I never developed a big gap. The verbs that connect directly to the next verb are called "pure infinitive", and the other groups are "infinitive with de" and "infinitive with à". If you're a self-teaching French learner at an early stage, do yourself a favour and study them too.

My go-to reference for everything about French verbs is the Bescherelle L'Art de Conjuguer. In my version (the German one), the relevant lists are in section 164 of the grammar part. Very handy!

Like This Post? Check Out The Full Course

If you loved this blog post, you will undoubtedly enjoy learning French with me in Easy French Grammar for Beginners.

This course contains all the explanations that I wish I had had when I first started out. It's plain and simple, putting things in straightforward terms that just make sense.

Several learners have already written to me with gratitude because the course finally helped them understand complicated concepts.

I'd love for you to try it out, and you can do so right here.

5 Grammar Learning Techniques To Make You a Language Natural

Let's hear it for the structure, the building blocks and road maps of language in my blog's grammar ♥︎ season. Exploring language patterns gives you depth, context, and answers.

Today I'm sharing a handful of ways in which you can become a better language learner without ever memorizing a whole verb table.

grammar for language learning

How Can Grammar Be Your Ally When Motivation Goes South?

Language learning follows the curve of excitement that you can find in many new projects. First there is a real burst of activity and motivation, bumping you up to emotional highs. This is where app streaks get completed, flashcards are interesting, and you're out there telling the world about your project. It is the perfect time to buy stationery.

After a little bit of time, your notebook is half full and your brain feels tired. Progress becomes invisible. The first burst of excitement gives way to a recognition of the gaps that you still have, and you find yourself having to memorize quite a lot in a short time. It gets frustrating, demotivating, it kinda sucks. This is where you go online and read my blog and I tell you that you're awesome and you must! not! stop!

The frustration point is where discipline and organization have to kick in.What you might not realize is that this very point of plateau is the perfect time to start speaking to people in your target language. You might not be entirely ready yet, but that's ok. Perfection isn't required anyway.

If you have only been studying stock phrases and vocabulary so far, you will reach that point of plateau with NOTHING.

But with just a small amount of key grammar structures like knowing how to say a sentence in the present tense, or how to ask a question, your range of expression will become immense. This is the magic of using grammar as your roadmap.

How Can You Learn and Remember Grammar Structures?

I know how bloody boring all grammar can be if you study it in the wrong way. In fact, I know that even the word "grammar" sounds like an instant yawn.

But maybe you can find a way of sneaking in a little bit of that goodness without losing all will to exist. Here are 5 steps that work for me every time, and I know that you'll feel so much better once you get going with them.

1. Observe and Record

Observing natural inputs is one of your biggest allies for developing the right feel for a language. Learners from anywhere can use the internet to do this in millions of ways. My own students do it by listening to the news on their drive to work, tuning in to German podcasts, or watching cool German TV shows like Deutschland 83.

Classic ideas to get you started:

  • Play Pattern Bingo by making a note of any sentence you spot in one week that follows a rule you've recently learnt.

  • If you're reading, work with a colour-coding system, for example the traffic light system. Constructions you know are in green, the ones you aren't sure about are in yellow, and the ones where you're completely lost are in red. And don't worry. Everyone's got an all-red page at some point.

2. Cut the Negative Talk

Negative self-talk in language learning is nobody's friend. So the more you dread the g-word and the more you resist, the harder it gets to make sense of even the most basic structures. Just like we're doing here in grammar ♥︎ season, it's helpful to create an atmosphere of positivity in your language learning.

For a few ideas about how exactly you might do this when faced with a conjugation rule, try Fluent's fabulous set of language affirmations.

3. Force Yourself to Speak or Write..

It doesn't matter where you live, or if you can afford lessons, or if you are an eskimo living on the moon. As soon as you observe a new pattern, challenge yourself to use it quickly and make it your own. You should be writing or speaking at least 3 sentences in your target language every day. In a guided scenario, you have a tutor or a great course to prompt what you are working on. But it's just as good to take the notes you made in point 1 of this list and start building your own variations on set pieces.

4. ...and Get Feedback

Yep, even though you're now producing language you're not even done yet. Whatever you write, say or record has got to go out to another human. Find a person that you trust to make you feel positive and support you fully in the language learning journey. They should not be allowed to make you feel bad for making mistakes.

My advice is always to make that person someone who has studied your target language extensively, ideally a 1-to-1 tutor. The reason is that whenever you make a mistake, your curiosity perks up. You'll want to know more, and good teaching means explaining how something works, and prompting you gently so that you can do it correctly and adopt new patterns.

5. Leave Grammar Books to Your Tutor

By now, you've probably learnt that the most important killer trick for learning grammar is to leave the hard study to your tutor. If they are good, and if they are as fanatic about language as possible, then they may already have read the book from cover to cover. The key here is that the tutor is a great resource for you, because it creates a trusted environment where someone can explain to you why the language behaves a certain way.

Wield That Grammar Force

I haven't seen a lot of Star Wars. But as a pop culture aware person, I do know one thing: Star Wars films talk a lot about the Force. Wikipedia tells you:

The Force is a binding, metaphysical, and ubiquitous power.

The story of the force contains a dark side, of course. You can't just go and start wielding it all willy-nilly or you'll end up like that guy Darth Vader.

Now, I admit that knowing how to name words and conjugate verbs isn't exactly going to power anyone's lightsabre. But just like the Force, the key to mastering grammar is in learning how to use it for your own purposes.

Some learners are curious and want to know the exact rules of language. Others just want to get a feeling for how to do things correctly.

Which one are you?

Find Amazing Books and Courses for Mastering Language Structures

Woo hoo, welcome to part 2 of our Grammar ♥︎ Season here on Fluent. Previously, I gave you 3 ways to create a simple language learning routine without getting bored about grammar.

Today, let's turn our attention to the tools of the trade. Grammar can be learnt in so many different ways, and there are MILLIONS of tools out there. Some people love the pull out section in their dictionary (I'm so 90s). Others love automated study with tools like the rather excellent Reverso Conjugator.

What Makes A Grammar Resource Useful?

No matter what it is that you're going to use, your grammar resource should always fulfil the following key criteria.

Good Grammar Resources are:

  • Easy to Use
  • Easy to Access
  • Focused on one specific purpose (like "explaining" or "memorizing")
  • User-Friendly
  • Designed to Be Used Instantly

I think the image of a grammar table as this horrific torture device that students must learn to recite by heart is DONE. In a modern, self-taught and independent study routine, grammar becomes your door to speaking to people.

The purpose is a particularly relevant point for me. Sometimes you'll just want to look up an ending, other times you need context and answers. Not everyone enjoys the idea that having a grammar book on the shelf can come in handy, so the trick is really to treat these like an ace that you have up your sleeve. I don't ever read up on things in grammar books at the start of a lesson, but man am I ever glad that they're around when I get stuck.

For Example, Here's How Duolingo Can Be Your Grammar Question Map

Imagine you're working on your target language by building up skill trees on Duolingo. Duolingo is a funny little language learning system. Millions of language learners are using it every day, filling in gaps, learning sentence structures, and listening to that computer voice.

Maybe you know that I have voiced criticisms of Duolingo before, but one thing I do like is the way it builds sentences using a technique of patterns is useful. The app doesn't explain a lot of stuff, though the website has improved a lot in that respect.

Think of the structures Duolingo generates as a signpost pointing you at exactly what it is that you can study.

Every time you ask yourself why your app did a thing, it's time to dive in and investigate. This may be odd at first because it puts the responsibility of learning on you, but it is guaranteed to give you the best high-speed learning journey.

So the question here is not "is Duolingo perfect and useful?", but "where can I look up the answer to this question?"

Come and Join Our Webinar

As I mentioned above, I'm teaming up with Shannon from Eurolinguiste to give you a complete guide to finding the right grammar resources so you can

  • learn faster
  • start speaking earlier, and
  • avoid being tripped up by big gaps after an initial sprint.

To sign up, simply let me know your email address on my special Grammar ♥︎ Season page, and I'll reserve a spot for you right away.

3 Unexpectedly Easy Ways To Simplify Language Learning

In this article, you're invited to explore with me how to experience a little bit of love for the structure of language. We'll focus on how to put words together and construct sentences. In other words, you'll learn an awful lot about starting to speak a language.

Now before you all click away from my blog because the word "grammar" has scared you of, let's give this a chance and discover a few joyful sides to grammar.

3 Unexpectedly Easy Ways To Simplify Language Learning

1) Never Start With the Grammar Book

Last week, a friendly lady at my community Welsh class gave me a book she found second-hand. It's called "Modern Welsh Grammar". The worst thing I could possibly do with it is to read it from start to finish, because it would quickly become overwhelming, dull and complicated.

Instead, here's what to do:

Grammar books and courses are designed to solve problems by answering your questions as they come up. So as I'm studying and listening, as I start to wonder how to say someting in past tense, or how to talk about "he is nice" and not just "I am nice", that's when the book will start fulfiling its purpose.

In my German Grammar Course and my French Grammar Course, the structure is carefully set up to guide you through learning from complete beginner to confident speaker. But I've been careful to make every lecture count as an independent resource too. This is because I want you to follow your own path in learning, and those explanations will be right there when you need them.

2) Take Control of How Good You Are

Certain language learning systems will have you believe that the best way to learn a language is to study "naturally, like a small child". In fact, it's a hugely common myth that it's infinitely harder for adults to learn a language than for kids. This myth has led to courses that treat adults as if they were babies, incapable of understanding logic or structure.

Learning like a grown-up means taking control and working what grammar offers.

Notice that I'm not using the word "study" here. Learning a language doesn't mean becoming a slave to tables and books. It means analyzing, trying, playing and growing into things.

Grammar tables are not useless - they can handy tools to keep around when you haven't quite memorized everything yet. But the key is to stop being a slave to grammar, and start making it your building block.

3) Speak the Language Instantly and Playfully

The most important mindset change you can have in language learning is to start understanding how grammar serves you. Armed with simple knowledge about the structure of your target language, your abilities become absolutely incredible.

You can say infinite sentences with just 20-30 vocab words.

Good grammar will help you eliminate that fear of saying wrong things, and provide construction blocks and patterns, so that all you need to do is start filling in the blanks.

Beyond giving you confidence, it's actually fun. You'll quickly realise that speaking in this way is the most playful, creative language learning imaginable. No more restrictions to phrasebooks. You can now go out and speak to anyone, make those sentences, express yourself with more freedom than ever before. And if you make a mistake, you'll now know why and how to fix it.

Do you feel the Grammar Groove?

To make sure you don't miss out on all that is happening at Fluent , come and join the Fluent Language Newsletter where I always announce my news and best tips first.

Should You Study Russian and German At University?

It has been one year since the last occasion of A-Level results coming out in the UK. If you're not familiar with the system in this country, here's a quick summary. A-Level exams are the school leaving exams that determine a student's future path at university. The courses are chosen by subject and after age 16 none are compulsory, so students choose whichever subject they feel most passionate about. Last year, my guest blogger Tom Pandolfino wrote a wonderful article about what it is like to be taking these super important exams. Today Tom's back to tell you what happened next.

Russian and German at University: What Happened Next

As I start to write this blog post in my hostel room in Stuttgart as the rain comes crashing down, I have some time to reflect on my first year at university. In terms of both, studying and my free time away from it.

So, languages at university; my perspective...well, it’s intriguing.

Prior to embarking upon the wild yet tremendous journey that is university, I would have already described myself as a language learner who doesn’t "comply with the rules". What do I even mean by "rules"? Don’t worry. I shall explain.

By "rules", I mean a very traditional way of learning languages. The way the curriculum works for languages in schools in the UK is quite traditional. You learn a lot of grammar and rules and are tested upon that with not much emphasis on using the language itself. This is at least how I feel looking back on my time in school learning foreign languages. In school and at university, everyone tends to have stark differences in terms of learning attitudes. This is what the system doesn’t always quite recognise. By system I mean the curriculum for foreign languages in schools in the UK and institutions such as universities.

Making Mistakes Is a Good Thing

Naturally, people have different ways of learning, above all in regards to foreign language learning in the UK. For example, in my case I learn and enjoy learning the most through speaking and listening. But more importantly, by making mistakes because it is crucial and it is indeed a very good thing! It indicates areas of weakness and it allows for positive correction so that you can rectify your errors and try not to make the same ones again.

The school system unfortunately doesn’t acknowledge the power and importance of mistakes in foreign language learning, which is a great shame. It always appeared to me that the curriculum needlessly punishes young learners. For example, I remember having to learn grammar points for exams that I never fully grasped until later on. I was fortunate to have some fantastic teachers especially during my French and German A levels who took on a much better approach to language learning, based on acquisition and fun as opposed to regurgitation and constant grammar tables.

Languages? Why, You Must Be A Freak Or A Genius!

In the UK there appears to be a bizarre perception that "we just can’t simply learn foreign languages". Well, it’s rubbish. (Note from the editor: READ THIS TWICE OMG IT IS SO TRUE!!!!) Many people are always shocked at the response to when they ask me as to what I study at university. When they hear ‘German and Russian’, people in the UK are taken back and I am soon flooded with many questions and responses:

  • Why those two languages?,
  • What would you like to do after university then? ‘Why Russian?
  • I wish I could do languages, but in school I couldn’t. It was far too hard.

Personally, I do not mind any of these types of questions or responses that people give me. But it is this last one that really irritates me. I find it frustrating not that people have found languages or more specifically learning a language hard. But due to their poor experience of language learning in the system, it puts them off the subject for life. It is often due to their poor experience and perhaps lack of success in languages in school that has allowed for a false perception to manifest into the idea that language learning is impossible. This seems to a common occurrence with many individuals in the UK.

In school, the curriculum is such that concepts like verbs, cases, nouns, pronouns, the subjunctive etc. are just thrown at you. You are taught the tools of the language, the theory behind it. You are never quite taught to communicate or to truly apply them. These items of grammar are of course vitally important, but what is the use when you don’t understand what a case even is, or how the subjunctive should be applied in certain circumstances...

Is University Better Than School?

So what does my view on the school system thus far have to do with university anyway?

Well, in all honesty, to me they appear fairly similar. Yet at university, there is more of a focus on immersion in the languages that you study. You are strongly encouraged and advised to find out what works for you. For example, there have been many times when my lecturers have said that we really ought to listen to podcasts, TV, music and so on in the specific target language. This means that for many hours in the day we are absorbing the language in to our minds. Even though this may be passive learning, it still works.

If, for example, you imagine a sponge in a sink full of water; the sponge will still absorb the water, regardless even if you don’t squeeze it. So if it is taken into consideration that about 95% of my time spent in lectures and seminars is completely in German or Russian, and I do my passive work, I make progress. But at university there is a huge difference...the onus is completely down to you to do not only the work but also to be responsible for the immersion. I feel that they want us to create is a ‘foreign reality’.

My experience thus far at university leads me to believe that universities understand the fact that language learning is in fact ultimately down to you. Of course the seminars, lectures and lab sessions are important and useful. But if you don’t do any learning away from the classroom, you simply won’t learn enough. They seem to have cracked the mysterious language learning code...you have to learn a language yourself, it cannot be forced upon someone.

So that leads to two questions...

What is The Point of Studying Languages at University..?

So far even after just one year of studying at university, I feel that the freedom of learning that is given to you combined with the intensity allows you to progress very quickly and efficiently. But what I have found more important is that studying at university allows development of much more critical skills in terms of how you think and how to evaluate issues.

But What About Keeping Motivation..?

Just to put it out there, I am not a language learning veteran like some other guys on the internet who speak a whole plethora of languages (some of whom are just incredible: Richard Simcott, Benny Lewis, Olly Richards, Conor Clyne and Amir Ordabayev). But I have been learning languages seriously for about the past three and a half years with good success. The biggest hurdle for me is keeping up my motivation. I find that if I work a lot for a consistent period of time, I run the risk of burning out and losing my momentum completely. So I try to work in bursts of a couple of weeks. That means I try my best to work consistently for two weeks and then do more passive activities and make my learning less intense.

University has ultimately reinforced my belief that languages cannot just be forced upon people so that they learn. It is a long process, a journey which should hopefully be fun and somewhat memorable.

Tom Pandolfino is a student who has just completed the first year of studying Russian and German at University. As you can tell, he is experiencing so much success. In addition to being a language learner, Tom is also an accomplished musician and member of Blues Hawk. Check them out on Facebook - the next big thing in old school blues.

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