I studied French in school for three years and couldn’t hold a single spontaneous conversation. We were supposedly learning the important phrases and words necessary for travel to a French-speaking country or province, but really all I, and most of my classmates, could do was repeat a few select phrases that would most likely be completely useless in a real conversation. Only if the stars aligned and the solely French-speaking person that I was speaking to followed a very specific and unrealistic script while speaking at half speed, could I have a chance of utilizing what I learned in school. Granted, many people don’t have a vested interest in learning another language, although I would personally attribute that apathy to other failings of the education system. Learning another language opens up incredible opportunities to study another culture and connect with the millions of people who speak that language. While English is becoming a universal language, it’s still incredibly important and beneficial to learn more languages for connections, experiences and brain development.
Not until I began studying French in my own way outside of school did I start to make any progress. Like many others, I struggled to find motivation to learn another language. But my aunt, who’s fluent in French, inspired me to start really learning. Combined with the cognitive benefits and opening up new cultures and countries to travel to, there was little reason not to pursue language learning. I wasn’t sure where to start as I couldn’t hold a conversation. So I started watching French YouTube videos. Initially I watched videos about the French language, with online professors explaining grammar rules or teaching me new words. Although not very fun, this was an important step as it allowed me to brush up on what I had learned in school. Apps like Duolingo can also be helpful in this way.
The biggest step I took that made a difference was narrating my plan for the day in French. I didn’t expect it to make as big of a difference as it did, but by thinking in French, I was creating a natural foundation of the language and learning words that were relevant to my life specifically. Rather than looking up important words and phrases that are commonly used, I was looking up phrases and words that I personally use a lot. In working towards translating my day to day activities, I found I didn’t have to look up certain words and verbs anymore because I used them so much. I repeated verbs such as “to have to” or “to want” in my mind dozens of times and have since been ingrained in my mind. I didn’t need a language partner to do this as I was just thinking about my day. I would also try my best to journal at the end of the day about the things I did, which is a useful practice in general, whether you’re doing it to learn a language or not. I was hitting two birds with one stone, which helped keep me motivated. The act of writing out the activities I did made it more personal and fun, as well as easier to remember new words. I found I was progressing very quickly in my language learning, all while doing things I enjoyed, or things I was basically doing anyway. Soon enough, I had a solid base to start watching french videos and movies. I also began reading French books, working my way from children’s books to more adult books. I found that if I read a French version of a book I’ve read a lot, I didn’t need to know what every word meant because I had the book basically memorized in English. Once I could understand enough and was able to form sentences that I commonly use in English, I could practice by conversing in French with my aunt. This mode of practicing is, in my opinion, the most fun and rewarding part of language learning. Not everybody has somebody they know that speaks their target language, but there are many ways to meet people who speak it, whether through school, clubs or programs in your area.
Learning a new language is no easy task, especially if you don’t have someone to practice with. The current system schools use for teaching languages is not working and it’s important that people learn this skill. Learning a new language can be incredibly fun and rewarding as you can consume content and media and still be learning a language. Schools should put more focus on allowing students to engage in the language in their own way, including having projects and exams focused on more personal topics or by consuming more entertaining and interesting content in class. Schools can’t force students to take time outside of class to practice more, but dedicating an hour a day in class is a great start. Assigning more interesting homework is important as well, such as preparing sentences about your day to share. Rather than assigning homework of filling out worksheets with boring information using words and phrases you can’t apply to your life, we should emphasize a personal connection to the language. Language learning can be very personalized and has endless possibilities of practicing and studying, unlike other subjects, and this trait should be utilized when designing lesson plans.