So, you want to learn a new language?

Language learning is ontological

By Philip Hall

For more than 30 years I have been teaching people how to speak, write, read and listen in English with some success. I was a Spanish teacher, too for a while. Spanish is the language that I know best after English. First I’ll talk about my experiences learning new languages and then give you my advice. Language learning is ontological; it is about incorporating something into your being and making it a part of yourself.

My experiences learning languages

Now, I have to start with an admission of failure. My parents spoke Afrikaans as their secret language because they were proper South Africans. We never learned any of it because we left when we were too young. I suppose we were not real South Africans. My mother’s first language was French and her second language was German. English was only her third language. She started learning it when she was nine and her English speaking classmates made fun of her for the French way she said:

Can I borrow your rubber?

So, within a year she spoke English better than they did and was top of her class. She was young and very intelligent and she had a real need to learn. But she would never speak French or German to us and that was probably because she was traumatised by the whole experience of being a kid in Paris during the war. The only time we heard her speak either French or German was to her parents. Of course we visited France a lot, because that’s where my grandparents lived. In the 60s they lived in Meudon La Foret and in the 70s right up to 2005 they lived in Golfe Juan near Cannes. My grandmother, anyway, because my grandfather died in 1980.

The point is we never really mastered French despite visiting them so often. We never thought of ourselves as sharing our mother’s French identity. I mean, I can understand most of it and even read in French, but I can’t speak it with any confidence. None of us can.

I chose to learn Russian and Spanish.

Now the worst admission. From 1963 to 1975 we lived in Kenya and Tanzania – with a period in between in the UK. We really were Kenyans and despite the fact that we had Swahili classes at school and despite the fact that classmates and friends and servants and most of the people in the country spoke Swahili, I didn’t learn it.

OK, I understand snatches of the language. I can say a few things in Swahili. But I was never as good as my brothers and there was no excuse for not learning it. Perhaps it was a sort of default colonial mindset that stopped us. Living in India, in New Delhi for a couple of years we didn’t end up speaking much Hindi, either.

I decided to study languages in the end, perhaps out of a feeling of missed opportunities and, possibly, guilt. Also, whenever I studied politics, economics and history, as a socialist I always felt attacked. Language learning was neutral ground for me. Something new and fresh.

I chose to learn Russian and Spanish. In fact, I had to go back to the drawing board and study Russian A’ Level and pass it and then I did a whole degree in Spanish and Russian. Now, we had a few good teachers, but I limped along. Language degree courses admit that they are not all that effective because, usually, one of the years is a year abroad. This is where your language learning really kicks off.

I went to live and study in Kiev and what was then Leningrad in the time of the USSR and I studied Spanish in Spain and Mexico. Then I came back, did rather badly in my final year and decided to vindicate myself by actually going to back to Spain, Mexico and Kiev again to, finally, master my chosen languages. I went as a language teacher and this is important because the method I was trained in to teach students English was completely different to the methods used to teach me. At the time I thought the methods of International House were wonderful. They made sense.

the method I was trained in to teach students English was completely different to the methods used to teach me.

On my degree I thought the way we were taught languages was, on the whole, rather awful. Teachers would wander in and they had never prepared their classes. Ludmilla would come in and say, blithely:

Let’s talk about women’s rights.

Ignat Afzay would give us a badly photocopied text and ask us to listen along to it in the language lab. Professor Bondarenko would make us plod through a few pages of grammar exercises. Really, the teachers were all too laid back apart from Felicity Cave. Many of the Russian teachers were just dissidents and former spies, not teachers at all.

The Spanish teachers were also rather lazy. Some of them were quite right wing. One history teacher told us how no one really died when the Spanish came to Latin America and Ana de Ataola, a Basque, convinced us that the PRI in Mexico was, generally speaking, a force for progress.It was hard unlearning that lesson when I lived in Mexico.

Felicity Cave had a vocation. She put energy into what she did, she was inclusive and there was a logic to her classes. She told us how academics at university despised language learning. She had studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) when she was a student herself and complained that she didn’t get enough Russian and was told:

If you want to learn Russian, go to Berlitz.

Because, of course, in SSEES they focused on more important things on their Russian degrees than learning Russian.

So when I learned how to teach English it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. It all made sense

So when I learned how to teach English it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. It all made sense. Every lesson had to be carefully planned, the students should talk as much as possible and conversations should be meaningful and appropriate. All the skills were integrated and so on and so on, and after my experience of learning languages on the degree, the way we were taught to help students learn English sounded convincing.

Of course that was just the first flush of enthusiasm. I now know a lot more and the original language learning and teaching method I was taught to use was shot through with flaws. But at least it had a decent rationale. It was an honest attempt to really teach people a new language properly.

What is the best way to learn a new language?

My advice is general rather than specific:

Learning a language is hard. It will take you at least a decade to get to any level of mastery and it will involve a constant daily effort. You will have to practice and use the language every single day. Factor that into your expectations.

You have to have a real need to learn the language. Have you married someone who speaks the language? Is your work or your study related to learning that language? Are you really passionate about learning it? Will you live in a place where they speak it? Do you live in a place where they speak it?

You must have a deep and abiding respect for the culture of the countries where your target language is spoken. If you do not respect and value the cultural contribution of the people who speak the language then you won’t put enough effort into learning the language.

Reading is an excellent way of accruing an enormous amount of passive vocabulary in the target language. It is also a way of getting familiar with grammatical constructions. Reading is an excellent way to start and it’s something you can do on your own.

In order to learn another language you have to be brave. You have to either be an extrovert or force yourself to be one. Many people listening to you will be patient and supportive, but some will be rude and correct you aggressively. You must carry on regardless.

You have to insist on speaking the target language. Let’s say you want to learn Spanish, but the Spanish people you spend time with speak good English. That means you will never get any practice. The way it works is like this. If someone speaks your language better than you speak theirs then you lose. They will insist on speaking to you in English.

Take time to master the exact sounds of the new language. You can do this. It is possible to really have good pronunciation in a target language without too much fuss. There are plenty of materials available to help you do this.

Classes are important because you form a community of language learning by attending. Also, you get yourself into the regular habit of study. A class is not actually where you learn most of your new language, but it should be the backbone of your learning experience.

Do the work. Some parts of language learning are hard. They are often hard because they are boring. You do have to learn things like irregular past participles, you won’t just pick them up. Anyway, that would be a slow process – picking up a new language at random as an adult. When you study, don’t just repeat phrases or do things mindlessly. You won’t learn this way. Study mindfully.

If you don’t get a chance to use the language regularly it will stay dormant. This is my experience in the Middle East with Arabic. Most people I interact with are not Arabs, but expatriates. My job is to teach the students English, not learn Arabic from them. Arabic is in the air, in the environment, but I don’t have time to study it properly. In this way my current knowledge of the language is broad, but passive. Moreover, a lot of the people who study Arabic have ulterior motives. Rightly, some Arabs are suspicious of them.

Make the new language part of your identity. Say to yourself. I am a Spanish speaker or ‘I am a Russian speaker. This is who I am. It’s important to do this because a language lives inside your head and it’s alive. It’s there all the time. It doesn’t disappear. You have to accept it as part of your being.

Use Duolingo, use the Internet, use cable TV, use anything and every resource you can find. Learning a language is a slow, constant, never ending process of accretion. If you stick at it, in ten years you might be quite good.

If you start now, then one day, who knows when, you will be able to express yourself effortlessly in another language and have full access to everyone who speaks it and all the cultural pleasures and treasures it holds.

Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.