Foreign language courses - tips for best progress
Tuesday, 14th June 2011
Director of Studies at Cactus Rod Mitchell shares his tips on how to make the best possible progress in your language learning.
1.Invest in a good dictionary
Whilst we don’t generally recommend using a dictionary in class [you should always try to work out words from context first], they are certainly very helpful when it comes to homework. They also represent a worthwhile investment long-term, especially if you plan to go abroad to use your language skills. If you want advice on which dictionary to buy, your teacher should be able to give you some guidance.
2. Listen to the language as much as possible
Sooner or later you WILL be able to listen to the language and understand it immediately. How do you reach that goal?
Spend a lot of time listening to the language, either by using the CDs that come with the text book, or buying them if they do not, or listening to the radio, or TV/CD/DVD/Video or the like, find things to listen to or watch on-line (you-tube is great!), listen to and learn songs, and so on.
Try to listen as much as possible WITHOUT referring to the written text. The trap many students fall into is to assume that they have understood the spoken word simply because they have heard it while reading it. In reality, your eyes have understood it, not your ears.
Depending on your level, of course, you might not actually be able to understand everything you hear – the trick is to develop your ears to the point where they can hear the words they recognise without getting lost in the stream of sound. You need to get the gist of the speaking without necessarily understanding everything. If other students in your class seem to understand when you can’t, most likely it is because they have learnt this trick.
The ideal scenario is to get to the point where you can listen to spoken language without reference to any written material. Train your ears to do this. Listen to passages again and again until you recognise every single word without referring to the written text.
3. Practise, practise, practise
Students can find it difficult to ‘get their words out’ for various reasons, feeling embarrassed or ‘silly’, not knowing what to say, mental block, stress, not concentrating, and so on. In learning a language, generally the main reason is not that the student has not learnt the language yet, but because the language has not been learnt to the point of being able to ‘pop out’ at a moment’s notice.
Memory work and drilling is very important in language learning, particularly at the beginning stages. This means that you as a student need to commit phrases, words, sentences, conversations, stories, songs, and whatever, to mind. But – it is very important not to just simply learn by rote. You need to put things into your mind that will come out of your mouth naturally in the context that they should come out.
It would be great if you could learn the words/phrases/sentences etc. in their setting. For example, you are learning Greek in Greece and you know you have to go to a Greek ‘taverna’. Before you go, you would make sure you know the phrases, sentences and words you know you are likely to use, and you would practise them BEFORE GOING. Well, you can do this in the classroom the same way! Pratise the language for the situation with your teacher and classmates (and at home in front of the mirror – you are your own worst critic) until they are more or less perfect. Practise them within a role play in class, so that the sentences before and after also become natural. This way you will not only impress people at the ‘taverna’ (real or imaginary!) - but also yourself. Being successful is a real boost to confidence.
AND – if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Repeat words, phrases, sentences and so on, on and on until they become natural. Remember, you can speak your own language so well because you have had years and years of practice – but if you listen to a baby learning how to speak, you realise how much practice you had to put in to get to where you are now – around three years as a baby, without taking into account the in-between years that you have spent refining and expanding your language!
Luckily, as an adult you have a head start on a baby – you can develop strategies so as be able to learn quickly. When learning a new language, you need to squash all that practice into a much shorter period of time. And repeating things continually until they become natural is one way of doing this. The more you do it, the more you will find that it is actually easy to speak in another language.
4. Complete your course in full
Learners experience many pressures which can cause them to drop out of their courses, which is a great pity. The temptation to drop out becomes particularly strong when two consecutive classes are missed. To help make sure that students who have had to miss a class or two can keep up, every class generally starts with a brief revision of the previous week’s work. The homework is also useful for this.
If you know you are going to miss a class – or if you have had to miss a class – let the teacher know and find out what you need to do to keep up to speed. A bit of extra effort and you will soon catch up.
5. Build a support group
It’s a good idea to organise yourselves into ‘support groups’ of 3 or 4 students if possible. When one of you misses a class, the others can brief them on what happened, pass on any handouts and generally persuade each other to keep coming.
Get together in a local café, preferably one that has something to do with the language, invite along anyone you know who speaks the language, do you homework together, invite your teacher. You have joined a group class, so make use of it!
6. Bear in mind the ‘physical’ aspects of learning
One little-known effect on learning relates to physical aspects of being in a class. When we are stressed out, or embarrassed, or frustrated, then the brain apparently produces ‘stress hormones’ which act like a defence mechanism – slowing down all brain processes except those necessary for survival. This obviously means that teachers and students should be working together towards a relaxed and cooperative learning-teaching situation. Keeping calm, cool and collected is the key.
Also, language learning should be a ‘right-brain (global)’ to ‘left-brain (logical)’ process. It is most effective to learn language as a ‘whole’ experience, and then build up rules and logic from this. This type of learning promotes long-term learning, while learning ‘left-brain first’ [rules and grammar] produces short-term learning. We all learnt our first language from right to left, and this is why in memory problems such as amnesia and short-term memory loss, we never forget how to speak. But also it is important to have the complete cycle when learning – left brain without right brain doesn’t make for language learning, but right brain without left brain doesn’t, either.
For you to make the most of your language course, you need to keep the following in mind:
• People mostly learn a language in order to speak it : You need to spend a significant part of your course actually speaking and hearing the language.
• Grammar is essential for learning how to put sentences together – but there is no point knowing the language in your head, if you don’t practise getting it out of your mouth.
• Long grammar, reading and writing activities are better done at home, rather than in class, so that more time can be dedicated to practising conversation.
• The text book is written in the language you are learning – this is to help you learn much more incidental language than just the specific lesson.
• Get to know the language-learning jargon. Lessons should not be dependent on grammar, grammatical jargon and writing; many people have never studied ‘grammar’, and learning ‘proper’ grammar is not the same as learning to communicate.
Having said this, knowing the names of the parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), is a good short-cut for those who know it, and if you don’t, a little bit of homework will get you up to speed – there is not actually that much to learn, and if you do it in context and as you go along, then things should go well. You can find a basic glossary of grammatical terms on the English Club website.
• Writing things down is important – but try not to fall into the trap of leaving it on the paper. You’ve got to put it in your head and into your mouth too
• And relax and get to know everyone! You will learn a lot quicker and have fun doing so.
7.Set mutual expectations
At the beginning of the course, set ‘mutual expectations’ with the teacher – something like the following.
What you can expect from the teacher:
• that he/she will come to classes well prepared and in plenty of time
• that he/she will try to make the class as interesting as possible, using a variety of activities
• that he/she will give weekly homework and appropriate feedback on all work handed in
• that he/she will listen to and welcome any suggestions for improvement.
• that he/she will help you to become a better language learner and – more importantly – user.
What the teacher would like to expect from you:
• that you will only speak the ‘target’ language in class
• that you keep him/her informed of how you think the course is going
• that you too take some responsibility for making the course a success; for example, homework is amazingly important.
• that if you miss classes, you will make the effort to catch up
• That if you do have to pull out of the course, you let him/her know the reasons why
The most important thing is – if you have issues with the class, discuss it with your teacher. Teachers appreciate all feedback, positive and negative. But it is important to do this in a respectful, trusting and constructive way. You need to trust your teacher, and your teacher needs to trust you.
And, ensure that you take every opportunity to speak in the language, and that the teacher does so as well. Take an interest in everything to do with the language – stimulated and interested students help the teacher to create a stimulating and interesting class.