Why is it so hard to remember words in a foreign language?
Why is the grammar so confusing?
If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions and wondered how the heck you’ll learn to speak that foreign language, then today’s post is for you.
I used to wonder the same thing, especially after I’d studied German for 5 years at school, then Spanish and Italian for another 2, with nothing to show for it except a few random words popping into my head.
Why couldn’t I speak a language after so many years of classes? I considered two possibilities. Either:
1. I’m a complete idiot.
2. Languages are basically impossible.
If I was an idiot, then so was everyone else. Given that every other English person I knew was in the same position, I assumed that learning a language must be one of those things that only people with steely willpower can do, like running a marathon or not squeezing spots.
But since then, I’ve learnt Italian, French and Spanish, as well as a bit of German and Mandarin and I’ve discovered something exciting:
Learning a second language as an adult isn’t as difficult as I thought. I was just doing it wrong.
Keep reading to find out:
– The big mistake that stops adults from learning a second language (and how to avoid it).
– The simple technique that will help any adult (including YOU) become fluent in a language.
– How to have more fun learning a second language, even as a beginner.
Is it hard to learn a second language as an adult?
Last week, I got a new Italian student.
Let’s call him Bob. Bob had been learning Italian for over 2 years, but he still couldn’t really string a sentence together. He had a vague idea of verb tenses and some vocabulary floating around in his mind, but he couldn’t remember any of them well enough to use them in real-life.
Surprisingly, after just 3 hours together, Bob was already having simple conversations in Italian.
How did Bob achieve that amazing result in such a short time?
Is it because I’m a magic Italian teacher who can teach you to speak Italian in 3 hours?
That’d be nice, but no. Truth is, I didn’t do much.
All I did was encourage him to start speaking. About normal things that he talks about in his native language. And helped him out with a few words and grammar points so he could say what he wanted to say.
As soon as Bob started using Italian in real life, everything fell into place.
The wrong way to learn a second language as an adult
I was in the same situation as Bob after two years of Italian classes. I’d spent most of the time learning grammar and vocabulary, but I struggled to remember it. I found language classes boring, never did my homework and couldn’t have a conversation if my life depended on it.
But then, I did a year abroad in Italy. Suddenly, learning a language wasn’t about memorizing verbs, it was about talking to people.
I didn’t like studying grammar, but I liked people.
So I took my nose out of my grammar book and started trying to have conversations. I also started spending my free time reading and listening to things in Italian. At first, things which were simplified for learners. Then, as my level improved, I started trying to do things I enjoyed in my first language, like reading magazines and watching TV series.
It was really awkward. I spoke excruciatingly slowly and made tons of mistakes. I didn’t understand a lot of what I saw and heard. But I persevered and after a while, I became fluent in Italian.
And even though it was tricky, I enjoyed it. I was interacting with human beings (the reason I wanted to learn a language in the first place) and reading and listening to things that I actually cared about, instead of those dull and cheesy textbooks.
Do you need to go to the country to learn a second language?
You might think that my story confirms the old cliché: you need to go to the country to learn a language. But that’s not true.
After my experience with Italian, I knew I could do it. I was capable of learning a second language, if I abandoned traditional classroom methods and focused on learning by doing instead. So I learnt a 3rd (French) and 4th (Spanish) and dabbled with a 5th and 6th (Mandarin Chinese and German), without living in the countries where these languages are spoken.
Now I know that it’s not impossible to learn a second language in your home country. It just seemed like that because the way most of us are taught in school doesn’t work.
It’s not you, it’s the method
The more languages I learn and the more students I work with, the more I’m convinced of this: you can’t learn a language by memorizing a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary.
You have to learn languages by doing. By speaking, listening, reading and writing.
This doesn’t mean I’m totally against grammar. Learning the rules might give you a basic structure to follow and help you tidy things up around the edges. But the vast majority (if not all) the learning comes through using the language.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask the polyglots. Although they all have different methods, one thing they have in common is that they practice using the language a lot – they don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing grammar rules or vocabulary in isolation.
What’s more, although grammar normally has a starring role in the classroom, the scientific evidence that teaching grammar rules helps students speak a language is actually quite weak.
Which raises an interesting question: why do most language courses prioritise grammar, when there’s not much anecdotal or scientific evidence to suggest that this is the best way to learn a language?
The answer lies in the history of language education.
Why most schools make it harder for adults to learn a second language
Let’s hop in a time machine and travel back to the 1800s for a moment.
Back then, there was no Ryan Air. You couldn’t jump on a plane and go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks. There was no European Union. In fact, many European countries were in almost constant warfare.
People didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad and connect with people from other countries as we do now. Yet languages were still taught at school.
To study ancient texts. Students took Latin and Greek classes so they could learn to read and translate literature in those languages. The teaching focused on rote-learning of verb tables and grammar rules, which worked OK when languages were used as a tool to translate texts. There was no focus on speaking or listening at all because that wasn’t the goal.
The problems started in the 1900s, when people began to learn other languages. Even though the goal was now to communicate with human beings rather than translate texts, teachers continued using the same method they’d always used. This left generations of frustrated students who couldn’t speak a language after years of classes, because they’d never practiced speaking it.
The world’s changed a lot since then and fortunately, so have language teaching methods. There’s a lot more communication in the classroom these days.
But the most dangerous idea has lived on – the belief that you have to memorize lots of grammar rules and vocabulary before you start trying to use the language in real life.
I can’t remember words and grammar
People who’ve only ever tried to learn languages with the traditional school method are often left feeling like they’re bad at languages, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t remember grammar and vocabulary.
If this sounds like you, please don’t give up on learning a second language. You’re not bad at languages, you’ve just been taught them with the wrong techniques.
I see this all the time for myself and my students: it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a grammar point or word list. Almost everyone struggles to remember grammar and vocabulary until they start using them in real ways. That is, until you come across lots of real examples in reading and listening, and practice using them in speaking and writing.
There are two science-backed reasons why learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation makes them more difficult to remember:
1. Your memory is sharper when you learn by doing.
2. To learn a language, your brain needs to take statistics about words in real-life contexts.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. What divers can teach you about learning a second language
Back in 1975, researchers Godden and Baddeley did something a bit weird.
They sent divers underwater and taught them a bunch of words, played through a diving communication device. They also taught them some words on dry land. 24 hours later, they tested the divers both underwater and on dry land to see how many words they could remember.
Turns out, the divers forgot 40% more words when the context was different, that is, if they’d learnt the words on land and tried to recall them underwater and vice-versa.
Decades of research support the very same quirk about human memory: we remember things more easily when we use them in the same situation we learnt them in, and forget them more easily in different situations.
If you learn verbs by rote, you might remember them while you’re going through the list in your head, but you’ll probably struggle to recall them in conversation. Similarly, if you learn words and grammar on apps, they might come to mind easily when you’re fiddling with your phone, but disappear as soon as you need them in real life.
The good news?
If you learn a language through conversations, you’ll remember better when you’re having conversations. If you learn by writing, you’ll remember better when you’re writing. If you learn by listening, you’ll remember more easily when listening. If you learn by reading, you’ll remember more easily when reading.
In other words, if you learn by doing, things will come to you more easily when you need them in real life.
2. How your brain learns languages
Why do we have tall buildings, but high ceilings?
In many languages, the difference between tall and high doesn’t even exist. If you call your boss a high man in Italian, that means he’s tall. If you call him a high man in English, it means he’s been smoking something funny.
Learning a language isn’t about isolated words, it’s about learning how those words fit together.
Neurolinguistics, the study of how our brain processes languages, shows us why this matters.
The neuroscience of learning a second language
Did you know that your brain is constantly giving off electrical signals? These signals change depending on what task your brain is doing, and scientists can read some of these – using a technique called electroencephalography – to study how your brain learns a language.
One of these signals, called the N400, shows us how native speakers process groups of words. The N400 is relatively small with combinations of words that you expect to hear together, like coffee and cream, but larger for unexpected words, like coffee and… crap. If your N400 doesn’t increase significantly for unexpected combinations, like crap, scientists might wonder what on earth you’ve been putting in your coffee.
These signals show that our brain is constantly taking statistics about words that normally appear together. This is good, as it helps us make predictions about what’s coming next so we can communicate faster.
The better someone speaks a foreign language, the closer their N400 pattern is to that of a native speaker. This suggests that learning a language involves building up expectations about words that usually appear together, just like native speakers do.
To speak a foreign language fluently, you’ll need to give your brain the chance to take statistics about how words are combined in the language you’re learning. You can’t do this if you spend all your time trying to memorise grammar rules or word lists.
The best way to get a feeling for word patterns in your target language is through mass input, that is, spending tons of time reading and listening to the language.
The good news is, you can get this mass input without even realizing it – by simply reading and listening to lots of things you enjoy. Not only is learning by doing more in line with what we know about how the brain learns languages, it’s also more fun.
You don’t have to start speaking straight away if you don’t want to
You may think that learning by doing means you have to start speaking straight away. If you want to throw yourself in at the deep end and practice speaking very early on, brilliant – it’s a great way to apply what you’ve learnt and get used to communicating with native speakers.
But you don’t have to.
If the idea of speaking from day 1 fills you with dread, feel free to wait a little while! Many prolific language learners prefer not to speak straight away, most notably Steve Kaufmann who speaks 16 languages.
If you’d rather wait, you can start by doing lots of reading and listening to get a feel for the language. When you decide to have a go at speaking, you’ll need some time to adapt, but the foundation will already be there.
Everyone’s different. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather dive into speaking or spend some time reading and listening first.
All that matters is that you stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to memorizing grammar and vocabulary and practice using the language in real ways.
Learning a second language won’t always be easy (but it will be worth it)
When you start learning a language by doing, it’ll probably feel awkward. When you try reading and listening, all that new vocabulary might feel overwhelming. When you try speaking, you might get embarrassed by your mistakes, or the epically long silences as you search for the words.
That’s a normal part of learning new things. Learning to tie your shoelaces probably felt awkward at first, but now you can do it without thinking.
Some people see this uncomfortable feeling as a problem that should be avoided. They want to memorize more grammar and vocabulary because they believe it will help them feel at ease when they start using the language in real life.
But that’s like thinking you can improve your guitar skills by reading more books. A bit of theory might help, but you’ll never learn to play without going through that awkward stage where your fingertips hurt.
The only thing that’ll help you feel at ease when you speak a language is experience. Languages are tricky sometimes. But the more you practice, the easier it gets.
If I can do it, so can you.
How to learn a language by doing when you’re a beginner
So far, we’ve talked about how the most effective (and enjoyable!) way to learn a language is to practice using it in real life. But how can you do that when you’re a complete beginner? To get practical ideas on how to learn a language by doing, even as a beginner, join me for my online workshop this Saturday, 10th March.
As part of the Women in Language event, you’ll get access to my workshop called: The #1 mistake beginners make when learning a language (and how to fix it). In it, you’ll learn:
– Actionable ideas on how to start using the language (even if you’re a beginner).
– The smart way to learn grammar and vocabulary.
– How to sound more natural and confident when you speak.
If that sounds like something you’d like to get involved in, click here to learn more about the Women in Language event.
After you sign up, you’ll get the How to Learn a Language by Doing Starter Pack, a guide with tons of practical ideas on how you can start using your target language straight away.
You’ll also get access to 27 other talks by expert female guest speakers, where you can pick up loads more inspiration and advice to help you start speaking that language.
Hope to see you there!