How to Learn a Language You Hated In School

22nd February 2019

Terrible at languages at school? Don't write yourself off just yet. Find out how to learn a foreign language as an adult - and enjoy the experience!

Guest Post by Kerstin from Fluent Language The school subjects you hated leave scars. I have so often told new people that I work with languages and I teach German, just to hear them say “God, I was terrible at languages in school. My German teacher was boring, and all that grammar made me fall asleep. Never again!” Never again. Really? Now I admit that languages did not throw me in school. Loved them. But I was so bad at sports. I would huff and sweat under duress, throw a tantrum over running, miserably sit on the bench until there was no one else left to pick for a team. My school experience was awful and knocked my confidence a lot. But something changed when I became an adult. I slowly realised that a life lived with sports is a better life for me. Starting with a tentative jog, via aerobics and step classes and dance, I learnt what it’s like to exercise outside school. And guess what? I enjoyed it! These days I’m no Olympic athlete, but I can do a decent 5k run most weeks. I believe that it’s never too late to start learning something cool, and there’s no law that says your school experience should influence what you do or who you are. Maybe you dream of visiting Berlin or living in a French country house, or you want to travel to Austria to ski in the Alps, or Italy to spend a week with sun and gelato. And you know that these experiences get richer and better if you can speak the local language. I guarantee you right now that you never need to go back to school to study up for the German grammar exam again. Not if you don’t want to. So maybe…you can imagine giving languages another chance? Here are a few ideas to help you overcome bad school memories and learn a language as an adult.

What’s YOUR Point In Learning This Language?

Back in school, you probably ended up in your language classes because someone else decided that it was a good idea. They also decided what you would be learning in which order, and how the tests would look. But now that you’re coming back to languages as an adult learner, the tables have turned. It’s down to you to make the rules. You’ve got the power! In practice, this means that you’ll have to learn a few new skills about staying organised and keeping your motivation up. The first step is to make a note of your big goal. Remember: Back in school, you might have wondered “what’s the point of learning a language?”. But now you know, and you can use that to help you get started. Here are a few questions to help you work out your personal “why”:
  • What do you love about the country or culture of the language you’re studying?
  • Who inspires you to want to try and learn languages?
  • Where will you practice your language?
  • What do you most want to talk about in your new language?
  • How will you feel when you’ve achieved this goal?
The great thing about answering a few of these questions is that it gives you a big hint towards the next step, which is this:

Make The World’s Greatest Curriculum

You’re in charge now, so you get to decide what it is that you learn. Don’t know anyone who cares that you have 2 sisters and a cousin named Barry? Great, skip that for now. Wanna cut straight to your obsession with microbreweries in Hamburg? Perfect, you can study the vocabulary for that first. One of the most important rules of learning a language you hated in school is to focus on finding things that are enjoyable. I know people who have learnt lots of vocabulary and grammar playing video games, reading short stories, going out for dance classes. In fact, my course German Uncovered totally flips the traditional model on its head and teaches you the German language through the power of story. So first you read and understand something cool, and then the other parts fall into place.

Purge Those Bad Memories

For most adult language learners, it’s hard to imagine that learning a language like German could ever be fun. Sit down with a piece of paper, think back to those horrible school classes for 10 seconds, then start writing down everything you remember hating about that class and that language. So now you know what you hated, you can change things. If there was too much grammar in play, then select a course that doesn’t test you on grammar and instead focuses on understanding. For example, a reading system like Lingq or a story-based course like German Uncovered can give you a new way of experiencing languages. If you thought the lessons weren’t relevant, make sure you take charge of your own curriculum and take the freedom to study what you’re interested in. If you hated the sound of a language, see if you can find romantic poems or your favourite style of music sung in it. If you hated the classroom environment, then there is no need to go back. Look for an online tutor, join a language learning trip, or see if you can buy someone local a coffee in exchange for chatting to you in their language. Often, what you remember is something that you can change now that you’re learning solo. There’s no exam panic, and Mr Tudmore won’t set you 12 pages of dull homework.

Choose Your Teacher

Now that you’re a solo language learner, you’re able to select the best teachers you can find. Look around to see who delivers online lessons, who might teach in a nice café, or who might be using fun methods like stories, puppets, or music. Independent language teachers adore the freedom to put creativity into their lessons, and they want to hear what you are looking for. For example, I regularly host language retreats and those are all about creating a relaxed study environment - with snacks!

Recycle Your School Memories

Having dealt with all of the bad memories, it’s worth asking yourself whether there is anything useful that you do remember from your school days. In my German courses, I often come across “false beginners”. These are people who are in the early stages of learning German in terms of a skill scale, but it’s not their first rodeo. As a false beginner, you’ve got a headstart already: For example, you know how to pronounce the words you see or you can remember the basics of grammar.

Choose Freedom

Do you see a theme here? You’ve got the power! As a solo language learner, you can finally immerse yourself in a world of interesting materials at your level. The key is to find the fun in language learning and bring it together with sensible methods of setting goals, tracking, and reviewing. When I teach German now, my methods are focused on the goal of making the experience great for my students through courses like German Uncovered or language retreats where relaxation comes first, way before correcting anyone’s grammar. I hope you’re feeling inspired to open up the door to another language once again. Perhaps you’re a “language person” after all?


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