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The Great Myths of Language Learning

The British are bad at learning foreign languages. It’s a fact. In any European city you can find intelligent and decent British tourists (among the dim and indecent) asking for the menu in English. At best they may mumble a few words learned from the phrasebook, only to receive a response in English from the harassed waiter.

And it’s not only the tourists. As an expat in Francophone Switzerland I am constantly amazed to meet Brits who have lived here for several years without learning more than a few words of French.

But then there are two great myths of language learning. The first myth is the belief that any adult can learn a foreign language. The second is that any lengthy stay in a European country will automatically result in picking up the local language.

As a veteran of more evening language classes than I care to remember, I can attest to the fact that many adults, including some who are highly intelligent, will find it all but impossible to learn another language. I say “all but” because hope is a beautiful thing.

Those who have attended foreign language classes in Britain for any length of time will be familiar with the characters. There is a retired lady/gentleman who is terribly keen, very well-educated and utterly hopeless. Next there are the aspiring holiday home types, sometimes a couple, who studied a bit at school (“a few years ago now”) and can order their coffee with or without milk. Ask them anything more difficult, however, and they are flummoxed. Imperfect tense? “Oh, I think we did that last week, just a moment…”

The younger ones often make more progress. One of the girls (and they are mostly girls) has bought a shiny new notebook and binder for the first class. She writes “Chapter 1 – Introducing Yourself” at the top of the page. She doesn’t make it to the second class.

You’ll recognise the foxy, streetwise, student type girl, who actually speaks the language. In extreme cases she may even do the homework that is set. It is she who will continue to the next round.

If you reach beyond the lower intermediate level, to the point where you can actually hold some kind of conversation, you will almost certainly find that several of the other students are foreign. In other words, not content with speaking their own language(s) and English, they are now happily learning another one. And sure enough, they often do it well. There is a secret suspicion among the British that all of those European peoples can actually understand each other. Of course they speak different languages but they’re not like English, are they? And those countries have borders, minority populations from neighbouring countries: that sort of thing.

If you are familiar with the idea of different verb endings for each person of the verb, subjunctives and genders in one language then presumably it is easier to accept that you will find them in another language. The hapless English speaker, however, blissfully unaware of the existence of any grammar other than an occasional errant apostrophe, is easily intimidated.

During a course of evening classes at one of the less reputable London universities I came to realise that several of the class, who were almost fluent, were effectively cheating in their degrees. They had registered for a degree along the lines of business with Spanish language (not literature). In order to gain credits for the Spanish element they had to show a certain level of progress. Upon entering the university their level of Spanish was tested. After stumbling through a questionnaire and a brief oral test with a tutor they found themselves in a lower intermediate class. Naturally, it was a breeze for them. It’s not difficult to hide your level of knowledge of a language and admissions tutors can hardly do detective work on every candidate. In any case, often the knowledge was gained informally, from a stray aunt or while working in a bar. As more and more students in Europe study in countries other than their own, this problem can only increase. If study of literature is involved then arguably the issue is less serious but for a language course it is ludicrous.

But I digress.

The language course route therefore proves ineffective for many adults. Undeterred, they move abroad and fall prey to the second myth: “You’ll be fluent in no time.”

Europe is host to a myriad of enclaves of British expats. They are to be found in the holiday home heartlands in France and Spain, on the university campuses in grim industrial cities (“it looked nice in the brochure”) and in the regional offices of multinationals. In short, a Briton abroad need never be alone. There will always be the expat pub, English language television and the international school. You can make friends with the natives but if you don’t speak the language in the workplace or at home it is a real struggle to learn. From beginner to everyday competence takes two years for those with the aptitude and dedication, forever for those without. Proper fluency takes much longer.

I would not want to discourage the potential expat, dreaming of cheap land, endless sunshine and effortless conversations with the natives. Just don’t believe the great myths of language learning.

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