I’d like to introduce you to my friend Thom, a happy example of the “anything goes” style of language learning. Thom grew up speaking German and Portuguese at home, and then learned French and English at school.
When I met him, he was in his mid-twenties, and had developed his own unique way of speaking English. Little things like not knowing exactly the right verb to use, or the perfect vocabulary word, didn’t bother him at all. If he couldn’t find the English word, he just improvised, maybe taking a word from Portuguese or combining a couple of verb forms.
And here’s the best part: he always got his message across—plus he did this in a very charming and lively way. Sounds good, right? Of course, some of his favorite phrases were ones you would never find in English books, but this didn’t seem to be a problem for him. He talked to lots of people and developed new relationships in English.
THE "SLOW AND CAREFUL" CLUB
I, on the other hand, was a good example of the “slow and careful” style of language learning. Before I practiced a word or a structure in a new language, I wanted to be sure that it was correct, so I checked a dictionary or asked someone who knew the language well. If I felt unsure, I tried to keep quiet.
You can probably guess who had more fun with new languages, Thom or me. And who found more opportunities to use the target language? If you guessed Thom, you are absolutely right. So his way must be the better one, you might think.
IS ONE LEARNING STYLE BETTER?
Lots of language teachers and books on language learning will tell you that Thom’s way is the only way to go. My suggestion, based on my own language learning and on many years of teaching English, is a bit different. I suggest you experiment with a little bit of the opposite approach, trying out the style that feels less natural to you.
TRY SOMETHING NEW!
This means, if you are in the “slow and careful” club, try getting in there, practicing your new language, talking to people. Ask yourself what you can do to make your language experience more fun! Join a language club that meets once a week in a restaurant. Watch films in English (or whatever language you are working on) and invite a friend. Find a Skype pal and just chat about everyday life; the Mixxer Language Exchange is one way to do this. Every hour you spend with the new language is a little step closer to feeling comfortable and natural.
If you, along with Thom, are in the “anything goes” group, you may be perfectly happy with your language-learning style. If that’s true, great! If you want or need to speak more correctly, there are lots of possibilities. One good option would be some one-to-one lessons with a teacher who can help you notice your mistakes, especially the ones that you have “practiced in.”
As for me, over the years I learned not to take my language mistakes so seriously. After all, anyone who is learning something new—how to speak English or Russian, drive a car, make an omelet, do the tango —makes lots of mistakes. I still like to check on details in a foreign language, but I can laugh at myself much more easily. You get into some crazy situations when you are trying to do things in a new language. Some really funny things can happen!
Even if the difficult moments are not funny at the time, they make good stories afterwards—but I'll save those for another blog post.