Shortcuts in language learning, mean equating X with Y, or deciding that every time you say X in your mother tongue, you say Y in the new language. But does it always work and is it the most helpful way to learn a language?
On the face of it, shortcuts look like the easiest and most logical option, were it not for two crucial points.
First, they rely on the assumption that both your mother tongue and the language you’re studying have common roots and similar logics. It isn’t the case with most languages, especially with English and French.
9 times out of 10, my English-speaking students turn to their mother tongue to learn and explain French and very quickly hit a wall. And you won't be surprised to hear that my French-speaking students do the reverse when learning English, with similar results!
When I ask them to explain a language point (to make sure everything is clear), the answer almost invariably is: ‘because in English we say X, so in French we say Y’ or vice-versa, with French students learning English.
What my students grab hold of, is a shortcut between the two languages, as opposed to focusing on the logic of the language they’re acquiring, which is both human and understandable, but also a waste of time.
So each time, I make a point of reminding them, with a wink and a smile, that their mother tongue is irrelevant when it comes to understanding the language they're learning. That the two languages work differently and using one to learn the other, is akin to matching a banana with an apple. Both are fruits and can be cooked/eaten in countless ways, but at the end of the day, a banana is not an apple, and the apple will never turn into a banana.
But what of languages that have common roots, such as French and Italian, you might ask? Admittedly, those two languages are very similar, not only in their conjugations and use of tenses, but in their vocabulary. So when teaching French to Italian speakers, I often draw comparisons, but I still do not use shortcuts. Why?
Because learning a new language, means looking forward and not back. And because it does not mean doing a detailed comparison of two languages, but rather embracing a new one. While Italian and French have undoubtedly a lot in common, they remain two separate languages, because they are spoken by two different countries !
A language is the prism through which we discover the history, culture, and psyche of a country, beyond the usual and tired clichés many choose to cling to. While it's important - more than ever - to remind ourselves of our shared humanity, it's best to leave any shortcuts behind, precisely because they prevent us from learning about and accepting others through the language they speak.
Don't hesitate to send me your questions.