What does it mean to learn a language?

When learning a new language at school, we were told that pronunciation is different, that tenses follow a different logic, that we had to nail the perfect sentence before speaking and to learn lists of useful words, often without any contexts attached to them. Most of the time, we were fed language passively and never taught what it actually means to learn a language, what that process entails.

Learning a language is first and foremost about acquiring a different set of tools, in order to communicate. Depending on your mother tongue and the language you’re learning, these tools may vary wildly. Yet, in 99% of the cases, my students expect their mother tongue to be the first tool they can use, in order to help them embrace a whole new language.

This reaction can be partly explained by the anxiety they feel at the thought of expressing themselves, potentially wrongly, in a different language. After all, our mother tongue is the language we know best, so why not use it?

That logic works up to a point, and only if the roots are similar. An Italian speaker will find learning French far easier than an English speaker, since Italian and French are both Latin languages. And while those two languages are very similar, expecting one to be entirely like the other, would not only prevent the student from acquiring the new language properly, but it would also mean missing entirely the point of language learning.

The beauty, and sometimes challenge, of language learning is that you are flexing your brain in an entirely new way, embracing a whole new grammatical system and set of sounds, which do not always have equivalents in your own mother tongue.

As I keep telling my students, especially English speakers, trying to use your mother tongue to learn a new one, is like trying to square a circle. In other words, it is a waste of time. You might as well use that energy to figure out what you want to say with what you already know of the language. This means that you cannot, at least to begin with, be as precise and nuanced as you are when using your own mother tongue.

If language learning meant replicating one system onto another, then it would not only be pointless, but frankly boring too. Which brings me to the other biggest misconception about language learning.

While it is impossible to avoid learning grammar and conjugations, it is also entirely possible to make the language learning process not only immersive but also fun.

And that is the third thing I tell any new students. If they only equate learning a language with homework and exercises, their motivation is unlikely to take them far.

However, if they make language learning an integral part of their life by watching movies, listening to the radio/podcasts, reading books/blogs, talking to native speakers, etc., then not only will they make progress more quickly, but they will be in charge of their own learning.

You learn a language by talking, making mistakes and taking what feels, at times, like a risk. But you also learn a language by accepting the fact that it’s a process which takes time, effort, commitment, and a curious mind.

The more you cling to your mother tongue, the less you will speak the language you're learning.

The more curious and flexible you are, the quicker you will learn.

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