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4 Steps to Pick-up a Language you Haven’t Learned Since School

A popular goal on many people’s New Year’s Resolutions list is to learn a foreign language. As a nation, we Brits seem to really struggle with foreign languages, so much so that apparently only 25% of the UK population speaks another foreign language and we are officially the worst language learners in Europe. Most of us have studied a foreign language at school but haven’t used it since then, and our education system of choosing just 3 or 4 A-levels makes it easier for languages to slip off our curriculum than in other countries in Europe, where it’s often mandatory to study a language until 18. And I’m no exception!

Although I did study a language at A-level and I then continued to study languages at university, I also shamefully abandoned French pre-GCSEs, aged 14. At age 14 I was asked to choose my GCSEs and, bizarrely, I chose to study Latin over French! The reason? I disliked my stuffy, boring and mean French teacher, but I loved my two fun and friendly Latin teachers – which is a lesson for language teachers out there about how to keep students interested in your subject! So I did a GCSE in Latin, which may have helped me slightly with learning Italian but otherwise hasn’t had any use in the last 13 years, and my French declined into virtual oblivion.

Considering that I’ve ended up following an international career and I work in European policy, it’s an irony that I don’t speak French or German – and I now see that it would have made a tangible difference to my career if I did speak French. So my new project is to re-learn French. I resumed A2-B1 level classes in September and I have 3 hours per week, and slowly but surely I am improving! Woop!

There are so many people who, like me, want to pick up a language that they haven’t touched since a teenager. So whether you’re trying to pick up French or another language, here are my top tips!

1. Identify your motivations and objective behind learning that foreign language

It’s important to be honest and ask yourself why are you learning a language. Is it to use on holiday? To use at work? To move abroad one day? Or simply to impress others?

My personal motivation is that I love understanding other cultures and I know that speaking the language of a place is the key to unlock the heart of the local community that live there. I personally doubt that the desire to merely impress others, by adding another string to your bow, is enough to keep you motivated through the significant amount of time it takes to learn a language. If you merely want to tell people that you’re learning Arabic, for example, then you can do level 1 of Duolingo on repeat, and it would have the same impact as if you took a whole degree in the language – at least as far as other people can tell!

If you want to work in a certain industry or market in which that language would be used, then that’s a perfectly valid and motivating goal, as you’ll reap a tangible benefit in the long-term. If you want to better understand what you’re experiencing when you travel or move abroad, then that’s also completely legitimate. I was recently interviewed for online magazine ‘The Language Exepress’ and the interviewer asked me what aspect of being multilingual I loved most. It’s a great question, and I replied that I loved speaking multiple languages because they enrich my experiences as I move and travel around the world, giving me deeper insight into a country and a people, by being able to communicate, relate and scratch beneath the surface. That’s my motivation. Living abroad without understanding the local language (as happened to me in Nepal) was intensely frustrating and only emphasised to me the importance of language learning.

What’s your motivation for picking up a language again?

2. Take a test to establish your existing level

In Europe, most language schools classify their classes using the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The scale runs from A1 (practically beginner) to C2 (fluent) and if you want to sign up for a formal class, then you’ll need to know which level to start at. Hopefully you’ll have some remnant of the language lodged in the back of your brain from school days, meaning you can skip the complete beginners’ class. Finding the correct level of class is important because if you’re in too basic a class, you’ll get bored and lose interest. If you’re in too advanced a class, you’ll lose the thread, feel demotivated and give up. I’ve experienced both situations and learned that a little bit of stretch is conducive. But when you’re out of your depth, you’ll clam up, feel embarrassed in front of others and stop trying all together.

Look for a free online test to find out your current level, or if you’re booking a class through a language school, they may do a face-to-face or telephone interview to establish your level.

Take the time to get the level right, and don’t feel shy about trying out various levels of classes to determine the right one for you. When re-learning a language as an adult, everyone in the class will have varying levels of the language, so pitching the level right is a fine balance for the teacher. Do tell the teacher if you think it’s too easy or too advanced for you, and be honest about which areas of the grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation you’re struggling with, so the teacher knows how to pitch the class.

3. Find a learning style you truly enjoy

Complete beginners have it easy in terms of choosing a style, as virtually their only option is to attend a formal class and follow the textbook and structure their teacher chooses. (Whatever anyone says, I don’t believe that anyone can become fluent from Duolingo alone!) But as you’ve already got some deeply hidden, perhaps not-so-forgotten knowledge of the language, you can choose your learning strategy and style.

  • Do you need routine and structure to force yourself to study? Sign up for a weekly class (or twice weekly if you can) with a teacher who expects you to attend and complete homework each week – it’s amazing how a fixed time in the diary each week and a financial outlay can motivate your to persevere. I’m learning French in classes provided through work, taught by the Institut Français in the Foreign Office, and I know there’s an attendance register. If I don’t attend classes often enough, then I’ll be kicked off the course, which certainly keeps me committed!
  • Do you learn best when immersed and studying full-time? Sign up for an intensive course in the country of that language, and make sure you’re living with locals to surround yourself in the language.
  • Do you learn best through reading novels? Look on Amazon for bilingual or ‘parallel text’ books where you have the foreign language on one page, and its translation into English on the opposite page.
  • Do you learn best through watching films or TV? Try using subtitles to your advantage. Start off watching a foreign film or TV episode with English subtitles. Then a week or so later switch the subtitles to the language of the film/episode and watch it again. Then (if you can bear to watch it a third time!) watch it without any subtitles at all. You’ll need to concentrate on each viewing, but your brain should pick up on key words, sentences and remember their meanings from your previous viewings, and instil the phrases in your brain. It’s also a really good excuse to watch films and TV!
  • Do you learn best through listening to the news? News bulletins are fantastic resources – they’re normally free, short and snappy, and you can often guess the context and subject matter simply by following the news in your native tongue. News presenters unfortunately have a habit of speaking very fast, but there is a solution! I recently discovered a fantastic podcast called ‘News in Slow French’ and it exists in Spanish, German, Italian also, with two different speeds: intermediate and advanced. Alternatives include ‘Journal en Français Facile’ for French and ‘Wablieft’ for Dutch, and there’s something similar in all kinds of languages. Search Google, Spotify or iTunes for websites and podcasts called names like ‘slow French’ and you’ll find a wealth of slower audio resources for language learners.
  • Do you learn best through listening to audiobooks? Once you’ve reached an intermediate level in the language, try listening to an audiobook in the foreign language. Audible has a selection of foreign language audiobooks. If you find it easier, start by listening to a book you’ve already read in English (the classic choice is a Harry Potter book, as they’ve been translated into every language under the sun, and the syntax and vocabulary isn’t very complex). Gradually switch to listening to audiobooks written by native speakers of that language. Yes the first 15 minutes or so may sound like gobbledygook, but persevere and you’ll see that your brain starts putting context together and taking educated guesses at the meanings. It’s also the best way to pick up an authentic accent, in my opinion.
  • Do you learn best through speaking to native speakers? This is easier to do once you’ve reached a solid intermediate level of the language or above. If you ask to practice the language with a native speaker when you’re still a virtual beginner, you’ll bore them to death with sentences about the names of family members and days of the week, and you risk exhausting their goodwill to practice again in future. But if you do find someone willing to chat conversationally with you – fantastic! Encourage them to correct your pronunciation and any mistakes, and let them feel comfortable correcting you, to ensure you’re getting the most learning out of it.
  • Do you learn best through repetition? Listen to a foreign news podcast twice, and you’ll quickly notice how much more you understand on the second listening. Read a chapter of a bilingual book a second time, this time without looking at the English translation. Watch a film/episode twice. Memorise and test yourself on vocabulary lists.
  • What other methods work best for you?

4. Make time to integrate language learning into your routine

In order to keep learning a language until you can speak it proficiently, you need to commit to studying over a long period of time. Treat a language like you would a diet or a fitness kick – eating healthily or hitting the gym just once a week isn’t going to result in real improvement. Everyone knows that. Equally, a foreign language also needs to be exercised more than once a week, so integrating it into your daily routine if you can, is the key to keep building and improving.

You can’t cram learning a language into one month. British diplomats often spend an entire year in full-time, intensive language training just to be ready to work in a foreign country, so if you’re attempting to learn part-time, then be sure you’re in it for the long-haul. I find the easiest way to commit to the long-haul is to truly enjoy the method of language learning you’ve chosen (see above). The second most important factor though, is to ensure it fits into your daily routine and that you allow time for language learning. For example, some of these might work for you:

  • Set aside time in your diary immediately before and after each lesson to revise the material and vocab for the upcoming class, and do your homework straight afterwards while it’s fresh in your mind.
  • Dedicate your morning or evening commute to listening to a short regular podcast of news in the foreign language.
  • Set yourself a challenge to read 5 pages of a bilingual book each night before bed.
  • Scan your local independent cinema for films in the foreign language and make a point of watching a film once a month (or more).
  • Watch an episode every Sunday evening of a foreign TV series you’re hooked on.
  • Best of all, promise yourself 1 or 2 visits / holidays each year to that country, so that you have goals and a purpose to work towards and always focus on. You’ll also have dedicated time to practice the language and the pressure of an upcoming trip will really focus the mind!

This very last point is my favourite and really links to my personal objectives for learning a language. If you can link your methods to your goals and keep that primary objective in mind at all times, then I do believe it’s possible to make that New Year’s Resolution last beyond January and persevere until you reach an advanced level, or even fluency!

Do you have any other top tips or methods you’ve used to learn a language? What tools, website, podcasts or other techniques would you recommend? If you have any ideas particularly for me re-learning French then please do comment, and I’m also interested in suggestions for learning other languages too!

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