For many-a-language learner who ventures out to try their newly-learned language away from the confines of the classroom, the veil of confidence that they had within those four walls is often drawn back with a sharp tug… and then a slap in the face when they hit foreign soil; which can be terribly discouraging. But fear not! You are not alone. In her first guest post for Livemocha, Liv, a university student from Brisbane who writes about her love of language and travel on her blog, Lingual Life, shares her eye-opening experiences and how she’s filling in the gaps left by her school-time language learning.
By Liv from Lingual Life
How often do you hear people say ‘oh, I’ve been learning X language for Y years, and I still can’t say anything’? That was me.
I spent six years – the length of high school here in Australia – learning Spanish. I got good marks. I did all my homework. I studied my vocabulary lists. I passed my Spanish classes each year and moved on to the next. I thought I was doing fine.
Then I went to Spain.
My first stop was Barcelona. I was looking at a sign on the metro and I was completely confused as to why I couldn’t read it. That was my first introduction to Catalan. In six years, nobody had ever mentioned that in Spain, not everyone speaks Spanish. It sounds completely ridiculous, and it is. As I learnt more about the numerous languages spoken in Spain, the more ludicrous it seemed that that this was never mentioned once. Add that to list of real world knowledge they don’t give you. Once I found that out, things got better. A little.
I could distinguish the Spanish signs and the Catalan signs. I could read what the Spanish signs said. I could ask how much things cost and which way to whatever sight I was looking for. I just couldn’t understand a thing that was said to me in response. I did a lot of smiling and nodding and saying ‘gracias’ when I had no idea what was going on.
I had no idea how to talk to someone on the street
I was so confused why I was so much worse than I’d thought. Eventually I figured it out – I’d never learnt anything relevant to a real life situation. I knew a lot of the grammar, and I knew a lot of words. I knew how to listen to a tape to extract the information I would be asked. I knew how to talk about problems in the environment (the topic of my 15 minute final oral interview). I had no idea how to talk to someone on the street. I couldn’t check in to the hostel, or book a table at a restaurant. I couldn’t buy bus tickets. I was pretty much useless. And it was a shock! I was under no illusions that I was ‘fluent’, whatever that means, but I thought I could hold a conversation or two!
Which brings us back to school language classes. My problem is that you think you’re learning. You think you’re doing well. And then when it really matters, all of a sudden, you realise how little you know. It’s like a little secret no one tells you. They string you along and let you think you’re doing alright. Then when it really matters, when you really need the language, it’s like ‘just joking!’. I mean, I could have done more. I deserve some blame for my lack of knowledge, as well. Back then I didn’t think I needed to do more. I thought classes were there to teach me; I thought that they would be enough.
Classes are not enough.
Now, I’m not hating on language classes. I’m currently taking Spanish classes again. I had to choose a language major so I decided to keep going with what I had. And they’re going well this time around. There are a lot of benefits to taking classes – you have someone right there to correct you, and you have someone to keep you accountable to your learning, among others. But I had all those benefits the first time. The difference now? I’m supplementing the classes (which again, are all about grammar and tests) with my own learning.
Supplementing my classes
I’m listening to podcasts in Spanish on the train every day. I’m reading my favourite books again in Spanish. I subscribed to a few Spanish blogs that I read. I’ve reconnected with a few old Spanish friends who I chat with online. I ‘discovered’ Livemocha and the huge amounts of information and inspiration there is online now. I joined a group at uni where international students and local students get together to practice the languages we’re learning.
And now, I feel like I’m learning. I’m using my Spanish this time. I’m gaining real world knowledge, not just the classroom knowledge. I’m not fluent. There’s a lot I don’t know. But I don’t stress about what I don’t know, because I know how much I do know. That’s what I like to focus on now.
If you want to get out of the classroom and learn a language in a new and engaging way, go to Livemocha’s language page and take your pick of the 38 languages that we offer.