Language Learning 101: Have Realistic Expectations. (Tip #1)

Image provided by Flickr user  Anh Dinh  and used under a Creative Commons license

Image provided by Flickr user Anh Dinh and used under a Creative Commons license

Welcome to my first series, Language Learning 101! Over the next few weeks, I will be explaining the science behind how we learn new languages and how you can use this research to inform your homeschool’s approach to language learning. So let’s jump in!

Here’s my first tip:

Have realistic expectations for language learning. 

This advice comes first because it provides the foundation for all of the other principles of language learning. 

Yet I’m blushing as I write this post, because it was my own lack of realistic expectations that led me to having a PhD in Spanish. 

Let me explain. 

When I started college, I planned to major in French. I enjoyed my French classes in high school and had even done well enough to join the French Honor Society. With dreams of studying abroad in Paris, I applied to live in our school’s French-only dorm, and as a freshman, that's where I moved in on the first day of school. 

The next day, I took the French placement exam and scoured the course listings for the literature classes that sounded most appealing. Medieval Literature? Women Writers of the Magreb? Sign me up! I was raring to go. 

And then, one day later, I learned my placement results.  

I had placed into “Baby French”—the lowest-level French class offered at my college. I would have to start over from “bonjour.” 

I was mortified. 

In my humiliation, I decided to abandon my French studies right then and there and switch tracks entirely.

I enrolled in “Baby Spanish” that week, and immediately fell in love—not just with the language, but with language learning itself. It was a providential second chance that profoundly shaped my life’s course. Twelve years later, here I am: Anne Guarnera, PhD. 

And what I know now—having studied and become fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese—is that as a new college student, I had completely unreasonable expectations of what it meant to be “proficient” in a foreign language. As I learned quite rudely during that first week of school, being able to conjugate verbs on worksheets and read newspaper articles in French did not mean that I had mastered the language. Even though I had attended a rigorous high school, my language education simply wasn’t adequate. 

So what do I know now that I wish that I knew then? Well, I might have become more proficient in French if I had known these three things: 

1.) Language learning is a multi-faceted process. 

Learning to speak, listen, read and write are all essential skills to develop on the journey towards learning a new language—yet there is some evidence to suggest that one’s writing ability is reflective of one’s overall mastery of the language. As a new college student, I mistook my ability to read and understand spoken French for an ability to speak the language well—but as it turned it, I was woefully unfluent. If I had read more about the connection between writing skills and speaking skills I might have had a better sense of my weaknesses (as I did struggle with writing) and realize that I didn’t understand French grammar quite as well as I imagined. 

2.) Language learning takes focus and dedication. 

Learning a foreign language is lot like learning to play an instrument—in order to do it well, you must put aside regular time to practice, and also structure your practice in a way that allows you to review while building new skills. While I may have done well in my French classes in high school, I realize now that I was often studying “to the test"—not studying for long-term retention. Having learned two other languages since, I now know that flash cards and grammar worksheets aren’t enough if they are abandoned after every post-chapter assessment. In the third post of this series (coming up soon!), I’ll be sharing some of the strategies that I’ve adopted—and that have also worked for my students—to plan for both the daily practice and long-term proficiency building exercises that are needed for language mastery. 

3.) Language learning is a joy. 

When I compare my experience studying French to my experience of learning Spanish and Portuguese, it is clear that one crucial element was lacking: joy. As a high school student, I studied French mostly out of a sense of duty and perhaps some cultural elitism (enough with the “Cinco de Mayo” and sombreros already!). Even though I wanted to do well in my classes, I didn’t have a passion for the language itself. When I started studying Spanish, however, that changed. During my first two years as a Spanish student, I was privileged to study with two professors who truly, visibly delighted in the experience of speaking and teaching Spanish, and their enthusiasm for the language was infectious. Their joy was a gift to me, and made me believe that it is realistic to enjoy the experience of language learning—and I hope that my work here can convince you of the same.

If you’ve studied a foreign language, do you feel like your expectations for language learning were realistic? What surprised you about learning a new language?