Brought to you by Swiss French School.
1. Learning takes a long time
Most know this but teachers don’t like to discuss it. Let’s face it it’s not a great sales pitch. This rarely discussed reality leads many to assume the language learning dropout rate is high because learning a language is difficult, and that the few who succeed must have a gift for language. Both of these assumptions are wrong. Those who succeed are persistent. We have all successfully learned at least one language before, we’ve just forgotten how long it took.
The US Foreign Service Institute, which trains US diplomats, has classified languages based on how much time it will take an English speaker to learn them. The good news is that French is in the “easy” category. The not so good news is that general professional speaking and reading proficiency requires 575 to 600 hours of training. That’s 6 hours a week for two years or 12 hours a week for one year.
Parents are sometimes surprised how quickly their children learn the local language at school. Some are fluent after 6 or 12 months. However, a full school year adds up to around 800 hours of classroom time. This is longer than the US Foreign Service Institute’s guideline of 575 to 600 hours for an adult to learn French. If you went to school for a year with your children you would be fluent too!
2. Spending one hour a week won’t work
Many language schools sell these types of courses, not because they think they will work but because people are busy and such courses fit their busy schedules. However, a minimum intensity is required. Any skill that requires “automation” like speaking or swinging a golf club requires intensive and sustained repetition.
Over the summer break, school teachers worry about summer learning loss. Numerous studies that have given children the same test before and after the summer holidays show significant learning loss. Language learning is no different. Lesson length and frequency is a subject of great debate however most educators would agree that one short class a week is unlikely to deliver much. New words are like young plants: without regular watering they don’t survive.
3. You will feel stupid
In the early stages of learning you will feel stupid. You can’t have a conversation, nothing you read makes sense and your writing is often incomprehensible. This is normal. Babies spend years uttering broken sentences and mispronounced words but we don’t think they are stupid.
Best selling American author, Josh Kaufmann in his book on how to learn anything says that the major barrier to skill acquisition isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional. We’re scared. At the beginning we need to go through a frustration barrier. This makes us feel stupid, something Josh refers to as “the grossly incompetent and knowing it part”. His advice is to make an up front commitment that will take you through this inevitable period of frustration and out the other side, and stick to it. Also, practice feeling “stupid” with your new language at home or with close friends. Try to do this until it feels normal.
Language learning is about ambiguity and making mistakes. Being comfortable with this allows your mind to operate in an alpha state, aiding learning. If children have an advantage over adults it is here. So try to be more like a child.