When I hear someone say they “aren’t good at languages”, I just don’t believe them. I believe that they haven’t had the proper learning methods to help them succeed. One of the ingredients missing from the repertoire of many language students is actually doing, rather than learning. I am a firm believer that the earlier in the process a person tries to communicate with a native speaker of the language they’re learning, the better off they will be, even if at first they don’t understand a single thing that the native speaker says back to them!
When I started my first Spanish class, at 24 years old, I had a great encounter that I think exemplifies this concept. I had just been in my Intro to Spanish class for a couple weeks and happened to be getting on a bus in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. There was a Mexican couple who got on the bus in front of me, and the bus driver was trying to tell them that the fare would be an extra dollar, as the ride was beginning in zone 2, but the couple did not seem to be understanding what the driver said. I paid for them, and proceeded to greet them. All I had was a couple weeks in an intro Spanish class, and my textbook glossary, but we managed to talk for the full hour long bus ride. It ended up being a great time, with both myself and the gentleman leafing through the glossary, sometimes our thoughts being cut off mid sentence due to how small of a vocabulary we both had, and the limited scope of the textbook glossary. Did I learn anything from this experience? linguistically? I doubt it, but I believe it was still an important step in the development of my Spanish language abilities. It was time spent doing, not learning.
Now, of course I still had tons of stuff to learn. I still do! Language has to be experienced. Can you imagine someone learning to cook in a classroom, or behind a book. Sure, you can expand your knowledge of food and technique, but until you get into the kitchen, you will not truly learn to cook. Now some people will invariably argue “I want to understand what the person will say back to me before I start speaking to them in their language”. A valid feeling, but understanding is a skill that comes with practice. Practice actually doing it in conversation. Understanding exercises in class or audio-programs certainly can be beneficial, but to really learn how to cook, one must enter the kitchen.
Another concern people have is making mistakes, which can sometimes be embarrassing. This will happen. It is part of the process. Embrace the mistakes, as they are learning opportunities. When you make a mistake in conversation, if someone points it out to you or you realize it, you are more likely to remember it than if you made the mistake doing exercises from a book or in a classroom.
My older daughter, who is 4, just started learning Mandarin (which I studied long before I started Spanish). When we went to a Chinese restaurant recently, I encouraged her to speak Chinese with the waitress. The waitress was very gracious and spoke back to my daughter and me in Chinese. My daughter did not understand any of the replies to what she asked the waitress, and looked at me and said “huh”, but still had the courage to express herself in a language in which she only knew a couple basic phrases. After our lunch, I rewarded and praised my daughter for having the courage to walk through her fear and try something new. I told her that even though she didn’t understand, that someday she would and that she made an important first step. I am genuinely proud of her for not allowing her self-consciousness get in her way.
The way children learn their first language is a great example for adults to follow as we venture into second language learning. If they were afraid of talking because they might make a mistake, they would never end up speaking. For the longest time my oldest daughter would say “you goed there”? This follows the grammatical rules, but of course the past tense of “to go” is an exception to the rule. Eventually she learned, through making the mistake. As learners, this is what we must do. We must embrace our mistakes to learn from them. If we say “yo iré” or “yo voé” to mean “I went”, we will have made the mistake of assuming the verb “ir” followed the rule of adding an “é” to the end of the word in the first person singular to make it the preterite. This would be a mistake, the correct form is “yo fui”, but having made the mistake this irregular will now stand out in our mind. As James Joyce said “mistakes are the portals of discovery”.
So if you are a beginner, or just shy about using the skills you’ve learned, just do it! It will not make you fluent immediately, but get in the kitchen, it’s the only way you’ll really learn! And remember, a mistake isn’t the end of the world! It’s actually a valuable lesson that you’re now less likely to forget!
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing”
George Bernard Shaw