In my late twenties, I found myself running a foreign language department–despite lacking both the academic qualifications and practical experience required to do so–and dealing with a faculty complaint. A student taking Spanish 101 told me that her instructor was “incompetent” and should be fired because “she didn’t teach us any of the words. She started the class speaking Spanish!” I was taken aback by the complaint, largely because I couldn’t conceive of any other way to teach a foreign language class. Of course, the teachers should only speak the target language. I defended the faculty member, stumbling over an explanation that referenced implicit learning and probably didn’t make much sense to the student.It was the first of many, many times I would get that question throughout my career: How can I learn a language when I don’t know anything? Or, how can I speak only English when my students cannot understand me? While I can’t go back in time and better help that Spanish 101 student, I can try to offer an explanation that makes sense. Ultimately, what it comes down to is setting expectations. Language learners–especially the true beginners–need to understand that picking up a new language is completely different from studying something like math or geography.First, we have to accept that things are hard for the true beginner. Good teachers of any subject know that it’s a bad idea to begin the very first class off with your hardest materials–you don’t want to discourage your students before they even get started. The problem is that there’s no good way around this with language teaching–listening to someone talk to you in a language you don’t understand is an aggravating and frustrating experience. That’s a fact. That doesn’t mean we should avoid it; learning to do new things is hard. Learning to do really hard new things can feel impossible. Knowing that is the secret to approaching language learning with a good attitude.If a new student understands that he is going to spend thirty minutes immersed in a new language, and at the end, he might understand three words, and, if, perhaps more importantly, he understands that he is only expected to understand two words, he is certain to approach the whole experience differently. He won’t be as frustrated that he doesn’t understand everything. And after a week of learning a few words at a time, he will start to have the building blocks to understand more and more. Second, we should try very hard to teach new beginners with materials that offer context clues, conversational markers, and images. Learners should listen to video and audio recordings over and over until they can understand the sounds. New language learners should be prepared to listen and read many different examples of people doing the same thing so that they can isolate the words and expressions that are being used. A language course that offers twenty different audio recordings of people introducing themselves at a meeting is going to seem very boring to a fluent speaker, but it is just what a novice learner needs. And we should make sure that the novice learner understands that, as well.Novice learners and their teachers need to be willing to embrace the foolish. Take travel, for example: Experienced travelers understand that if you’re willing to come across as a bit of an idiot, you can almost always communicate in a foreign context using body language, gestures, pantomime, and shared context. The guy behind the dairy counter knows I want to buy something from him, and if I point, offer him cash, and indicate how big a piece of the cheese I want to buy, there’s a pretty good chance that we’ll each be able to walk away satisfied. The first steps of learning a new language are pretty similar–the teacher needs to be willing to pantomime, use gestures, and repeat herself over and over. And when students start speaking, they need to be willing to sound a bit foolish and make mistakes. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, learning a language is learning a new skill, and all skill acquisition requires that people be willing to fail. What it comes down to is setting expectations. That Spanish 101 student would likely not have complained that her teacher didn’t teach her the right words if she had known that she wasn’t supposed to understand everything. That, in fact, not understanding anything was a necessary step to learning Spanish. If we make sure that true beginners understand that learning a language is hard work and that they aren’t expected to understand everything at once, then we would be setting them up for success.
Katharine Nielson, Ph.D. leads a team of curriculum specialists, data analysts, and research associates to develop test items, curate language learning content, develop curricula, and run empirical studies. She’s spent twenty years teaching languages, researching how to teach languages, and teaching people how to teach languages in various settings around the world.