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You May Not Enjoy This: Getting Through The Chore of Language Learning


The myth of foreign language study is always similar: learn a new language, meet new people, have fun, explore, live the good life. Today, I want to write about the other perspective. What happens when learning languages is nowhere near that enjoyable? How to deal with this? Read on; we really need your input here.

Inspiration: sex workers and trainee surgeons

I watched this TED talk some time ago and thought about it for a while. Here was a project whose main goal was to make translation as negligible, automatic and transparent as possible – for the sake of patients, doctors and trainees. You may be all in favour of the human factor here, and insist that a computer translation will always be inferior to human work – but one thing is obvious: these people need lots of foreign languages fast.
Recently, I read another article that made me think of the problem again. It’s about an organization which makes sure that sex workers in London are able to communicate sufficiently well in English. Again, this is not how you imagine successful language learning – but if it keeps everyone out of trouble, then it has succeeded.
But then I thought of coursebooks and materials for these courses and projects, and I realized something important.

The lack: I’m not here to have fun. Now what?

Communicative language teaching seems to be founded on one central idea. It is a good thing to speak to people, and when communication happens, this is an enjoyable activity. The enjoyment should be enough to motivate most learners to do it more, and better.
Hence the ever-present need for activities that are “fun” and “interactive” – for teachers and materials whose “creativity” knows no limits. All advertising for language courses seems to center on that idea.
Try selling a course like that to an overworked surgeon, or an adult industry worker. See how they react, and you’ll realize what I mean.
The moment you take away the “fun factor” – the moment you (as a tutor, student, class…) realize that nobody is expecting fun and creativity – is when you can almost hear the energy and will to learn evaporating from the room. Once the smiling faces and exciting exercises are gone, what could remain to get everyone through a course like that?
I thought about it for a while. Fortunately, our culture is good at creating environments in which these states are frequent. We call them offices.

The model: working productively with others

Basically – “The Office” is precisely what you want to avoid if your language course is nothing but a chore. There are plenty of tips for doing that, since plenty of people realized that Dilbert-like scenarios are just too difficult to deal with. Here’s a few:
– Try to manage your tutor / classmates without emotional baggage. It may be that your language course is the only one you’re getting, and the one you really need. This blog article should help out with a few handy approaches.
– Find mentors to focus on what needs doing. There could be people around you learning the same language for the same reasons. Do this together – learn from one another and make sure that the right kind of focus is achieved. Better still – find an expert to find out how to get there fast! This article has the right kind of pointers to get you started.

The philosophy: pragmaticism, kindness and traumas

Despite all your good will, learning a foreign language may still suck from time to time. There is very little that could help at times like this – but these three links could at least prepare you for what is ahead:
– Treat your language like a set of tools. You don’t have to obsess over them, love them or even enjoy them. If you get things done with them – that’s something to be proud of.
– Treat others as you would want to be treated. Sounds simple and ancient, right? You know how hard that is, though…funny thing: this works wonders in language learning.
– Prepare for traumas, and know how to overcome them. I’ve had mine. My students have had theirs. You’ll have yours. This should help.

Folks, two big questions to deal with now:
– How do you deal with a language course that’s not supposed to be enjoyable?
– What’s your opinion on the initiative mentioned above – and do you know of similar ones?

(Photo credit: Kristina Alexanderson via Compfight)

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One Responseso far.

  1. I strongly agree with the interactive part. Working with others is essential to maintaining motivation. Interaction keeps me learning about new people and cultures and interests others who might find my language-learning intriguing. So I recruit new “mentors” along the way without their knowing it. Ultimately, my goal is to interact with other people with my language, so I’m motivating myself by doing the thing I’m aiming to do. If I want to learn how to shoot layups, I practice shooting layups. If I can get into some games, then I’m doing the thing I’m aiming at. If I want to learn to converse, the best thing I can do is get into conversations.