“I have no gift for languages.” “There’s no point in my learning them for me.” “I’ll start as soon as I have time for it!” “I’m a perpetual beginner, I will never get any better.”
These are among the most common excuses stopping us from learning a foreign language these days. But then we dream about travelling to foreign countries, on a trip or a holiday, and guess what? We crash into a language barrier. Then we wish we had done a language course, to have acquired at least the very basics…
Yet there are people with enough motivation and persistence to improve their language skills and achieve their goals. As an English teacher and student of English for education, I’ve long been curious about what makes these people different and why they keep learning a language despite having a busy schedule.
Here is an interview with two of my most diligent students, Rebecca and Sheila.
1. To begin with, could you tell me a bit about yourself– your job, household, family?
S: Well, I work as a nurse in a rehabilitation department in Nový Lískovec, Brno. My job is to treat patients – give them medicine, drips, oxygen, vaccine application, etc. I am also responsible for treating wounds and decubitus ulcers. I work 12-hour shifts – either 6am to 6pm or vice versa. I work on public holidays and weekends, too, usually 15 shifts a month. The rest of my time I spend at home with my family, cooking, gardening or cleaning. Last, but not least, I take care of my father, who had a stroke.
R: I work for a tech company as an independent sales agent. I work 8-hour shifts. Considering the conditions of contracts, I need to adjust my working hours strategically, so that all components for the installation of a machine are ready on time. These days I come home later, but my husband manages to take care of the household – he needs to. (She smiles.)
2. Wow! So much to do besides full-time work! I can imagine myself coming home absolutely exhausted and just wanting to lie down. Where do your energy and motivation come from? What fuels you to study and improve your English?
S: I like English as a foreign language, its melody and simplicity. Moreover, it is lingua franca, which is an important aspect for why I want to master it. I would like to reach international level B2 level, followed by C1, and then to travel to Great Britain, where I could practise and improve even more – surrounded by native speakers. Studying English is such fun with my teacher Kristýnka, who is kind, helpful and always able to advise me or direct me to the right path. Although I think my English results are not good at all, she keeps motivating and energizing me.
R: In my leisure time I pursue my hobbies. I love gardening beside our cottage and reading books, and I do a lot of sports, especially cycling, badminton, swimming and fitness exercising. I drive my daughter to her free-time activities, too. Despite all these things, so not having much time to spare, I decided to learn English, which is an inevitable part of both professional and personal life nowadays. I was confronted with this fact when I was applying for a job and in 90% of cases a foreign language was required. My dreams of a better position faded with that. Moreover, my inability to book a hotel room, a flight or to order a meal frustrated me when on holiday. For these reasons, I decided to have private English lessons – I’d like to be able to manage these trivial things by myself. Once a week I have a lesson with my amazing teacher, who has great patience with me.
3. Seeing a teacher once a week is one thing, but a week is long enough not to remember everything you’ve gone through, to say nothing of the impossibility of becoming fluent in any language if you have lessons just once a week. Do you practise your English in other ways as well?
S: Yes, I try. As far as my time allows, I spend time watching English films or series with English subtitles. Any source of spoken English or some connection with it is good for me.
R: Because a week is long time, I get homework. I took the idea of doing homework from my husband, who keeps his eye on our daughter when she is doing hers. This makes me practise regularly. In addition, when we are driving to work, my husband and I listen to the radio and try to identify song lyrics. We laugh out loud – as each of us hears different things pretty often! I love it, because songs familiar to me then have a new meaning. Last but not least, I’ve downloaded an English training app into my smartphone. It makes me repeat everything until I master it – a requirement which I need to meet in order to move to a higher level.
4. Do you find learning English easy? Do you think you have a natural talent for languages in general?
S: In my view, it is easier than German. English impressed me by its simplicity and logic. I appreciate that English doesn’t conjugate verbs or inflect nouns, so it’s not as “flexible” a language as Czech, for instance. A natural talent? I couldn’t say. But languages have always interested me, and I have always found pleasure in learning them.
R: I don’t find learning English easy at all. It doesn’t come very naturally to me. Often, I don’t catch things my lecturer says first time. Then various exercises help me. I use them to improve.
5. Which ways of learning English work best for you?
S: Listening to English radio, and watching films and series in English with subtitles, as I mentioned before. My favourite is House.
R: Lessons have the greatest benefit for me. My lecturer speaks English with me and explains in Czech if I don’t understand what she is saying. As I mentioned above, the smartphone app helps me translate sentences. Provided I write things down exactly as they should be, I’m allowed to continue to the next level.
6. Did you learn any other language before you started with English? Are you still learning a language besides English?
S: Currently I’m focusing on English only. I have been preparing for FCE, which is an English exam (international B2 level), and I want to be as well prepared as possible. I don’t want to rely on luck. I learnt Icelandic before, as I lived in Iceland, and I must admit that Icelandic was a bit “hardcore” compared to English.
R: I’ve been learning Russian since elementary school, and as it is rather similar to my own language, it is absolutely natural to me. I also tried to learn German, but it just didn’t work for me and all my effort has been wasted.
7.What do you think of new methods such as “English on alfa waves”, the “magic method of learning English” or “English in 3 days”? Do you think any of them can work?
S: I’m sure they can’t. I’m not a supporter of shortcuts in learning languages. It is just business and a way of attracting people. In my experience, learning a language takes time and patience as well as the will to learn. It’s really not a short-distance run. Every single language, with the exception of the mother tongue, needs practice or it fades.
R: To be honest, those adds appealed to me some time ago as well, so I started micro-searching for what kind of magic was behind them. But I don’t think that the vocabulary and grammar of foreign languages, which people keep learning for years, can be acquired in three days! If this was the case, I would surely know about somebody it has worked for! All of us would want it if it worked!
8. In which sphere of your life do you plan to use English most?
S: At work and in my hobbies. I plan to devote time to English forever.
R: I dream about mastering English so that I’m able to lead a simple dialogue, e.g. make a call, ask for directions, order a meal or book a hotel and a flight.
Do you still think that there is no point in devoting time to learning languages? Then I would like to encourage you, because knowledge of a language will always count for something. Set yourself an achievable goal, even if it is just to learn to say the ten most common phrases in that language. Start small and your achievements will motivate you to continue… And if not, you will still know at least those ten common phrases!