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How to learn a language if you’re too British for your own good

October 22, 2015

I've always considered it somewhat ironic that a person so linguistically stunted as myself could be born into a bilingual family. No matter how hard my parents/teachers tried, my brain maintained its stringent one-language policy. It was almost as if my innate Britishness had cast out my French heritage completely. For many years, it was nigh impossible to persuade me to speak in anything but my mother tongue, in fact, I was of the distinct belief that there were only two languages in this world: English and English spoken loudly and deliberately. 

So what momentous feat do you reckon cajoled me into learning French? Job in Paris? Romantic flame from Montpellier? Non! For me, it was one question which slowly wore me down over a period of decades… “That’s a French surname, tu  parle Francais?!” The embarrassment and shame finally built up to the point that I just couldn't take it any more. It was time to be pro-active, time to take control of my bilingual destiny! 

Naturally, my first port of call was my family; worst mistake ever! Being reprimanded in a foreign language for not speaking that language, for hours at a time, goes way past the realms of constructive criticism. So my next step was to sign up to a series of late night French classes at a reputable evening school. I never made it through the first term! I couldn’t stand all the sycophantic ex-French A-level students, whose primary reason for attendance appeared to be to show-off rather than learn. Moreover it felt distinctly weird to be taught in that setting! In my mind, learning a language shouldn't feel like an academic exercise, it should be gradual, experimental, expanding only as fast as your conversations require – toddler like.

The only thing I found that worked for me was self-teaching. It allowed me to bring together my scattered, accumulated knowledge into something vaguely coherent, at a pace which suited me. For once I could actually spend time on the bits I NEEDED to understand better, without the fear of incessant tutting, or the disapproving looks of my classmates.

The one downside is for a whole year, I was ‘that guy’ sitting on the tube, muttering to himself incessantly, whilst listening to an age-old ‘Total French with Michel Thomas’ CD on an even older Discman. Were the funny looks worth it? Yes, because that summer holiday, I found myself able to converse with Bordeaux’s bar locals; albeit with a healthy dose of Dutch-courage and a lot of gesticulating. Whilst I’m aware this may seem like a rather small accomplishment to many of you, for me it was a big step in the right direction. It gave me the confidence to use my French within my day to day life, whether that’d be giving directions to a French tourist or speaking to a French Client.

As of such I would really recommend giving self-teaching a go to anyone who has struggled with languages in the past. But don’t go raiding your local charity shops for Walkman’s yet! With the recent app explosion a whole plethora of new-age Language tools are available. Here are a few tips how to pick the right one:

1. Is it fun? Language learning should be enjoyable. Look for apps with interactive mini-games e.g. DUO LINGO.
2. Pick a program according to your goal. Do you need to learn a language for work? If so look for platforms which relate directly to your industry e.g. Specialist Language Courses.
3. If you’d prefer an audio course, listen to a clip prior to purchase. There is nothing worse than being saddled with 15 hours of the vocal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Look for old-school Michel Thomas.

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