Is our difficulty learning a language a question of style or substance?
I recently overheard one of my colleagues say that so often the problems students encounter are down to poor learning strategies, rather than to any inherent
difficulty of English.
This is of course true, and partly explains why the second and third foreign languages are so much easier to learn that the first – once you’ve learnt
how to do it once, you can generalise your success.
That leaves the question of what a good learning strategy looks like, and unfortunately that’s not always a simple question – for example, while I’m
an enemy of the concept of learning styles, there does seem to be a good deal of individual variation in what works.
One of those variables seems to be the question of critical mass. I was comparing notes with one of my students yesterday, and it seems we both had
to achieve a considerable (in my case, overwhelming) critical mass of explicit knowledge and receptive skills (listening and reading) before fluency
in speaking in our respective target languages finally came. Meanwhile other learners seem to be up and running on a tiny store of words and structures.
No one learning strategy will recommend itself to both ends of this spectrum.
For example, my favourite advice – to try something different since if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results – in fact
flies in the face of most of our learning experience, according to which banging our head obstinately at a door will eventually open it. This is how
we learn as children. So sometimes the advice should be, just keeping on doing what you’re doing, and have a little faith. Learning a language takes
time and effort and is difficult.
Perhaps it is not just learning strategy which is at issue, but the scale of ambition. It is one thing to get by on a couple of hundred words and a
lot of personality, but that will not work if you are presenting your company to a dozen sceptical investors, or showing major clients around your
factory; still less if you have ambition to write fluently and accurately in English.
So, no easy answers. But here, in lieu of that, is a somewhat saccharine and nuttily optimistic video from the originators of the Khan Academy,
on the subject of learning and perseverance.