Learning a language is harder for some and easier for others, but there are specific factors that determine whether an approach will work on a particular student.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I am a big proponent of language learning for everyone, whether they are considering or attracted to a career in linguistics or translation or not. Being able to communicate on a global level is a powerful ability and a valuable skill that is only becoming more and more important as time goes on. If I had children in school I would make certain they were receiving a top notch instruction in science, maths – and at least one language.
In fact, I am frequently asked by friends with children what languages they should be studying, so I have had an opportunity to think about language learning. My conclusion is simple: It doesn’t matter what language they study, really; the most important thing to remember is the factors that influence language learning and that can be the difference between success and failure for students.
Factor One: Motivation
For any subject, students absolutely must see the material as important to their lives, or they will fail on some level. Failure in this context includes passing the class but retaining nothing of value – a frequent experience among many language students who take several years of classes and find themselves unable to recall much of it as adults.
The simplest motivation for young students, of course, is their family. If they know they will be in big trouble unless they learn their language well, that can be sufficient motivation. On the other hand, an upcoming trip to a foreign country or a study abroad program can be a gentler motivation with the same impact.
Factor Two: Teaching Style
You have to seek out instructors who will make their classroom an environment that matches up with the students’ personalities and learning style, discussed below. This is never the same for two different students, of course, but it’s an essential factor. Lecturing and rote memorisation and recitation frequently don’t work, whereas an immersion environment will. The right teaching style can be the key to getting students to commit themselves to a language course.
Factor Three: Learning Style
The final piece of the puzzle is the way the student themselves actually take in and process information – how they learn. Not everyone is made of the same stuff, after all, and some folks take a different approach to the material. Introverts may prefer to study books and other materials, but be shy in class, while extroverts may enjoy ‘winging it’ in class but refuse to sit down and study the materials at night. In a language class, the latter will usually do better than the former.
In the end, every situation is unique, because it combines several personalities. Finding the right approach to learning a language requires some research into the program, but also some self-knowledge so you can determine your own learning style or your child’s learning style. Auditing of classes might be helpful to get an understanding of a teacher’s style, as well.
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