Sometimes it feels like there are bilingual schools popping up on every street in Madrid. The Spanish government is pushing English in a big way, putting pressure on teachers to improve their English in order for the next generation of Spaniards to be able to use a second language at a competent level.
It is common knowledge that younger learners absorb a language far quicker than adults and therefore makes absolute sense that learning should begin as soon as possible, but what is interesting is why children find it so much easier. I am often surprised at how quickly we begin to lose this ability to acquire a language. Even students who start classes in their twenties are at a disadvantage, and it’s often an uphill struggle from then on. Biological factors do indeed play a big part in this as with age our brain loses its ability to acquire and retain language. Furthermore, once one idiom is learnt, any other language will always be acquired in the context of the tongue which is already established in the brain. However, we cannot simply blame our difficulties on factors out of our control. What we forget is that our attitude is often the make or break factor in successful learning.
To speak a language, we have to make mistakes. Think about when you listen to children saying things like “I don’t have nothing” or “I have tooken it”. Do we laugh at the child when they say these things? Maybe. Do we correct them? Yes. Are they embarrassed about the mistake they have made? No. And this is the important bit. Children have yet to develop a sense of shame or embarrassment and this is key to their rapid learning. As adults, we have already grasped our native language and therefore are extremely self conscious about making mistakes in another. We would rather remain silent than expose ourselves to ridicule by committing an error or speaking with a “funny” accent. We may even have laughed at another person for trying to speak our language and making some hilarious error.
What we are forgetting, firstly, is that it is impossible to become fluent in another language if you don’t actually speak it. It’s all very well to sit hunched over a grammar book conjugating verbs but that will only get you so far. You need to be brave and give the speaking bit a try. Secondly, no one actually cares about whether you remembered to use that past participle correctly, or if you forgot the subjunctive form of the verb to be. To think that everyone is fervently listening out for some slip or mispronunciation is actually a rather egocentric attitude. Most people have more important things to worry about and are actually quite understanding and helpful with anyone who has made the effort to learn their language.
So shake off that inhibition and get down to the next intercambio in your local bar. Bumble and wildly gesture your way through the evening if necessary but you will have fun and you will improve much quicker than if you were at home alone with your grammar book.