Sooner or later, every English learner asks themselves or their teacher this question. If we look at speaking a language as a skill, then this frustration is justified. You learn something, you practice — that’s it, it’s done. But what if we look at learning a language as at acquiring a new way of thinking? Does it still sound so easy?
In their book ‘Becoming fluent’, Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz say that when you learn a new language, you create a separate identity for it. And it’s only logical: a language we speak determines the way we think, and it cannot leave us unaffected. I definitely joke more sarcastically in English than I do in Russian.
Starting to learn a language from scratch for an adult person is pretty much like going back to childhood: you don’t know anything and need to rely on somebody more experienced for help. In childhood, you rely on your parents, in language learning, you rely on your teacher.
When a new person comes to the first lesson, I can feel how uncomfortable they are at the beginning. They come to the lesson having nothing and nothing they have achieved in other spheres of life matters. It is as if they’re stripped of everything they’ve achieved in life. This person can be a big boss ordering people around in their own company, or a mom caring for children and supporting them, but now they need support and guidance themselves. This vulnerability is new and confusing to them and can become an obstacle in the learning process. But a supportive teacher will always guide past it.
Apart from this psychological barrier, there’s also grammar. English grammar is quite alien to Russian speakers. The difference jumps right at you at the very beginning: with Present Simple. Every sentence must have a verb — that’s the rule you can never break and the rule that contradicts Russian. So, first of all, we need to embrace the fact that we need to acquire a new way of thinking. Languages give people different tools to express themselves and learning a language we are learning to use these tools. Next time you blame yourself for not remembering to add ‘s’ to the verb after ‘he/she/it’ in Present Simple, don’t be too hard on yourself.
After some time we come to Present Perfect, and every single student asked me ‘Why do they need it?’ Why do native speakers need to know whether the situation in the past affects the present? It is another barrier that we usually need some time to overcome. And not that the form is so difficult to remember, but the situations when we need to use it — that’s the task that requires some effort.
But after that everything else doesn’t surprise people that much, it is as if they build acceptance: it’s a foreign language, anything can happen in it. And with this acceptance, the learning process becomes easier.
So beginning to learn a language be kind to yourself and patient. Acquiring a new way of thinking is like breaking an old habit: requires time and effort. But it gets easier with practice, I promise.