Here is some secret good news.
Even with planes grounded, borders closing and a deadly virus stalking the planet you can take an exciting journey that will take you right under the skin of other nations and cultures.
And from the comfort of your own home. How? By learning another language.
To be fair, thousands of people in lockdown have figured this out. A lot are dusting down old textbooks or downloading the phone app Duolingo.
But can you really learn to speak “foreign” without leaving your house? Can your children? Can you or your family refresh or improve existing skills.
The short answer is yes – thanks to the internet and its incredible resources, especially teachers using Skype, Zoom or other video links.
But there are lots of potential pitfalls. Some are specific to the lockdown. And some less so.
I have made all the mistakes it is possible to make when learning. So, after taking advice from people smarter than me, here are my top tips for “lockdown language”.
Pick the right language for you
First, a word of warning. Some people are going to have tremendously strong opinions about what you study. Sometimes they are just enthusiasts for a language or culture, say a passionate Italophile. That’s great. But remember what works for them might not work for you.
Sometimes self-appointed experts focus on what they imagine is right for the country and the economy and not for you. “Pah,” they will tell you, “why are you learning Icelandic when there are a billion-zillion Chinese and just a couple of hundred thousand Icelanders?”
This is dumb, really dumb.
My tip? Always start with a language that is relevant to you, that you know you will use – and therefore not lose.
So if you happen to hike up volcanoes in Iceland every summer (lucky you) or have a boyfriend from Reykjavik or a passion for the sagas, then why not learn to speak like our Atlantic neighbours? But if you, for instance, do business in Shanghai, practise a bit of kung fu or are fascinated by calligraphy, then maybe think about Chinese.
But it really important to “click” with the language you are learning. If you can’t make up your mind, try out some first, see what fits you.
Maybe lug in to some languages before settling on just one. Watch a French or Polish movie or listen to some Italian opera or Brazilian pop, MPB. Try to mimic the sounds.
Or take a sampler lesson. You can get one for as little as $3 an hour online. That takes me to my next top tip.
Hire a real teacher or go to real classes – online.
Remember how you learned the language you’re reading now? First your parents – probably mostly your mum – taught you how to speak. Then at school teachers expanded your vocabulary – and with it your world.
Learning a language is visceral, it’s physical, it’s kenetic and it’s social. It’s about making unfamiliar sounds with your mouth and recognising them with your ears. You need someone to correct your mistakes as you go along, just as your mum did when you were a baby. You can’t teach yourself. Don’t waste time trying.
I am a big fan of group classes. This is where you learn from your mistakes – and those of your peers – and you have fun doing so.
But this must be impossible when you can’t leave the house? Not at all. A number of big providers, private schools, have flipped online using digital tools like Zoom, with the same kit you may be using to stay in touch with friends and family – a phone or a laptop.
Desperate schools on the European mainland – including really prestigious ones – are offering a week of intensive lessons, three hours a day in a virtual classroom, with learning materials sent by PDF, for less than the equivalent £100 a week. Some are offering three weeks of tuition for 200 euros.
Some Scottish schools, such as Lorca Spanish, are continuing their classes online – you can return to the classroom when the bug clears.
What about private lessons? These are great too, though harder work for learners and teachers. They also tend to be more expensive.
However, there are websites such as Italki where language teachers are offering personalised classes for adults and children, often for as little as $9 an hour with taster lessons for less.
Gillian Campbell-Thow, the languages guru for Glasgow schools, rams this message home: “Maintaining your oral proficiency is key and you need to talk. End of. If you can’t get to your class or meet up group – get on a platform that you can see people face to face and start the conversation. Many language schools are moving to web-based lessons – you cannot beat having a real person to talk to. You won’t get that kind of immediate help and support from an app!!
Immerse yourself in your chosen language
Your home might be in Scotland – but it does not have to be that way.
If you are an early learner why not label everything and every room in your house with post-it notes of their name in the language you are trying to pick up.
Don’t be ashamed to talk to yourself. Vacuuming? What’s a Hoover in German? Or Urdu? Say it out loud. And not just once.
Making dinner? Why not look up a recipe in the language you’re learning on YouTube?
Listening to radio as you cook? Tune in to the country where your language is spoken (probably using the TuneIn Radio app). Or try some of the amazing content on the catch-up services of the European equivalents of the BBC, including material designed for children or foreigners. France Culture has a whole “pedagogical” series called Nation Apprenante; RAI Radio 3 has Italian classic novels as audiobooks; Germany’s Deutsche Welle has free lessons for foreigners at all levels.
Binging Netflix or Amazon after dinner? Look at the language settings. You might find your favourite show comes in Spanish or French or Arabic, which subtitles to match. And there are plenty of box sets from around the world to let you put your new or old language skills to test while relaxing on your sofa.
Want to socialise? You can do that at home too. Conversation groups – meet-ups in cafes and bars for people who want to practise their languages – have not shut down, they have just gone online.
Yakety Yak, a Scottish business which normally arranges chats in cafes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, says its Zoom events are working well. So much so that it is thinking of continuing them after we get the all-clear.
Gaming? PlayStation and other consoles have language controls so you can play in the language you are learning or refreshing.
Don’t rely on games, apps or other gimmicks – but don’t ignore them either
There are some fantastic new tools for learning foreign languages. But I think they should be seen as supplementing real lessons, not replacing them.
It is easy to scoff at games like Duolingo – an app with a green bird that has simple beginners lessons with some often surreal vocabulary.
Duolingo has proved really popular in Scotland as a way of giving users some familiarity with Gaelic – but, of course, no in-depth knowledge. And – as a way of relaxing after real lessons – it might be worth a try.
Podcasts are also no alternative to real teaching. But, my goodness, they can be a great resource. There is a small Scottish firm called Radiolingua which produces short “Coffee Break” length podcast lessons in a whole variety of languages. Check them out if you are a beginner of intermediate learner.
Don’t think of beginners level as easy and advanced as hard
OK, you’re stuck in the house and you can’t go to a class. So you’re tempted to just teach yourself the “basics” of your chosen language, because they are easy, right? Wrong!
Beginner’s level is where so many Scottish language learners screw up.
It’s hard to replicate the sounds of another language. It is worth trying to get it right from the start. Otherwise, to make headway you have to unlearn all the ugly noises you have hard-wired in to your brain when you thought you were rehearsing “easy” basics.
The good news? Advanced does not mean hard. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. Like a long-distance runners, you will hit walls, but it’s not always easy to say when.
Focus on talking and listening more than on reading and writing
Another peril of self-teaching – or even Scotland’s traditional approach to modern languages – is that it ends up becoming very focused on the written word.
So, especially, if you are a beginner, try to work most on your oral and aural skills, rather than written screeds. Campbell-Thow says: “Writing an essay isn’t going to get you what you want in a restaurant or get you out of trouble.”
This is especially true for your primary-aged kids.
Keep a wee wordbook
Set yourself a target of learning 10 words or phrases a day, jotting them down on a notepad and checking yourself every morning. Some people find it helpful to break new vocal in to themes. But keeping going over this book.
Campbell-Thow adds: “Don’t be frightened to write beside it how it sounds to you.”
Don’t worry about making mistakes
There is nothing wrong with getting something wrong. Just laugh it off. After all, saying accidentally funny things might just be what we all need in these dark times.
How to teach your kids a language – by Gillian Campbell-Thow
The trick for language learning with wee ones is to remember how children learn their mother tongue – they need lots of aural exposure to language and lots of repetition. For primary-age children we need not focus on the reading and writing but lots of talking, listening and intercultural awareness.
• Start with music – if you can sing it, you can say it. Use music from films that wee ones might recognise such as nursery rhymes, Disney films etc – they already know the tune and now they need to hear a different meter of words. Don’t overthink the listening, just let them hear it and keep it on a wee loop.
• Get into watching familiar cartoons as well – most cartoons will be available in other languages – again same context just different languages. It doesn’t make it so strange.
• Use BBC Class clips for more educational input and intercultural awareness.
• Short clips are great as there is plenty of audio visual stimulus. Try and stay away from the words in the first instance – children will use mother tongue pronunciation rules and that’s when mistakes can get embedded.
• Lots and lots of listening, talking and singing – so any chance there is to interact, talk and play along with others is great.
Gillian Campbell-Thow is curriculum leader for Modern Languages and Gaelic, Glasgow City Council
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