Here’s the thing we all know: learning a language is not easy. Especially as an adult, when our brains are already hard-wired to think in certain ways and our memories for new vocabulary words are slightly diminished, it may seem like an impossible task. But here’s the thing that maybe you don’t really know, or maybe you just have a hard time accepting: you can do it. Despite your age. Despite your lack of foreign language skills or your non-talent for picking up languages. All it takes is a serious commitment to learning and a lot of hard work.
I do not classify myself as a person with any sort of innate talent for languages (and oh how I am jealous of those that do have it!). Far from it. I think I actually don’t have a very good ear for language. I try to distinguish nuances in pronunciation and to imitate correct pronunciation, and I really struggle. Sometimes I feel like I simply cannot hear the difference, and no matter how I twist my mouth or change the position of my tongue or blow slightly on my teeth or speak from my diaphragm or my nose or the back of my throat, it just doesn’t come out sounding right. But you know what? That doesn’t reallymatter. Language is about communication, and getting your point across, even with poor pronunciation and several grammatical mistakes, is a victory.
So how does one tackle this challenge? My first suggestion is individual tutoring with a native speaker. Everyone has a different style of learning, and tutors can adapt their teaching specifically to your style –they can explain that grammar rule in a way that it “clicks” for you, or give you extra exercises to focus on the areas that you most need to improve upon. I think that in the beginning stages of learning a language having a private tutor is mostly helpful because it can also give you a huge boost in confidence and speed up the learning curve so that you are more comfortable with the next, most important stage of learning a language… immersion.
There simply is no other, more effective, way to learn.
Language is primarily about speaking and you have got to find people to speak with. Preferably all day long, every day, for a good chunk of time. It doesn’t matter if this is in a formalized immersion class (in which case your grammar will also benefit), or just on the street – in bars and cafes (or of course beer gardens) – but this is the key. That also means that you have to be willing to look like an absolute idiot and to feel like you have regressed to a kindergarten level of intelligence. But it will pay off, with practice, I promise. Not only that, but you will get some great stories of language gaffes that will have you laughing for years, particularly if you can tell them several years later in your new language.
One of the best things I did early on in my language-learning days was to go regularly go to a local wine bar with some other classmates and converse with the bartender and other regulars at the bar. It was a place where we felt welcomed and where we always left feeling excited about having met native speakers, having had the chance to discuss interesting topics, and having been complimented on our attempts to use the language. An ego boost, if you will. Other friends of mine developed most of their language skills by dating locals, or really just by partying a lot (true story). Still others took a tamer route and engaged in structured conversation hours or watched endless hours of local television (preferably sports or some sort of weekly show in a social setting, like a bar or pub, where you can then also shout out awesome things like auf geht’s! or Du blöde Kuh!).
Basically, the lesson here is that you can learn another language, and it can actually be a really fun and enriching experience. I know that may sound like a study abroad or language school propaganda pamphlet, but it’s true.