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Language is for Communicating: Get Out of the Classroom

By: Gabrielle R. Wood

Like many Americans I didn’t study my first foreign language until I entered high school, and took my first language course in French. In this course, I learned all of the intricacies of the language: how to conjugate verbs into different tenses, structural rules, adjective and adverbial agreements, etc.

I was hooked because I loved the inherent patterns that came with learning the language. I knew that studying language was something that I enjoyed, however, I also felt hugely discouraged because I felt that there was so much to learn, and that I would never possibly be able to speak French at any level of fluency.

I think that this feeling held a partial truth because of the means by which I was learning French. My classes focused so much on rules and structures and so little on the actual application of the language that I became so preoccupied with this aspect, and felt I shouldn’t speak to anyone in French until I had perfected my knowledge of it. This proved to be a challenging way to learn French because I was ignoring one of the most essential purposes of language: communication.

I think that one of the reasons that foreign languages are perceived to be so difficult or impossible to learn is because of the emphasis on vocabulary and grammatical perfection. Rules in any language are important, but they overshadow the fact that language is a living entity that is constantly changing and is meant to be used, not restricted by rules that often have exceptions. They are guidelines to help learning, but shouldn’t be the only means to learn, nor should they require perfection in their usage.

It’s taken me much time to find a system to learn languages that works for me. I’ve studied German and Chinese in addition to French, but I never had the same epiphany with these languages as I had with Norwegian.

The way I studied Norwegian was different from the beginning. The main reason for this was that I was actually studying Norwegian in Norway amongst international students, many of who did not speak English natively.

I began to observe them, and noticed that some spoke much better than others. The reason for this, which seems obvious to me now, is that those who spoke much more naturally practiced their English much more than the others.

Whether it was verbally or non-verbally, or whether it was with native or non-native speakers, they practiced, and developed a natural ease with the language. Even if there were occasional mistakes in their speech, it was still understandable, and improved over time. I decided to approach Norwegian much in the same way as they had approached English, and found that I was able to learn much more efficiently.

At first I was on my own to learn. During this time period, I spent a lot of time reading newspapers, listening to Norwegian programming, writing stories or letters in Norwegian, and speaking with my classmates as much as I could, as well as reading through the textbook.

I was no longer passively trying to learn a language, however; I was now actively putting it to use, and almost from the beginning. Reading was important because even though I rarely understood, I was able to go through and pick out the words that I did know, and identify where they were placed within the sentence. I learned many new words this way as well.

Listening was frustrating because there was an even lower comprehension on my part, but it did help me to realize the cadence that the language has, and I gradually did begin to understand.

Writing was one of the most important aspects at the beginning because it allowed me to create the language for my own self, and be corrected. I even began to go on walks and create stories in my head.

All of these aspects began to make something that was unnatural to me become more natural. I began to separate English from Norwegian. It still came slowly at first when I began to speak, but it was much faster than when I had only focused on the rules of the language. By the second semester I was able to communicate effectively with native Norwegians and hold conversations. I still made mistakes, but I could speak, understand and be understood.

In my case, I was lucky because I was able to immerse myself, but I know that it is not always a possibility to travel abroad. There are, however, multiple ways to mimic immersion.

For instance, many universities have programs, which can link you with students from partner universities who you can Skype with, write letters back and forth with or you may even find an exchange student at your own university who wouldn’t mind helping you practice.

Even if you are not at a university there are always ways to find people who speak the language you desire to learn, whether it be within your community or by meeting someone through a mutual friend. Communicating is key to learning a language.

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