My time in the classroom dates back a long way at the start of my career when I was teaching secondary students, from Year 7 to A Levels. Since then, as a publisher, I’ve developed lots of home learning language materials, for adults and children and also tried to learn a number of languages myself. After French at school and Italian at university, I made use of the BBC’s excellent ‘Get By In’ series (no longer in print, sadly) and learned a few useful words and phrases in Greek and Turkish for summer holidays.
Tip 1 – Just a few words and phrases
Yes, no, please, thank you, great! how are you? I’m learning (Greek) – go a very long way. Don’t hesitate to give them a go, even if you have to confess fairly quickly ‘Sorry, I only speak a little (Greek).’
Regular visits to the Frankfurt Book Fair and overseeing the authors and editors working on German courses has left me with some useful German phrases – Ein Bier, bitte, Danke schön, Wo ist der Bahnhof?
Tip 2 – Lots of listening to the language is key to developing your â€˜earâ€™.
If you have a chance to visit a foreign country, make a point of listening and listening, even if most of what you hear goes over your head. Try and pick out a few words you do understand. You may be surprised that after a while you pick out more and more words and even a whole sentence. Also try television, radio, songs and podcasts. I’m a huge fan of Peppa Pig for relatively simple everyday language.
I’ve visited Spain regularly for years and because Spanish is so close to Italian and French helps too, I was happy speaking ‘Span-Italian’ in Spain and getting by. Then I decided to do some serious studying and took a GCSE Spanish evening class. Sadly the teacher wasn’t at all inspiring, my friends dropped out quickly, frustrated by the old-fashioned grammar methodology but I persevered and, at last, learned the past tense of a few verbs.
Tip 3 – Knowing the formal grammar of a language is not necessarily going to help you learn to speak it.
All languages have ‘grammars’, i.e. the underlying structure of the language – but this won’t necessarily help you with speaking it. Using terms like ‘past historic’, ‘infinitive’, ‘indefinite article’, can be a short cut to clearing up confusion but often it just confuses you more. But look out for patterns, these give a clue to the underlying grammar, for example in Italian – il gatto nero (the black cat), la casa gialla (the yellow house), i piatti sporchi (the dirty plates).
More recently I’ve been living part of the year in Snowdonia, where 75% of the population speak Welsh. My mother was a native Welsh speaker and I grew up hearing words and phrases like ‘Ych y fi!’ (yuck!) and ‘cariad’ (darling) from my Mamgu (granny) and hearing my mum chatting in Welsh to her family on the phone. Unfortunately she decided not to teach my sister, Siân and me, as she was worried our monolingual, dad would be left out. So now I’m struggling to learn Welsh in my old age. Although it feels very alien, especially the spelling and pronunciation, I was amazed to find that there are lots of latin-origin words – ysgol (school), perygl (danger), ffenestr (window), pont (bridge). These apparently came into the language directly from the Roman invaders and not via the Normans like in England.
Tip 4 – Look out for words that are similar to words in your own language or another language you know.
You may find that you can rack up quite a big vocabulary really quickly. So in French: le fruit (fruit), la tomate (tomato), la télévision (television), la princesse (princess). You’ll have to listen out for the different pronunciation of course. I once knew a French woman who was a fluent English speaker who always pronounced the English word ‘train’ like the French [trahn].
And now, although we’re not native speakers, my daughter and I are trying to speak Italian to my two little grandchildren. It’s fascinating to observe them absorbing the language, understand what we’re saying and occasionally try out the odd word, sometimes mixing the languages, like ‘moona’ (moon and luna).
Tip 5 – Try not to be worried about making mistakes.
It’s natural to want to get things right but you’ll make more progress if you just have a go. If you’re learning a language with your child, give lots of praise and try not to correct too often. Confidence and enjoyment are the key to a successful and positive language learning experience.
If your child is learning a language, check out the terrific variety of language learning books published by b small. There is something for everyone to help learn languages with their children: first words, simple dictionaries, picture stories, flash cards and games.
Good luck! Bonne chance! In bocca al lupo! (Into the wolf’s mouth) Pob lwc! Viel Glück! ¡Buena suerte!