This is not just because all European young people speak English. If we look at those who can read and write in at least three languages, the UK is still far behind.
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So what are the difficulties Britons face when learning other languages? Here are a few of the basics.
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One of the most difficult and bizarre things about learning languages such as French, Spanish, and German—but also Portuguese, Italian, Polish, German, Hindi, and Welsh—is that inanimate objects such as chairs and tables have genders, so they are masculine he , feminine she , or sometimes neuter it. There is no real logic to this—milk is masculine in French, Italian, and Portuguese, but feminine in Spanish and German, but it still tastes and looks the same. In Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, gender is usually indicated by word endings -o and -a , making it easier to learn, but sound changes in French have made genders rather opaque, and a real challenge for second language learners.
Other languages, notably Swahili and related languages, have many more genders—up to French gender is easy by comparison.
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Once again, English used to have this, but it has been almost completely lost. This poses obvious difficulty for English speakers as there are no hard-and-fast rules about when to use the formal or informal form. In fact, usage has varied over time. In the past, pronouns were often used asymmetrically I call you vous , but you call me tu , but western Europe increasingly uses pronouns symmetrically if I call you tu , you can call me tu as well.
In recent years, the polite forms have become less used in some western European countries at least in Spain, Germany, and France. That might mean that these languages could eventually change, but in the opposite way from English. So, when English lost thou , it also lost the difference between talking to just one or more people. So, many people would use you with parents, you guys with friends, and you lot with kids. When it comes to language, politeness is always there but, in some languages, it is a little more in your face.
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Once again, French, Spanish, and German are not actually that complex in making a simple two-way distinction. W hen I arrived in Buenos Aires in the beginning of , I could barely order food in a local restaurant. Two years later, I calmly explained the mechanics of Russian grammar to a Guatemalan friend… in her native Spanish. I practiced my ass off. It took hours of study combined with stumbling through many, many conversations. Conversation, Conversation, Conversation. An hour of conversation with corrections and a dictionary for reference is as good as five hours in a classroom and 10 hours with a language course by yourself.
There are a few reasons for this. The first is motivation. The second reason is that language is something that needs to be processed, not memorized. I believe the reason is that our minds place more priority on memories which involve actual human and social experiences, memories which have emotions tied to them. It means nothing to me, so it is less likely to stick with me. Intensity of study trumps length of study. What I mean by this is that studying a language four hours a day for two weeks will be more beneficial for you than studying one hour a day for two months. This is one reason why so many people take language classes in school and never remember anything.
Language requires a lot of repetition, a lot of reference experiences, and a consistent commitment and investment.
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Classes suck and are an inefficient use of time and money. All things considered, you get a really poor return for your time and effort in group classes. There are two problems. The first is that the class moves at the pace of its slowest student. For instance, when I took Russian classes I found verb conjugations to be simple because I had already learned Spanish. But an English classmate struggled quite a bit with them. As a result, I spent a lot of my class time waiting around for him to catch up. I also had a German classmate who had already been exposed to cases, whereas I had no clue what they were.
Anyone who had to take a foreign language in school and retained absolutely none of it can tell you this. Start with the most common words. Not all vocabulary is made the same. Some gives you a better return on investment than others. For instance, when I lived in Buenos Aires, I met a guy who had been studying with Rosetta Stone for months not recommended. I had been working on and off with a tutor for a few weeks, but I was surprised by how he could not follow even the most basic of conversations despite months of study and living there.
It turns out, much of the vocabulary he had been studying was for kitchen utensils, family members, clothing and rooms in a house. But if he wanted to ask someone which part of town they lived in, he had no idea what to say. Start with the most common words and then make sentences with them over and over again. Learn just enough grammar to be able to do this and do it until you feel pretty comfortable with all of them. Carry a pocket dictionary.
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This made a much bigger difference than I expected. I carry an English-Spanish dictionary app on my phone and I used it all the time when I live in Spanish-speaking countries. My first two weeks in Brazil, I was lazy and kept forgetting to download an English-Portuguese application. Once I downloaded the dictionary, there was an immediate difference.
Having it on your phone is great, because it takes two seconds to look something up in the middle of conversation.
Even something that simple affected my conversations and ability to interact with locals a great deal. Keep practicing in your head. The other use for your dictionary is that you can practice while going about your day and not talking to anyone. Challenge yourself to think in the new language. We all have monologues running in our head, and typically they run in our native tongue. You can continue to practice and construct sentences and fake conversations in your head in a new language.
In fact, this sort of visualization leads to much easier conversations when you actually have them. Accept it. When I was first learning Spanish, I once told a group of people that Americans put a lot of condoms in their food. Later, I told a girl that basketball makes me horny. Trust me. Figure out pronunciation patterns. All Latin-based languages will have similar pronunciation patterns based on Latin words. For a language-learning method that focuses on pronunciation, check out The Mimic Method. Use audio and online courses for the first words and basic grammar.