“To have another language is to possess a second soul” | Abingdon Senior School

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”
By Alexandra von Widdern, Teacher of German and French and MFL Co-ordinator

Whether we can attribute this quote with any certainty to Charlemagne may be left to the historians. How do we, however, achieve the essence of the quote – the second soul? Initially, this is likely to be a little less spiritual and much more practical.

As a language learner, you are likely to distinguish between passive knowledge (being able to recognise, say, ‘télépéage’ at the toll booth on a French motorway to enter the correct lane) and active knowledge (using ‘Ich möchte ein Wasser’ in a local Austrian restaurant).

Passive knowledge takes less effort to achieve; it involves learning vocabulary from the foreign language and translating into English, often aided by tracing the roots of a word, using context to guess or spotting similarities to other languages. Pupils in schools who frequently struggle in tests may do so because they have only acquired this level of knowledge. Active knowledge requires particular strategies and, in order to learn the spellings, frequent written repetition. Whichever your goal in language learning, it is all about the combination of knowledge and skills and about supporting your memory with frequent, spaced practice (see Sarah Beynon’s analogy between revision and football in her blog entry ‘How to revise?’).

We are prone to forgetting most of what we have learnt very quickly (see Ebbinghaus’ curve of forgetting) – unless we review at certain intervals. A language learner, for example, needs to engage actively with a new item of vocabulary for up to 13 times over time for it to be retrievable (i.e. usable) from their memory.

Good language learners don’t necessarily spend more than the directed time on their learning but they use their time extremely effectively and let the language infuse their lives. They make the most of every opportunity, whether on holiday, during a language exchange, in the classroom, by using apps such as Duolingo or Quizlet for their own study, with friends and family and, most notably, in interior monologue.

The eight habits below are a summary of research supported by decades of experience from dedicated linguists – students and teachers alike. They are listed in relative order of importance and are cumulative, hence watching the Netflix series Narcos in Spanish before you know the basics will, at most, lead to a limited ability to swear emphatically at Colombian drug lords but not to buying bread at the local bakery. However, once you have become reasonably proficient in the language, watching films and reading the newspaper or selected literature can be a great step to extend your learning well beyond the everyday use to the point when the concepts and culture of the country truly open up to you. Those are the Eureka moments.

Learning a language leads to new connections with inspiring people, seeing the world through different eyes, exploring different ideas and cultures to the point that you may feel you do indeed possess a second soul.

The road to Eureka is supported by:

  1. Regular quick review of vocabulary and grammar: Divide your learning task into several shorter sessions and space them out. Review before, in between and after each lesson.
  2. Make the most of your lesson – ask for repetition / clarification, use every opportunity to speak, create your own funny examples with a fellow student, in your head or on paper, make notes to make revisiting easier.
  3. Use the recommended strategies: Websites such as Duolingo and Memrise have look, cover, write, check (LCWCh) built in while also spacing and interweaving the material. Quizlet’s Learn and Write functions are most effective. The most effective way to achieve written accuracy when learning vocabulary from a list to achieve active knowledge is LCWCh until all words are correct from English to the foreign language.
  4. Give the language your full attention. Deep learning will only occur when you as the learner are fully focused on the task. Even having a device in the same room is likely to make the task more effortful (see research 2.4.1 here)
  5. In a school context before submitting written work, edit: Check for non sequiturs, mistakes and omissions. Watch out for your own typical mistakes as identified in previous feedback.
  6. Use reference materials to edit: check your spellings in a dictionary such as pons.eu, grammar and verb forms in your handouts and textbooks.
  7. To expand your vocabulary as a more advanced learner in lessons, in country or while in other contact with the language, note phrases you encounter, review and reuse them regularly until they stick.
  8. Use the language at every opportunity: Passively by listening to songs, watching series / films with subtitles or reading in the language. Actively with teachers / classmates / colleagues in the UK, at every opportunity in country, and in your head where ever you are.
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