In the “Dr Popkins Method?” series, I’m telling my own language learning story. The reason? To help you to get to grips with your own. I’ve already look in detail at how I got fluent in my main languages. Now I’m moving on to look at the broader context: my language learning strengths and weaknesses.
We’ll start with aptitude and personality and then move on to circumstances and choices. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a vid I made on the same topic. I hope you’ll share your similar – or contrastive – roster of strengths and weaknesses in the comments section below.
Natural aptitude or the “language gene”?
Each of us has our own balance of language learning strengths and weaknesses.
It certainly seems I’m not short on the weaknesses side. I don’t have an ear for accents. Sure, I’m ok at “locking on” to a conversation partner’s voice but, from a standing start, can’t even speak English with different regional accents.
I love listening to Impressionists and have several friends who are naturally able to do the voices of famous people or friends. I’m sure they don’t spend time practising. It’s just something that comes naturally to them….and not to me.
I also have a bad memory.
Many, many people believe that they have a bad memory; but, believe me, YOU don’t. It me who does 😉
My long-term memory isn’t so bad. I’d say the problem is a less than pristine working (or short-term) memory. I often know I know something, but can’t quite retrieve the info from the dusty filing cabinets of my mind in time. Other times, though, I just don’t remember at all.
They say working memory declines with age, but I always had difficulties.
As a young student, it was because I was so aware of this, that I worked-out ways of revising for exams that turned out to be very effective methods.
They required deliberate effort (and helped me get on way beyond where I should have been, based on any aptitude scale).
My study methods were in tune with what I’ve subsequently read about cognitive psychology: elaborating material, practising spaced recall and self-testing. In short, a lot of the techniques I’ve gone on to apply to language learning.
Maybe my bad spelling in English is tied in with memory, too, although this may be linked to imperfect eyesight.
I noticed at school that some kids could remember spellings much more easily than I could. Did you notice the same or are you one of those natural spellers?
Many of my mistakes when I was pre-high school were actually pretty creative. I was really tuned in to the variations possible in theory in the crazy English spelling system. My writing would be peppered with the florid but perfectly functional spelling variations you’ll see from Shakespeare’s day, before English spelling became fixed.
My rule as a ten-year-old was often to choose complexity over simplicity, whenever given the choice. It’s a tendency I still have to keep in check in all sorts of walks of life.
Even today, it happens that I have to check the spelling of some of the most frequent English words (we’re talking top 500 frequency items here).
That’s despite decades of extensive reading and writing. So much for all the touted benefits of reading a lot for language mastery 🙁
I tend to know when I’m wrong, but not sure I’m right and go off to check. As a result, it’s rare I let a spelling mistake through (I mean when writing by hand – apologies for the often less than perfect proofreading here on the sight 😉 ).
I’m sure this lack of an “eye” is partly responsible for my problems with accurate writing in my foreign languages.
Another frustrating break is the difficulty I’ve often had to get to sleep, or to catch up on sleep after longer periods up, for example busy times at work.
I’m jealous of people I know who can switch off and sleep off tension or tiredness.
Of such specimens, I’ve seen many.
I once shared accommodation with a guy whose alarm in his room would wake me up through the wall but who kept on sleeping. I have friends who can be snoring in blissful abandon five minutes after the end of a row.
At the end of my law course, we had one exam each morning for a week. My housemate and I would return home after lunch to revise for the next day’s test. Only he’d go to bed first for a solid ninety minutes of refreshing, rejuvenating sleep. Mmm. I’d have been easier for me to sprout wings and circle Oxford a couple of times for some fresh air.
In legal practice, I’ve had colleagues who can work to four a.m. and then sleep till two in the afternoon, if they get the chance. I’d come back home, crawl into bed and awaken at 7.30 as usual.
I divide the populace into two halves: those whose natural state is sleep and those of us whose natural state is to be all too awake. We are two different species…..and the sleepers are so infuriatingly clueless about the plight of the woke. The nearest I’ve got to violence among polyglot acquaintances is when one glibly advised that I should try taking a siesta to increase productivity. A what? 😡 You don’t have any bread, Dr P? Can’t you eat cake instead? 😡
On the other hand – here’s the positive – once I wake, I’m awake. It may be too early in the morning after a late night, but three seconds after waking, I’ll be fully alert and ready for action. Well, maybe give me three minutes….
A personality for languages?
I always experience a lot of instinctive uncertainty and hesitancy as I approach languages.
It’s true that I have a lot not to be confident about, as one of my best friends likes to jibe.
Add to my poor memory a generalise lack of self-confidence and some social shyness and you don’t have the best recipe for “having a go” at a new language, particularly the social side.
For whatever reason, some of us are just more naturally confident than others.
I think I am introverted as well as shy (I explore the difference between the two here on the YouTube channel). Introversion’s a neutral thing for language learning, though. So if it applies to you too, don’t despair!
We introverts tend to find disciplined solitary study easier and may be more into reading, doing written exercises and writing. The extrovert, meanwhile, may well be out there using the language much more.
I have quite a high boredom threshold. No, make that a very high one.
I will also keep doing things if I think I “ought” to do them.
Fact is, I’m a completer. I like to finish what I’ve started “just because”.
Fail fast, fail often?
No, I’m more of a “one more heave” type of guy (or was that “if you’re in a hole, keep on digging”?).
Call all this admirable doggedness or a bovine idiocy, as you will.
Either way, it certainly seems to help with a long game like getting fluent in a foreign language.
Any of us can use different strategies to keep ourselves going with our language learning (and you’ll find lots about this here on the site). Some of it does seem to come easier to me than to many, I’m glad to acknowledge.
Childhood environment: languages for free?
Natural endowment and “settings” aside, how has my personal history helped or hindered me? How has it helped and hindered you?
I’d love to have grown up naturally bi- or multi-lingual. Instead, I grew up in a very monolingual atmosphere in Yorkshire.
That means didn’t have the advantage of already knowing what it felt like to be fluent in two languages. I was shooting blindfolded and there were no languages for free.
That said, if I had grown up with more than one languages, maybe I wouldn’t have been so fascinated by learning this magical skill. Do you feel the same….or are you one of those lucky natural bi- or multilinguals and how has it affected your language learning?
You often hear people lamenting that they didn’t get the chance to learn a second language in childhood, as if it’s now too late.
My monolingual start hasn’t held me back, though.
Adult learners may not have the advantages of tons of time and the ready facility with sounds and pronunciation that small children have.
It’s easy to underestimate the amount of struggle involved in childhood language acquisition.
Plus, we adults do bring decisive advantages to the party, such as already having a lot of learning and life experience to draw on.
My interest in languages came too late for me to specialise in them as an undergrad.
If I had my time again, I’m not saying I’d want to yield all that specialising in history has given me. Still, a joint honours first degree in history and French (my school language) would be very tempting.
As luck would have it, my interest developed when I was still an undergraduate student. Eight would have been better than eighteen. But eighteen is better than twenty-eight. At college, I was a (relatively) lean learning machine and had more time to devote to the task.
This still fairly early start means that I now have decades of language learning experience to draw on each time I start a new language.
The language choice: building languages into my scholar’s life
As an undergraduate I was already regretting not getting the language bug earlier. So, when the opportunity came in the final year of my history degree, I chose to focus in on French history. That enabled me to get to grips with French-language sources.
I kept the French going later, by choice.
I’d started learning Welsh as an undergraduate hobby and chose to take a self-funded gap year in Wales to get fluent in the language.
I did well enough in my first degree to get funding for post-graduate work. That route would not have been possible to somebody from my background today, by the way. For one thing, students in England now have large fee debts to deal with. For another, there are fewer research grants for the humanities.
I chose to do postgraduate work in Russian history. That created a pressing need to learn Russian, which, of course, I also really wanted to do. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation came together.
Later on, when one of my supervisors unexpectedly moved to Germany, that prior experience with the language meant that I’d created my own luck, in a sense. I already had enough German to relocate to work for him in Heidelberg.
Looking back, I’m very glad I made the choices that I did. I really did managed to integrate language learning into my post-graduate life and came out not only with a doctorate, but also pretty fluent in Russian and German, both from scratch.
Do you feel you’ve already made some good choices in your language learning life or are there new choices that you are thinking of making soon?
For me, earlier choices and action and luck combined again when, just at the right time, I got a job teaching Russian history through the medium of Welsh.
I returned to Aberystwyth. During my four years at the University of Wales, I paid several trips to Russia to continue with archival research. I was also careful to nurture my good friendships from the Heidelberg time and do so to this day.
A new profession and new pro-langauge choices
After Aberystwyth, I moved back to England. I’d decided to go law school and joined a firm with a Moscow office. It was a deliberate move to continue my involvement in Russia and the Russian langauge.
After qualification, I practised international corporate law for four years in Moscow.
My technical drafting work and client advice was all in English, but I used a lot of Russian around the office and I made sure I had a vibrant social life in Russia’s exciting capital, all through the medium of Russian.
After my mum died in 2009, I decided that it was time for a break from high-octane corporate law. I took up a temporary role managing the Welsh language bookshop in Swansea (on about 10% of my previous salary….the sacrifices we make for languages 😉 ).
That added another rich seam to my experience as a Welsh speaker.
Still doing languages
I returned to London in 2010. In the legal role I’ve been in since then, I haven’t had to use languages.
My current employment has been wonderfully rewarding in many ways, but this wasn’t a language-driven choice and I don’t currently use languages at all on the job. Have I taken my eye off the language ball? In a sense, I’m afraid so.
That said, as regular readers will know, all my languages are still in my life, big time.
I’ve kept engaged with Welsh, started Portuguese and Basque…
It’s alright for you, but…
We all start from a different position and many see sh*t happen to them in a way that mercifully hasn’t been the case for me, so far.
Some people have other unavoidable responsibilities that I haven’t had, make other career choices or prioritise other things on which t spend their free time.
Even if we have more constraints on us that we’d like, even the most hard-pressed of us have some wriggle room, don’t we? Can’t we all try to squeeze a bit more language learning into our individual situation?
You may not be able to go and live abroad, as I did. Still, you could follow my practice of really getting to grips with the basics before you travel and then really get a lot more out of a short holiday where your language is spoken.
Even if that’s not an option, remember the people I met in Russia and the Ukraine in the dying days of the Soviet Union. People who had never had the opportunity to travel who’d got nevertheless got fluent in English. Without the internet.
One thing we can all work on is good methods.
Another thing we can develop is the right mindset.
I have no shortage of false starts, blind alleys, handicaps and hangups in these departments.
Still, I think I’ve got a lot right, sometimes by accident, but other times, by design.
These things are working for me. What about you?
From my initial attempts to get on top of French, I sort of understood that language learning is a big task. I knew I had to hit the core of language head on by which I mean getting on top of the key structures and the most useful vocab.
If I did the work and got in the practice, I knew I could become a going concern in the language.
That’s still my approach today.
I knew I was going to make a lot of mistakes and that it was going to be a rough road. I think that I’ve made my peace with this over the years and just got on with it over the long term.
How about you? Has your favoured language learning approach evolved over the years or undergone sea-change or two? Let me know in the comments below!
One of the things that have kept me going has been the excitement and the pleasure of getting fluent.
In the next post in the series, I’ll turn my attention to the sources of that excitement in the next post in the “Dr Popkins Method?” series.
In the meantime, cue the movie of today’s post: