Lifelong Learning

Language Learning, Interests, and Improving Our Retention

One of the things I always tell anyone that I work with is that, in order to better learn another language, they have to use it and practice frequently. This is pretty obvious, though it’s not always easy to do (even if you’re living in a place where that language is widely spoken). But not only do we need to use our target language and practice with it, it’s better to use it with things that we already enjoy and build out from there.

This is generally the opposite of most other programs, which focus far too much on teaching grammar before we can even comprehend what’s being said to us. This isn’t to say learning grammar is unimportant, but it can actually hinder a person’s ability to learn and use the language because many of us focus too much on whether or not we’re using the correct grammar instead of just saying whatever we’re able to say and try to make ourselves understood.

Even worse is the language that’s taught for school, where the focus is largely on language that a student needed for school rather than being able to converse with your peers. While this may be important for their studies, it also demotivates a lot of people because they aren’t seeing the full range of why learning a language is useful *for them*. They start associating that language with only a few spaces in their life, and those spaces aren’t ones that they see as immediately important. All of those spaces are places where academics are the front and center, and most people aren’t going to feel confident or comfortable knowing that every word they speak, write, or read is being graded.

Because of this, they don’t get to see it in spaces where they truly feel comfortable and like they can be themselves. This is actually a problem for most people, particularly as accessing spaces to safely learn languages is incredibly difficult.

This is why, as I work with my students, I try to use materials that they would enjoy—like manga and graphic novels—and cater to their interests as I learn about them. This usually helps to reinforce the language that they’ve been learning because it’s attached to topics and media that they already like, allowing them to talk more with others about those things. On top of that, they’re later able to apply what they’ve learned to other things, like school.

I want to reorient the ways in which we learn languages because I often feel like we’re too often doing it in ways that make it uninteresting and also make it feel unimportant. Multilingualism is a great skill to have, and I want to encourage more people to feel safe and secure in learning should they want to.