What to do if you're uneasy about your language skills

What to do if you're uneasy about your language skills No idea what's going on! by Brian Talbot

This article was written by Louise Gill, published on 22nd November 2012 and has been read 6601 times.

Louise Gill is a studying English and French at the University of Liverpool, and is spending her year abroad as a British Council Language Assistant in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. Here is her advice for students who are feeling uneasy about their language skills before or during their year abroad...
Before I left for my Year Abroad, I really lacked confidence in my French. When I watched French films, I could barely catch a word. I frequently received poor grades in my essays and translations. When I read something, I would feel like I had completely got the gist of the text, only to participate in class later to realise my interpretation was all wrong. All of this (added to a nervous feeling somewhere in the back of my mind that I didn’t really want to go) built up and up against me, until eventually I had created a kind of denial that I was going at all, and did as little French as possible for the entire year beforehand.

But of course, I was going. Upon arrival, I suffered for my ignorance. I could hardly join in with my fellow assistants' conversations; I would often nod blankly at people who attempted to talk to me, with no clue what they were saying at all; official paperwork (France loves red tape!) was a painstaking nightmare with a dictionary. If I’m brutally honest, because I was unprepared linguistically, I was barely prepared at all.

But this was completely my own fault. I simply hadn’t worked hard enough throughout my career of learning French. I realised this within hours of arriving. I also realised I had to change in order to profit from my year. Now, several months on, things couldn’t be more different. I can converse well with almost anyone (albeit not fluently yet). I can understand 90% of what I hear surrounding me, on TV, in music... Writing Facebook messages to other assistants is no longer an embarrassment. So if, like me, you feel unconfident about speaking the language, then don’t panic! Follow my tips and watch as everything becomes easier.

Top tips for becoming fluent on your Year Abroad

1. Get some language learning materials
The first thing you need to do, and this is genuinely crucial, is to buy yourself several decent language learning books. You will need these over your Year Abroad, so make sure you have a grammar book which is light enough to carry. It is also useful to have a book on conversational language and one on idiomatic expressions too. These will be invaluable in your efforts to make friends with the natives, and move your language on from classroom level. You will also need a good dictionary, as you will without doubt want to look up words, probably at least once a day. It is also important to target your specific problem areas and not waste time going over things you know. There are many grammar books which specialise on specific tenses for example, or nouns and their genders. I downloaded lots of language learning resources and bilingual and monolingual dictionaries on my Kindle (which is my best friend on my Year Abroad) for much cheaper than they would have been in hard copy. This option of course also saves precious luggage space!

2. Make some time to study!
The obvious thing to do next is- WORK. Set aside an hour or more everyday to sit down and scrutinise the things that you have trouble with. Once I started doing this, after a couple of days I noticed a difference in my confidence, and after a week I noticed a difference in my ability. I was improving. I cannot stress how crucial it is to put the work in.

3. Keep notes
Always carry a notebook and pen with you, and note down any pieces of vocabulary or phrases you come across. Re-read the whole list every day until you feel that you know it. A really good vocabulary learning website I came across (for all languages!) is www.memrise.com. This was also great for my exams!
Make notes on specific topics too- vocabulary for buying a ticket at the train station, for a visit to the bank, for telling the students to be quiet and settle down... It will be incredibly useful, I promise.

4. Practice makes perfect
Another thing I really wish I had done was to practice speaking with native speakers more before I left. ‘Impossible!’ I hear you cry. ‘Where will I find a Spaniard in my local Tesco?’ Whilst this can be tricky, it is certainly doable. Sign up to online Skype exchanges with as many people as you can. There are millions of people all around the world who want to give you half an hour of talking in the language you want to learn in exchange for half an hour of practising English.

5. Pen Pal Power
Furthermore, there are lots of online pen pal exchanges. You could try writing someone an email in the language you are learning, then they could send you one back in English plus corrections of the email you sent them, and so on! This is a great way to informally practice writing without the pressure of losing marks in essays. Formative assessment and practice in this kind of way allows you to experiment in manipulating the language to find out what works and what doesn’t.

6. Multimedia learning
I have been lucky enough to have been given a TV by my landlady, and I cannot stress how much this has helped me in my listening comprehension. Watch as many videos on YouTube as possible in the language, for example stand- up comedy, music videos, interviews with celebrities... Get into a popular foreign TV series, and watch as many films as you can (at least one or two a week). For France, you can watch programmes at these sites: Canal+ allows you to watch many programmes for free, and on France2 you can download all three news programmes for the day for free. A good site to practise some daily listening comprehension is Listen to French (mostly at AS/A2 level, but I have found it extremely useful nonetheless).

7. Get stuck in
When you arrive, throw yourself into every opportunity you can to practice perhaps the most important part: speaking! If at first it’s difficult, which it will be (I found myself having a physical headache after a couple of hours on many occasions), the worst thing you can do is to shy away again for another week. If you are invited anywhere, by anyone, no matter how boring they seem or how much you don’t want to go, force yourself to go anyway; teachers, colleagues, other students or assistants... Join an exercise class, knitting circle, cookery club, rambling society, whatever your hobby is... There are precious little opportunities like this during the crucial final fourth year, and you must monopolise them now while you can.

Perhaps the biggest step in starting to feel confident in a language is to realise that it is never, ever too late. No matter how much you may feel you have regressed since A-Level if your interest has waned since starting university, it is always possible to start loving a language again. The key is to be practical about it, to spend enough time on the boring bits but above all, to find ways of learning which you enjoy.

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