The key to learning a new language

We are taught to understand communication as ‘using the right words’.

Our language courses insist on correct grammar, spelling and pronunciation. For every spelling or gramatical error, we are penalized in the classroom and in the examination.

However, on living in Germany and learning German, I have learnt that communication is less about using the right words and more about getting the right response.

When I tell the waiter I don’t want an egg in my ramen, does she understand? When I ask for the toothbrush aisle, am I pointed in the right direction? When I tell my client that their deadline is unrealisitic, do they follow? In all these cases, I receive instant feedback. The person either responds correctly or has a blank look on their face. When I see that blank look (or egg yolk swimming in my ramen), I try again.

Doing this repeatedly is a far more effective means to learn German than to bury oneself in books and grammatical rules. Besides, this is the method used by the undisputed champions of language learning – children. My German grammar is still not perfect. I would probably fail an examination that tested its level of correctness. But that hasn’t gotten in the way of my being able to work, present, negotiate and persuade in the langauge.

The way we were taught language in school is problematic. Only too often, I meet people who have learnt a language in school for years, but can’t use any of it. The classroom approach penalizes mistakes so much that we are conditioned to not use a new language until we are perfect. But language, like currency, is less about perfection and more about utility.

Communication isn’t about using the right words. It is about getting the right response. Sure, those two things are related, but the subtle difference between the two compounds into the large difference between a fluent speaker and a flustered student of a flawed method.