It’s Not About Natural Talent (And Other Things About Language Learning)

Claire Handscombe

Before I moved to the US, I taught languages for more than seven years. First I taught Spanish and French to adults in London; then I taught Spanish, French, and English in Brussels, in my little town nearby, and worldwide via Skype (if “worldwide” can be defined as, basically, Brussels and London, with the potential for everywhere else).

I like to think that I grew and learned about being a good teacher in that time, and about what works and what doesn’t for language learning. Here are some of my thoughts.

Almost everyone who wants to progress in a language is capable of doing so

I taught, probably, hundreds of people in those seven years. Of all of those, only one was what I would call a lost cause. He tried, he really did, but a few weeks in he was still saying “naaaan” instead of “non” and I was a little relieved when he moved away.

How fast you progress usually has almost nothing to do with natural talent

It’s exciting, as a tutor, when you get a new student with a wonderful accent or a great grasp of the fundamentals of grammar. Great, you think to yourself, this one will be fluent in no time. And yet, those are not the ones who make great strides, unless they also happen to be the ones willing to put the time in between lessons. They are overtaken almost every time by those with determination, motivation and discipline.

Everyone is different

I always sort of knew that, which is why I always advertised my lessons as flexible, personalised tuition. It’s what makes it fun, too, watching how different people learn. Some like to painstakingly go over every word of a dialogue and ask challenging and fascinating questions about etymology. Others jump right in and start speaking, and the best way to help them learn is by correcting them as they go.

Variety is important

As a tutor, it was easy for me to get stuck in a rut — always using the same books, for example (usually because I’ve found books that work well), or always formatting lessons a certain way. It was good — both for me and my students — to do something different once in a while, and I’ve had fun exploring flash cards, Scrabble, and exercises involving extensive use of Post-It notes (“learning that sticks”, one of my students called it).

Skype lessons are great

Skype (or Zoom) lessons are a great resource. They enabled me to keep some of my favourite students when I left London, and then they saved me a lot of time and travelling. My students felt the benefit of that: the prices were lower; there were more timeslots are available. And, of course, sometimes, virtual contact is all we have.

But face-to-face lessons are better

Online, there can sometimes be delays, and when you’re learning a language, body language, facial expressions and lip-reading are really key to helping you piece together clues to understand new words and phrases. And sometimes there are various technological issues that be distracting and unhelpful — as can the pings of Facebook or email on the screens of both the teacher and the student.

The variety I mentioned is also easier face-to-face — using tactile exercises with Post-Its, for example, or pulling out a board game to broaden vocabulary.

And I think we all know at this point that nothing can replace physical contact.

Laughter is important

Most people learn better when they are relaxed; I know that I teach better that way. It’s fantastic when I find a student I really click with and we can laugh together at the absurdities of French (and there are many).

What have you learned about teaching or language learning lately? I’d love to hear some of your tips.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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