“First learn to drive the correct way, pass your test … and then drive like the rest of the maniacs”
The unforgettable words of my driving instructor, who brought me shaking and sweating through a crash course in driving until I was good enough to pass the test. After that, I was on my own. Learning to drive – the perfect metaphor for learning a language.
When learning a language or learning to drive, we go through the same processes:
♦ You don‘t know you don’t know: we can‘t drive but think it must be easy because other people do it. “I can do that”, you say to yourself. Like language learning, however, appearances can be deceptive.
♦ Then you know you don‘t know: the early stages of learning to drive are terrifying. “Oh my God”, we panic, as the car jerks forward, “we‘re all going to die”. Like with language learning, the unexpected difficulty of learning to drive is both overwhelming and exhausting. Yet, we keep at it because the need or the desire helps us get through the bad times.
♦ You know you know: through the guidance of our saintly driving instructor, we learn how to keep the car going forward. At this point, we know that we can do it but it is still exhausting because we have to actively concentrate to stop 2 tonnes of metal, rubber and plastic from mowing down everything in its path. At first, learning a language also requires active concentration and, even when we can formulate sentences correctly, it‘s still absolutely exhausting.
♦ Then you don‘t know that you know: this is where we all want to be and where we all eventually end up. We practice so often that we forget that we are driving and, with time, are able to go faster and concentrate on where we want to go while all the while being lost in thought, or texting our friends (naughty, naughty) or listening to the radio. Similarly, once we have practiced something enough in a language, it becomes automatic and we can just focus on what we want to communicate.
”Driving lessons” for language learners
What are the lessons to be learned for language learning?
The goal behind the goal: no-one forces us to learn to drive. We want to do so. For many it is a rite of passage, an expression of freedom. Or we need to drive for work, bring the kids to school, go shopping in the out-of-town superstore, and so on. This need or desire is backed up by the belief that it must be possible (because everyone else can do it). The car is a tool that allows you to get to places you want to go to quicker and more comfortably. Similarly, a language is – and should be seen as – a tool to help you achieve your goals more easily (such as to sell more products). This vision helps us get through those periods when learning is really, really difficult and gives us the confidence to say “I will do it because I know it is possible for me to do it”.
The limit of learning: there is only so much that you need to know when you learn to drive. We build confidence over time by repeating and repeating and refining the basics, getting ever faster and safer and building more confidence. The challenge of a language is that learning is an open-ended task and there is always more you can learn. It is up to you to find limited and reachable learning targets and then practice, practice, practice until you reach them – a bit like learning the basics of driving and practicing until you master them. Should you then want to proceed to the Formula 1 level of language learning, then that‘s another story.
Let the instructor go: would you need your driving instructor to sit next to you for the rest of your driving life? Once you have your license, you only need the help of an instructor if you plan on working as a bodyguard or spending your holidays in Afghanistan. No trainer can replace the experience of regularly practicing the language just like no driving instructor can replace the experience of regular driving. If you only need a little bit of language, then be happy with that. Only aim higher if you need (or want) to.
Drive like the rest of the maniacs: languages are taught in a controlled, clean, proper environment. But we all know that the real world doesn‘t quite work like that. Don‘t worry about being “correct” or “perfect”. Know how it should be but do what you want (of course, while sticking to the “rules of the road”)!
To sum up:
Set yourself a learning target that is as desirable as learning to drive and then be prepared for it to be more difficult than it looks (and understand that it‘s nothing to do with your innate ability or inability to learn a language). Choose a trainer who can help you gain the confidence to become independent and then practice, practice, practice. Yes, it will be scary as hell but eventually you will forget that you were like that “hopeless” language learner going slowly in front of you.
Are you a good driver?
There is a standard for driving that everyone agrees (the standard that helps you pass the test). For language learning there is no one standard which we can use to measure our abilities against. If a company says that all of its workers should have “good English skills”, what is good? Should there be an accepted standard in a company that everyone should reach and “rules of the road” that everyone should abide by? Not everyone will want or need to be Sebastian Vettel. All we need to do is know how to drive safely…