… Learning to drive a car.
Over the many years I have been teaching English here in Korea, I have learnt that learning a foreign language is like learning to drive a car.
First you need to learn the basics. In the case of learning a language, you need to learn the structure and some basic words and phrases. To learn to drive you need to learn how to turn the car engine on and select a gear. Without learning either of these things you are going to go nowhere.
Learning the Highway Code, is where you learn the rules of driving, just like learning from English textbooks, you learn how to use the phrases, expressions and words you learn.
Just like when you learn English, your driving instructor cannot do the driving for you. You have to do that. All a driving instructor can do is tell you when you do something wrong and explain to you how to correct the mistake. Likewise, your English teacher cannot do the speaking for you, that is up to you. All an English teacher can do is to show you where you are going wrong and how to correct the mistake.
My father always told me that you only really begin to learn to drive once you have passed your driving test and you are out there on the road, alone. You have to make the decisions on what to do, where to turn and whether you car will fit into the tight parking space. Again as in English, you are never really going to improve your English if you need your English teacher with you all the time. You will only begin to really improve your English once you get out there and begin using it for real in real situations.
Of course whether you are a newly qualified driver or beginning your first job with a foreign company, you are going to make a few mistakes. Some of these will be big mistakes and perhaps involve an accident. Getting upset and blaming your driving instructor or English teacher is the wrong way to go about this. You need to learn from the mistake, get advice, correct it yourself and move on.
Finally, to become a good driver you need to drive. The more driving you do, the better driver you become. It is as simple as that. I have never met anyone who would disagree with that statement. As you do more driving you naturally improve your decision making, you drive more automatically and your brain interprets road and traffic conditions in a way that helps you to make the right decisions. When you have a ‘bad driving day’ you don’t go home, read your Highway Code book and go back to the driving instructor, you just get back out there the next day and, having learnt from your mistakes, you make sure you don’t make them again.
When learning a foreign language the same thing happens. The more you use your new language, the better at using that language you become. From time to time you will have a difficult day, but that is not a huge problem. You just go back the next day determined to do a better job.
Sadly, it is at this stage where many people go wrong. They have a bad day with their English and immediately think they have to go out and buy new textbooks and enrol on a course at a language institute. As these institutes are just regurgitating what you learnt in school, you don’t improve your English and instead you end up losing any remnant of confidence you had.
NO! that is not the answer.
Once you have developed enough skill to have a basic conversation in English, then you need to get out there and develop that skill in the real world. You need to get out on the highway of speaking English and just drive yourself down the road. The further down the road you go the better and more natural your English will become and your confidence will grow.
Learning a language or learning to drive a car is no different. Once you have the basics, the answer to improving your skill is not contained in a book. The answer to improving your language or driving skill is in practice. The more you do it, the better you become.
One final observation on this analogy. When you find yourself driving in the snow for the first time and you turn the steering wheel and the car continues in a straight line and does not turn, you learn pretty quickly how useful the handbrake / emergency brake can be. This is something that you can read about as often as you like, but are never going to be any good at it until you are in the situation where you have no choice if you want to avoid hitting the tree at the side of the road. Likewise with any new language, you are frequently going to find yourself in a situation where you are going to have to express yourself as best you can. You can read as many dialogues as you like, but you are never going to be any good in that situation until you have been in it. Then you learn pretty quickly.
Get out and practice.