Passive learning also counts!

As a teacher and a life-long learner, I think a lot about the learning process. I also talk about it a lot and spent many years discussing with parents what their child could do in order to improve in their chosen language. We think we have to be doing to learn but actually this is not the case, especially not when learning another language.

When I was 14, I went on my school German Exchange for the first time and the following term, when I returned to school, it was astonishing how much I had improved, especially my listening and speaking skills. Well, you might think that this is an obvious thing to happen, but the truth is, I barely spoke a word of German the whole 10 days I was there! I had been learning for just two years and had a few basics, but zero confidence! Plus, my lovely German penfriend spoke amazing English and happily interpreted for me when talking to her family. So, I did not go and spend time using my German. Beyond, “Ja”, “Nein”, “Bitte” and “Danke”, I think I managed one sentence “Kann ich bitte haben die Milch” (German speakers amongst you will note that this sentence is actually grammatically incorrect as well!), yet I clearly learnt. This is the power of passive learning.

Another good example is from my university year abroad, which I spent in Jena in the east of Germany. Now, at this point I spoke mostly German, I was studying in German, living with German girls and socializing in German. Of course I improved, I came back fluent! However, I also somehow learnt a lot of vocabulary surrounding cars, roads and traffic. I didn’t drive (I didn’t even have my licence, let alone access to a car) nor did any of my friends. We cycled and used the amazing public transport (it really is amazing over there!). So how did I suddenly know the words Stau (traffic jam) and Gegenverkehr (contraflow)? Well, I had the radio on a lot. I found a station that played really cheesy 70s and 80s music and, of course, they had traffic reports. I never really engaged with the traffic reports, they just played in the background. Yet clearly I took that language in and learnt it …

The human brain is incredible! It engages with language even when we are not consciously doing so. In the words of the wonderful Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith, who have spent many years studying language acquisition “Our brains are wired to pick up language through listening”[1]. Think of a baby learning its first language. Babies can hear while they are still growing inside their mothers and their brain is trying to make sense of it. First sounds, then meanings. Our brains don’t stop doing that as they get older, we just intervene and put barriers in the way. Somewhere along the line someone told us that learning involves doing and when we actively do things to learn a language [think trying to make sense of a sign or information we hear over a tannoy, trying to ask for directions in the street], and we find it hard, we think we can’t do it. Actually, this isn’t the case at all. Our brain is still engaging with the language, and it is processing it. We actually need to spend time on both active and passive listening skills and allow ourselves to just hear the language.

“Scholars of second language acquisition are of the view that the main way we acquire language is by receiving what is labelled Comprehensible Input, either through listening or reading, which we eventually convert into output when we write and speak.”[2]  So we need to hear the language for our brains to start to understand it and then eventually enable us to use it for ourselves. This plays a big part in the way in which I teach languages and in lessons my learners spend a lot of time listening and completing simple tasks that allow their brains to just hear. In addition I always encourage my learners to listen passively outside of the classroom.

So there you have it, absolute permission just to listen to Serge Gainsbourg, Rammstein or Ricky Martin without the need to understand a word! Giving yourself permission to just listen and not understand everything is really powerful. By removing the pressure to understand the words being said you relax and allow your brain to focus on the sounds and start the learning process.

Here a few of my passive listening suggestions:

  • Listen to foreign language radio, just have it playing in the background while you are doing the dishes
  • Listen to music sung in the language you are learning
  • Listen to a podcast or Slow News, being sure to give yourself permission to just listen and not focus on comprehension
  • Watch a foreign language film or TV series with English subtitles on
  • Go to the country and sit in a café on a busy street, where people are speaking the language

If you would like to know more about what I do or how I can help you learn another language then please get in touch!


[1] Breaking the Sound Barrier. Teaching Language Learners How to Listen by Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith: Chapter 4

[2] Ibid: Chapter 5



My Top Ten Tips for Language Learning

Little and often – this is often said of eating but is so true for learning a language as well! If you can do something with the language every day then it will really help.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – we all do it! Actually, mistakes can be a great way to learn and often we remember something better because we got it wrong the first time.

Read –There are many books and short stories written for language learners. Some have the translations in them too so you can see how well you are understanding it as you go along.

Listen and watch – these days it is so easy to access different languages. Check out foreign language shows and films on streaming services and put on the English subtitles. Listen to music in the language you are learning.

Experiment – if something isn’t working, then change it! All learners are different and what works for one won’t always work for another. Try a few different things and find what works for you.

Set yourself achievable goals and targets – you are unlikely to master a language in a few weeks, but you could set yourself a goal of ten sentences to learn in a few weeks, then add a few more to it. My little and often method will really help here.

Passive learning also counts – we think we have to be doing to learn but having a foreign language radio or music playing in the back group or going to the country and hearing it will really help. You will be training your ear to the sounds of the other language.

Have a go – especially if you visit a country where the language is spoken. You may not be perfect, you may not be fluent, but you will definitely feel good if you are understood!

Learn from a human – apps and websites are great as a starting point and as a support, but you will inevitably come to a point where you need to ask some questions or have something explained. A good teacher is invaluable here.

Learn from a human – language is used by humans to communicate with humans. We learn so much from speaking with another human, there are many cues we pick up on to aid understanding. Plus, a human can speed up and slow down, repeat and explain as much as you need them to!

Practise with a friend … or a family member – having someone learning alongside you can be really helpful. You can test each other and practice together, swap notes and quiz each other. It can be a great motivator.

Keep a positive mindset – try and keep the negative comments out and tell yourself you can do it. Positive learners are successful learners.

Enjoy it! – Learning a language can be inspiring, interesting, fulfilling and above all fun.



Overcoming Fears When Speaking a Foreign Language

You may think that as a linguist, with all these wonderful opportunities I have had in my life, that speaking French must be easy for me, but the truth is, I find it really hard! 

I panic when someone speaks to me in French and often have to ask them to repeat what they said. I struggle with the local dialects and accents of the rural part of France, where my parents live. I feel embarrassed when I don’t fully understand and am not sure how to respond. I studied French at A-level, a fantastic level of language for what I need it for. However, I then left it to focus on learning German and Russian and in this time, I not only lost the high level of French I had, I also lost my confidence. I felt that because my French was not as good as my German or Russian, that I was no good at it, so I neglected it and, of course, it only got worse! Even when teaching French in school, for many years I did not have the confidence to teach higher than Key Stage 3 (14 year olds). I then had a conversation which completely changed my mindset. 

During a visit to France, I was chatting with the wife of one of my cousins, whom I had not seen for a number of years. The difference in her level of English from the previous time we had seen one another was astonishing! She was fluent and flawless! I asked her about it and she simply said that she had realised she wanted to improve her English, so she started to read books in English and to give a little time every day to practising and that gradually it had happened. Now, surely as a teacher, I already knew this! Of course I did! But that did not automatically mean I could apply it to myself and my own language learning. From that day on, I forced myself to speak French to people whenever I could. I sought out opportunities to pass the time of day or make a comment to people I met, and gradually my confidence increased. Back at school, I took a GCSE French class. This meant a lot more work as I had to really prepare and make sure I was one step ahead of my students, but it was worth it and I definitely feel that my French has improved.

Writing it here makes it seem like it was such an easy process, but it really wasn’t and the first hurdle I had to overcome was the fear. The voice in my head that tells me any of the following:

  • You can’t say that, what if you get it wrong?
  • What if they don’t understand me?
  • What if I say something stupid?
  • What if I mis-pronounce something?
  • They probably speak better English than I do French!
  • What if they reply and I don’t understand them?

A lot of what ifs?!

The truth is, all of these things happened!

It was clear that I was overthinking this.

I had to address that fear that was holding me back. 

Now this is not a phobia. I have a phobia, I am terrified of rats. I have a physical reaction to them; I scream and I get hysterical. I actually lose control and cannot stop these things happening. I suspect I would need a lot of help to actually overcome this fear! 

No, the fears I had surrounding speaking languages were definitely ones that I could address. 

So I did. 

I broke them down and looked at why I felt these fears.

Some came from negative experiences as a teenager, when someone had corrected or criticised me and I had taken it to heart. [Again, this is a whole new blog –  Why Our Experiences in Education are Holding us Back!]

I looked at my fear of looking stupid and considered it from another perspective. I often hear non-native English speakers speak my language. I don’t judge them when they make mistakes. I don’t criticise their pronunciation. I simply have a conversation! 

On many occasions when I speak German in Germany, people speak back to me in English and a conversation with a German friend once explained why this is. It is not based on the assumption that my German is poor (it really isn’t!). It’s actually due to a cultural difference. They believe it polite for them to speak in the language of the visitor. We believe it polite to speak in the language spoken in the country we are in. 

Admittedly, this has happened far less in France, where they are happy to hear a native English speaker speak in French, but whenever or wherever it happens, I just politely ask if we can please speak French or German and explain that I would like to improve my language. So far, every single time, we have continued!

As for the mistakes and the mis-pronunciations, well yes they definitely happen and I get corrected but I just remind myself that this is not criticism! It is, in fact, a great learning opportunity, as all mistakes are!

So now it is up to you!

Can you face up to your fears about speaking in another language and overcome them?

If you want to chat to me further about this or would like some help improving your languages, then please get in touch!



A Talented Linguist?

People often say to me; “You must have a talent for languages.” And I must admit, I like hearing it and have agreed that I must indeed do so. However; the truth is, I honestly don’t think I have a particular talent for languages. I met some very talented linguists whilst studying languages at university. I have worked with, and taught, some very talented linguists over the past 20 years, and I can’t say that I belong to this exclusive group of people. Yet, I speak five languages…

The thing is, when we start to talk about someone having a particular talent for something we elevate it to a height that feels unobtainable to many people. By labeling certain people as linguists, we make many feel like they will never master a language. The idea that you must have a particular talent in order to learn a foreign language is a myth that I would like to bust.

Learning another language does not require a special talent. It is not a skill that belongs only to an elite percentage of the population. The truth is anyone can learn a language. Of course, certain things help. I have had certain advantages. I was not brought up bi-lingual, but my parents are both speakers of French and German. I had exposure to these languages at home and through wider family and friends who lived abroad. French was always a part of my life as a child. I heard music and sang songs in French. I was lucky enough to be taken to France and Germany as a child and hear the language spoken around me. I had parents who were role models and spoke French and German when we visited these countries. I also had some early French lessons, before formally starting it at school. These advantages have, without a doubt, helped me get where I am today, but really, the reason I speak five languages is because this is what I have chosen to do with my life; teach and learn languages. I am interested in this, so I spend more time on it than maths or art, for example.

So, what does it mean to successfully master a language?

I think there is no one answer to this question. Language is on-going and ever-changing. The teenagers I teach continue to, as so many have done before, take words and repurpose them, changing meanings and uses. For this reason, and the fact that there are many subject specific words that I simply don’t know, I could easily argue that I haven’t yet mastered English! However, I use it every day to communicate and can always make myself understood. The same is true for me in French, German, Russian and Spanish, although my level in these languages is not as high as my level of English.

My personal goal is to have achieved at least A-level standard in the languages I want to teach, that for me, equals mastery. This goal would be different for others, however. Many of my past learners have been happy to stop at GCSE level, some adults prefer not to engage with exams and qualifications and just simply learn to communicate. The final goal must be down to the individual.

So what do we need to successfully learn a language? 

I believe we need simply to engage with it on a regular basis. I practise most of my languages most days, as I teach them, however, I rarely get to use my Russian and definitely feel less confident using it than my other languages. The language I came to most recently, Spanish, I use daily. I am currently working towards an A-level in Spanish and make sure that I do something every day. A big advantage of being an adult learner, is that I am very aware of the skills I find hardest, so I make myself practise these most of all. Listening has always been my weakest skill, so I listen to Spanish every day. I listen to Slow News in Spanish, I do Duo Lingo, I complete listening tasks for my course. There are many ways in which you can check in with a language daily, but for that I would need another blog!

I have mastered my languages because I keep using them. I have forgotten bits at times and have had to work hard to bring them back, but they do come back. What’s more, I know that in order to maintain my languages I have to keep going with them. I have continued to learn them throughout my life and intend to continue doing so.

So, think about what you know most about and ask yourself, why is that? Most likely it is because it is what you do day-in-day-out and put this into your language learning.

You do not need a special talent to master a language, you just need to give it a go and keep going.

You do not need to reach a goal set by anyone but yourself.

Are you a life-long language learner too?

Please feel free to comment and tell me about your language learning goals.

Or get in touch to have a chat about how I can help you achieve those goals.



Getting Started – Who I Am, What I Have Achieved and What Languages for All is About

My name is Jennifer. I am a mother of two, owner of two black labs and wife to another teacher. I am a language teacher and life-long language learner. I love teaching and I love the subjects I teach. I taught for nearly twenty years in two wonderful schools and the experience I gained has made me the teacher I am today. 

I started my company Languages for All Ltd in July 2021, after the closure of my school. We had just five weeks’ notice of the closure and it was an exhausting and emotionally draining time for all involved; staff, students, parents and the wider community. So, I arrived at the summer holidays, usually the golden time in any teacher’s world, but this time I was unsettled, mourning the loss of my school, my colleagues and my students. I spent the first day of my holidays unpacking all the resources I had brought back from school and setting up my study. Then I felt flat. I didn’t want to celebrate and I couldn’t relax. I was emotionally exhausted. I had no job, but I did have an idea …

Cue a phone call from my Dad. My Dad has been successfully running his own businesses for over thirty-five years. He has a wealth of experience, and he knew just what to say to me. I left the call with more than just an idea. I had a plan of things to do over the next few days and I got started. I set up my limited company, chose a name and registered. I set up a Facebook page and began to advertise. Ex-students got in touch over the summer, seeking tuition, many were picking up new languages in new schools and wanted a foundational knowledge before they started.

Initially I had just two students on my books, but gradually more ex-students got in touch, and even some of their parents. I began to advertise and build a name for myself. Following interest from several adults, I set up a Beginner’s Spanish Group. This group is still ongoing and is such a joy to teach! At the start of this academic year I set up my first group lesson for children, offering the chance to learn a language not available in school. This group is so much fun and the learners are really motivated – they all hope to sit an extra GCSE in Spanish alongside their other ones in a few years.

So, here I am, nearly two years later, and I have a thriving language tutoring business and am able to work with people of various ages, from primary school children to adults, supporting them in achieving their individual language learning goals. I love it!

I love that I can tailor my lessons to meet the individual needs of my learners. I love supporting GCSE students to overcome hurdles and achieve the grades they want. I love being able to build up the confidence of adult learners, many of whom had a bad experience learning a language previously, but who have returned to give it another go.

You see I have a few strong beliefs about language learning, that make me a bit different:

  • I don’t believe you have to have a special talent to learn a language. I believe it is something that anyone can do.
  • I encourage my learners to make mistakes. After all, we all make them – even teachers! I think that mistakes can be really helpful in the learning process.
  • I believe in all my learners and do my best to help them believe in themselves. A confident learner will always learn more!
  • I repeat things … a lot! Not just because my memory isn’t what it once was, but because repetition is key to remembering things. The more we go over and over the vocabulary and grammar again and again, the more chance it will stick.
  • I am a life-long language learner, which means that, like my students, I am also learning languages … all of the time.
  • I understand the difficulties of learning languages. We all have certain aspects we find hard and because I am still a learner, I know many ways to help my learners overcome these difficulties.

So that’s me and if you like what you’re reading here, then please get in touch!