Learning a foreign language — some reflections

Ronan Miller looking through a cardboard window

One from the BSA archive: As part of his PhD, Ronan Miller spent time in Spain researching how anxiety affects people who stammer in foreign language classes. He believes that some behaviours of people who stammer can actually help in learning a foreign language, and offers ten tips.

Despite stammering being recognised primarily as a mechanical issue, the impact it can have on an individual’s behaviours and attitudes to language is arguably of much greater significance. Many people who stammer grow up dedicating considerable effort to avoiding stammering because of the perceived negative reactions and consequences it can bring.

I believe that some of these behaviours, such as avoiding certain words or adapting sentence structure, could be re-framed and put to beneficial use in the learning of a foreign language. Below I present some methods, approaches and practices that may help people who stammer learn a foreign language more effectively.

My story

I am a native English speaker who was awarded an F in GCSE German. This was enough to make me believe I was unable to learn languages. At 21 I attended an NHS speech therapy course. On this course I met and befriended nine other people who stammer, amongst them were people who had found themselves in the UK for various reasons and had different levels of English. Regardless of this, or their stammers, I found them all to be incredibly adept communicators. The time I spent with them inspired me, and the following year I decided to throw myself in at the deep end and move to Spain in an attempt to learn Spanish, armed only with a phrasebook and a beginner’s level podcast.

Almost nine years later, I am still in Spain and have slowly but surely picked up the language.

Almost nine years later, I am still here and have slowly but surely picked up the language. In 2015 I sat, and passed, an upper intermediate level Spanish exam and began PhD research at the University of Valencia. I am now in the process of studying how anxiety affects people who stammer in foreign language classes. My research has allowed me to talk to a number of people who do and do not stammer about their experiences learning English in Spain. I can also draw on the multitude of anecdotal evidence provided to me by others, and throughout my own experiences as a person who stammers. 

I have found language learning incredibly difficult, but also enormously rewarding. I believe I have learnt a great deal about myself during the process, and this personal growth has allowed me to be more aware of my perspectives on communication and language.

Overcoming the challenges

Based on my research so far, I believe that the majority of people have a difficult time with foreign language learning, particularly at secondary school. These difficulties can be even more intense if coupled with stammering. 

It is my belief  that some people who stammer have been put off language learning somewhat. In many cases, despite having a positive attitude towards learning, they have found the subject burdensome and have become disheartened by their experiences in classes. In some cases this can lead to a student considering him or herself unable to learn languages, much as I did. In the UK we are sometimes loath to learn languages, falling back on the misguided but reassuring consolation that, ‘everyone speaks English’. This may be true to differing degrees in some parts of the world but this attitude belies the other advantages that knowledge of other languages can offer us.

Learning (and using) another language can offer us a multitude of benefits.

Learning (and using) another language can offer us a multitude of benefits, from helping to stave off dementia, to improving our employment chances, broadening our circle of friends and allowing us to see the world from others' perspectives. Language learning can be serious, but it can also be charmingly peculiar; why do the Spanish feel the need to express their desire to defecate in the milk when they are angry, for example? Or why do the Italians believe that someone has put a flea in their ear when they are suspicious of something? For the Norwegians, being in a favourable position is akin to being in the middle of the butter melting in some porridge. These are just a few examples of how language can give us an amusing, and eye opening, view of the world.

There are reasons to believe that foreign language learning may be difficult for people who stammer. Research suggests that many who stammer also experience social anxiety and communication anxiety (see footnote 1 below). Foreign language learning stands out as having an almost unique set of challenges compared to other academic subjects. It is not surprising then that research has shown that many students who are otherwise relaxed, experience anxiety in their language classes (see footnote 2).

Anxiety is an important factor in learning and students who are highly anxious struggle to retain information. This can have a serious effect on their progress in a particular subject. These factors offer an insight into the challenging nature of language learning for all students, and particularly for some of those who stammer.

There are reasons to believe that people who stammer can be very effective foreign language learners.

Nevertheless, an argument could be made on the contrary, and there are reasons to believe that people who stammer can be very effective foreign language learners. I consider that instead of seeing stammering as a barrier to effective learning and communication, we can be proud of the way we negotiate language and meaning in such a nimble way. Our linguistic dexterity could be put to positive use.

Ten tips

The following ten points are a collection of observations, methods or perspectives that have helped me, or other people who stammer, during the process of studying a language. That is not to say they will work for everyone, but I hope that amongst them people will find a tip or two which may help to spur them towards more effective learning.

This article also serves as a call to teachers, who must reassure and inspire students who stammer. Teacher support and understanding plays an important role in motivating all students, but is particularly important when we consider those who may be finding a subject particularly challenging. This point cannot be emphasised enough.

1. Talk to your teacher about stammering

Teachers want their students to feel comfortable and engaged. The vast majority of them put a great deal of time and effort into formulating classes that they hope will be of interest to their students. Teaching, at its very essence, is a challenging profession and no teacher will be disheartened or disappointed with having a student who stammers in his or her class. They will see it as an opportunity to learn, and to awaken teaching skills that are lying dormant. It is unfortunate that most teachers have not received any formal training or guidance about how to approach or motivate students who stammer. Foreign language teachers are naturally inquisitive about language and anything that provides them with a different perspective on language learning and use should be well received.

People who stammer have told me that talking to teachers about their stammering has helped them feel more relaxed in class, and that their teachers have been understanding and compassionate. In some cases, just one conversation has led to students enjoying classes more. In others, the student and the teacher have come up with a plan of action privately, which they then use in the classroom to aid a student´s participation and learning. One example of this kind of arrangement was a student asking to go first in any speaking activities because they found waiting for their turn created a build up in anxiety.

Bringing up stammering for the first time can be very daunting; in some cases, it may be more comfortable to write a note explaining that stammering is something that you would like to speak about. Talking about stammering and any challenges it may be presenting can be a difficult step to take, but it can also be very liberating. It could serve to reduce tension and help redirect focus away from stammering and towards other areas in the class.

2. Use your skills in finding alternative words

Throughout my conversations with other people who stammer, avoidance of certain words and situations has been a common topic. Many of us agree that avoidance should be reduced and ideally eliminated. This can be viewed negatively, or we could reimagine it as a training programme in linguistic gymnastics. This idea is summed up beautifully by the novelist David Mitchell, himself a person who stammers:

"A stammer is a course in practical linguistics. When I’m on the road promoting a book, I identify a few passages that work well when read aloud, and read these at bookshops and festivals and so forth. Inevitably, there’ll be one or two stammer words in the passage. I know they’re there, that they’re waiting for me: some nights I can say them, but I keep synonyms for the sticky words or phrases up my sleeve, so that if I’m tired, or my stammer is especially bolshy, I have the possibility of substituting an alternative word. Back when I was 12 or 13, however, I used to have to ‘self-autocue’ all the time.

I soon learned that some synonyms are more equal than others. I learnt that words are finely-calibrated things, whose meaning or force can be adjusted by inflection; that a single stress on a syllable can alter the centre of gravity of a phrase. I also learned about lexical register, that some words and phrases sound more educated and adult and Latinate, while other words and phrases are more ‘street’, more ‘teen’, maybe more Anglo-Saxon. Of course all native speakers of a language learn this intuitively too, but for an autocuing stammering kid it’s a means of survival in the schoolyard – we really learn it.'"

(From 'Thirteen ways of looking at a stammer'. Read the whole thing online here.) 

Think of the amount of synonyms you know in your native language. Do you know multiple ways to say the same word? Obviously not many of us are as gifted as David Mitchell, but I know from personal experience that my difficulties in pronouncing some words led me to learn alternatives, and that this process has extended my vocabulary greatly. A broad and varied vocabulary is a benefit in any situation, and in a foreign language it can help with both self-expression and understanding.

3. Dysfluency is the norm in language classes

Everyone in a foreign language class is dysfluent. No-one is afforded the level of control and ease that they enjoy in their native language. The general ‘rules’ that govern everyday communication, some of which can be discriminatory for people who stammer, are generally disregarded (see footnote 3). 

Anxiety is commonplace. It may be useful to think that other members of the class are experiencing what many people who stammer experience on a daily basis when using their mother tongue. It is worth remembering that learning a language is a difficult task for everyone, and that others are not used to the sensation of being dysfluent. The day-to-day rigmarole that accompanies living with a stammer could serve you in good stead when faced with any anxiety that language learning provokes.

4. There is more to foreign languages than speaking

Most foreign language teaching is based upon a communicative approach, where students are encouraged to speak. Speaking is an important part of communication, but it is only one part of language. Listening, reading and writing are all equally important elements; enjoying using these skills is essential to successful foreign language learning.

Try and find examples of the language you are learning in contexts that you already appreciate and are knowledgeable about. If you have a keen interest in music, for example, think of the thousands of new songs that you will be able to hear with fresh ears. Any contact and interaction with a language is positive, and this interaction can take many forms, speaking being just one of them.

5. Take advantage of the opportunity to use a new accent

Some people who stammer find that if they use a different accent, they experience less tension when speaking. Foreign language learning requires you to find your own voice in a new language; no one is expecting you to pronounce perfectly or adopt an accent that is identical to a native speaker. However, the phonetics and rhythm of a language naturally encourages the speaker to pronounce and articulate words in a different way. Take the opportunity to experiment and find your voice in this language, one that helps you feel comfortable and relaxed.

6. New sounds can open new doors

Extending the idea in the previous point, a foreign language requires you to assimilate and practise new sounds, some of which may not be present in your native language. The exposure and practise of a different set of phonemes can help us become more aware of language. They can introduce us to new sounds, some of which may be difficult, yet others can possess a certain charm in their unusualness. It can be tempting to dismiss some sounds as being strange or feeling out of place when said the first few times. Try and get past this sensation and welcome these new sounds as just another part of language. Give them a chance to rest in your mind and see how they develop.

7. Native speakers are often more considerate with non-native speakers

Native speakers often afford non-native speakers who make the effort to try and communicate in a foreign language a great deal of time and patience. Visitors who do so are often held in high esteem simply for endeavouring to communicate in a language which isn't their own. Over 50% of the world’s population is bilingual (see footnote 4) and even people who do not speak another language are aware of the challenges learning one entails. Try and bear this in mind.

8. Take the opportunity to reimagine language

In my case, learning a brand new language allowed me to take a step back and leave some of the worries and fears that I had built up over the years behind. I had a clean(ish) slate onto which I could reimagine my relationship with language. This helped me see the language I was learning in a fresh light. I found that I began to re-evaluate some of the preoccupations I had developed in relation to my first language. I was able to challenge them and I believe this has helped with my attitude towards communication in general.

For example, I found it much easier to introduce myself in Spanish than in English. Meeting new people was always something I found challenging, often because I would stammer when saying my name. This change has helped me feel more comfortable in social situations in general, in both Spanish and English.

9. Apps and the internet offer great resources to help you learn a language

The internet and smartphones have created new avenues for students to manage learning on their own terms. Take advantage of the many forms available to improve your knowledge of the language you are learning. Mobile apps such as Duolingo, Busuu, FluentU, Memrise, HelloTalk and Mindsnacks are all available for relatively low prices (and some are completely free). These kinds of resources allow students to supplement any formal teaching they are receiving in a quick and manageable way, away from any anxiety that a language class may provoke. For people who are struggling to express themselves orally in a class, there are options to chat or video call with native speakers, many of whom wish to practice their English in return.

To complement these apps there are a huge array of podcasts dedicated to language learning. These podcasts essentially allow you to sit in on a series of language classes (most of the time for free) and listen to, and learn from the questions and mistakes that other students encounter in their journey. The Creative Language Learning Podcast, the 101 Series by Innovative Language and the News in Slow… series are just a few that come highly recommended.

Apps and podcasts offer the opportunity to practise and develop language away from the pressures of a traditional classroom environment. They are an easy way to increase your understanding of a language, which will have a positive effect on your confidence.

10. Take your time

Language learning in an academic context can feel very rushed. Students are required to know enough to pass an exam without really having time to naturally absorb the language and its character. This can make the process even harder and in some cases more stressful.

Don't let this put you off — think about how children learn a language, passing through different phases during which they develop and practise various skills. Now imagine that because you have already experienced this process in one language, you can use the abilities that you have learnt along the way to help with the process of learning a new language. Sometimes it can be of benefit to remember that language learning is a natural process, one that all humans are capable of. If you are struggling, it is probably more to do with the context or the way you are trying to learn than your natural ability. Remember to focus on the positives and to try and remain consistent in your studies.

Studying a new language is a bit like learning a new instrument, it can seem very difficult to begin with but once you get the basics down, your knowledge can improve very quickly.

Ronan Miller studied for his PhD at the University of Valencia. If you would like to contact him, you can email ronanlmiller@gmail.com or find him on Twitter: @ronanlmiller

This article was first published in April 2017 on our old website.

Footnotes

  1. Craig, A. y Tran, Y. (2014), Iverach, L. y Rapee, R. M. (2014), Kraaimaat, W. F., Vanryckeghem, M. y Van Dam-Baggen, R. (2002)
  2. Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B. y Cope, J. (1986), Price, M. L. (1991), Tallon, M. (2009)
  3. St. Pierre, 2012
  4. Ansaldo, A. I., Marcotte, K., Scherer, L., & Raboyeau, G. (2008)

References

Ansaldo, A. I., Marcotte, K., Scherer, L., & Raboyeau, G. (2008). “Language therapy and bilingual aphasia: Clinical implications of psycholinguistic and neuroimaging research”. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 21(6), 539-557.

Craig, A. y Tran, Y. (2014): “Trait and social anxiety in adults with chronic stuttering: conclusions following meta-analysis”. Journal of fluency disorders, 40, 35-43.

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B. y Cope, J. (1986): “Foreign language classroom anxiety”. The modern language journal, 21 (3), 125-132.

Iverach, L. y Rapee, R. M. (2014): “Social anxiety disorder and stuttering: Current status and future directions”. Journal of fluency disorders, 40, 69-82.

Kraaimaat, W. F., Vanryckeghem, M. y Van Dam-Baggen, R. (2002): “Stuttering and social anxiety”. Journal of fluency disorders, 27, 319-331.

Pierre, J. S. (2012). “The construction of the disabled speaker: Locating stuttering in disability studies”. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 1(3), 1-21.

Price, M. L. (1991): “The subjective experience of foreign language anxiety: Interviews with highly anxious students”. Language anxiety: From theory and research to classroom implications, 101-108.

Tallon, M. (2009): “Foreign language anxiety and heritage students of Spanish: a quantitative Study”. Foreign language annals, 42, (1), 112-137.

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