Secret! How To Ace a Language Class

So the 8th graders who were accepted to the school that I teach at for next year were at school on Saturday morning to take their placement tests.  They asked me to come in and talk to the kids and parents about their world language choices… specifically to drum up some interest in the Mandarin program, which could use a handful more students.

I addressed the students for about three minutes, and then they were off to their math placement exam.  Then their parents came into the room, and I gave them a similar pitch.

“Who do you want to be?”  I asked them.  “Which culture do you want to discover, and where do you want to make friends?  Where do you want your adventures to be in a few years?  In Europe?  In Latin America or Spain?  In Asia?”

Of course, for me, personally, the answer to my questions were “all of the above,” but I was there to plug Chinese.  So I talked a little about how cool the program is, and how glad I am that I studied Chinese, etc.

The students didn’t have any questions for me and didn’t want to talk to me later.  The parents, however, kind of crowded me after the session, telling me that they wanted to sign up for my class.  Of course they had questions:

  • “Isn’t Chinese hard, because it’s so different?”
  • “Spanish is easier, so shouldn’t my daughter take Spanish so she can get an A?”
  • “What if Chinese is too hard, can she switch into Spanish mid-semester?”

Here’s my question… who are the idiots that keep repeating that Chinese is hard and Spanish is easy, and why do people listen to them?  Seriously, think of all the people that have ever said “Chinese is hard” and “Spanish is easy….”  What exactly qualifies those people to make a judgement like that?  Did they study a bunch of languages and make an informed comparison?  Was there some academic research THAT THEY READ with conclusive proof that one language, any language, is empirically harder or easier than another?

The answer, of course, is no.  The “x-language is hard/easy” meme is just a bunch of jackasserie.  There are studies that attempt to quantify how different or similar some languages are to English, which then leap to the presumption that languages that are more different from someone’s native language may take longer to learn, but the “easy” and “hard” claims are, in my professional opinion, a giant pile of crap.

The truth is, all languages are easy.  And all languages are hard.  For us, Chinese has an unfamiliar writing system and a tonal phonology that we have to train ourselves to hear.  On the other hand, Spanish has the gender, the subjunctive mood, relative pronouns.   Whenever I say “Spanish is easy!” in my classroom, my students want to strangle me.

My friends who have learned English as a second language spent their formative years trying to memorize (and failing quizzes on) English’s seemingly arbitrary verb morphology (jump, jumped, jumped; eat, ate, eaten; do, did, done; sing, sang, sung...)

If you want to watch an ESL speaker squirm ask about English “tag questions” —isn’t it?  didn’t he?  aren’t you?  wouldn’t they?   Most of the time, our ESL friends will just avoid tag questions all together.

Anyway, the point is, the average 5 year-old in an English-speaking country can do relative clauses, irregular verbs, and tag questions without much trouble.  The average 5 year-old in Spanish-speaking countries has full control of the subjunctive, the imperative, relative pronouns, you name it.  And yes, the average 5 year-old in China knows the tones, the grammatical formulas, all the things that are supposedly “hard” about their phonology, morphology, and syntax.

So why do they say Chinese is “hard”  when a 5 year-olds all over China have it mastered?  Of course, then the people will make some kind of claim about second languages being different, which–you have to understand this–they just made it up.  

So I tell those parents, whose kids are deciding which language to take in high school, don’t listen to that crap about supposedly easy or hard languages, it’s all a giant load of crap.  Spanish is easy; it’s also complicated.  Chinese is complicated as well, but it’s also easy in ways that Spanish is not.  I’ve studied them both; I am qualified to make that call.

Anyway, one dad wanted to know if his daughter could take Chinese, and switch to Spanish if it’s too hard and she struggles.  I, of course, said, NO, because both languages are hard (and easy), and when your daughter switches mid-year she will be behind in Spanish.  That is a bad decision.  Just tell your daughter to not struggle.

You know that, right?  You know that you can choose not to struggle.  You can just ace the class, and then the whole “switching to Spanish because it’s easier” will be moot.

How do you ace a language class?  I can tell you my secret.

Apparently it’s a secret, because, trust me, so few people choose to ace the class.  And when I tell them what they have to do to ace the class, they don’t believe me.  Eyerolls is what I see.

Here are the language classes I’ve aced using my secret, in chronological order:  French. Spanish.  Italian.  American Sign Language. German. Latin. Portuguese. Tagalog.  Mandarin.  Mind you, I didn’t continue with all of those languages, but I assure you that I aced those classes.

Here’s my secret, here’s how to ace any language class:  you try to become a speaker of that language.  If you aim to become a speaker of a language, the class becomes a piece of cake.  The A’s will rain down from the sky and land next to your name.

To some of us, that seems perfectly obvious, but here are the do’s and dont’s:

  • Do be too cool to speak English.  Don’t beg your teacher for English translations, don’t switch to English when it’s too hard or it’s too important.  Don’t stay in a class where the instruction talks to you in English all the time, that is a waste of YOUR LIFE.
  • Do approach every homework as a valuable learning opportunity; if you don’t know the material well, homework it’s your chance to figure it out.  If you do know the material well, the homework is your chance to practice it and get it down cold.  Don’t try to intimidate everyone with words like “busy work” and “skill and drill” because, frankly, that’s “B minus” talk.  Don’t make it your goal to finish it as fast as possible, to do it in the most efficient way, or to expend the minimum effort; that’s “C minus” behavior.
  • Do master the grammatical and vocabulary objectives of the class, INCLUDING what they are called.  I can’t tell you how many times a student of mine learns some conjugation and then can’t tell me what it’s called or what it’s used for.  Do master these objectives to the point that you can use them easily in sentences.
  • Do work in groups with like minded folks, in class and outside of class.  Language is a social skill; it’s laughable to me that people try to learn language alone.  Do  practice speaking the language in your group.  Don’t dismiss the group work, even if your group members are at different levels than you, or if they are slackers… Don’t be too cool practice the target language in your group; if the only speaking practice your schedule allows is during group work, you would be an IDIOT to squander that time not practicing.
  • Do keep your head up and look at people when they’re speaking the target language with you.  Do negotiate the meaning with the person in the target language, asking them to repeat, explain, demonstrate, whatever; do involve that person in your understanding process.  Don’t freeze up or get embarrassed like you’re going to die, don’t look away like you’re invisible, don’t manipulate someone else into translating for you, because if someone treated you like that, you’d want to punch them.  Don’t say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” and expect the problem to go away.
  • Do make mistakes; the maxim is “learn from your mistakes;”  not “fear mistakes at all cost.”  It’s called “trial end error;” not “don’t try.”  It’s called “practice makes perfect,” not “be perfect or shut up.”  Do repeat new words, do write them down as if they were money, and do use those words in an original way as soon as you can.  Do ask questions when you don’t understand something.  Do everything within your power to NEGOTIATE that knowledge out of the instructor and into your brain.

Back in 2007, I wrote a post called Why You Fail At Language Learning.  It was a moment of frustration for me, and the post got increasingly snarkier as it progressed.  That stuff all still rings true for me; that people fail at language learning because they’re doing it wrong.   They poison their learning with a bunch of fear and hang ups and terrible awful habits.

People accuse me of having a “talent” for languages, and because I’m a brown person, they assume it’s some kind of magic (when it’s white people, people say that they are “smart.”)  Folks, it’s not a special intelligence or a talent or magic; we learn languages because we do it right, we have the right attitude, we have the right habits.  Of course to us it seems like the most basic, the most intuitive common sense, but to many, it’s like this mystical secret knowledge.  The most baffling thing to me is when I tell people what they have to do, and then they won’t do it.

Learning language is so easy.  Children achieve fluency by the age of 5, certainly you can do it too, if you quit doing it wrong.

Now, just think; if you’re actually learning the language, think of how easy it will be to ace that language class…

12 thoughts on “Secret! How To Ace a Language Class

  1. Rodney,
    Thanks! “Jackasserie” is a real word… in the sense that I invented it, and use it and try to pass it off as a real word. I heard some radio show once about how someone made a comment… about a painting or something… trying to sound intelligent, but just totally uninformed. They said they felt like they should be on the cover of “Jackass Monthly.” That kind of captured my imagination.

    “jackasserie” is the nominal form I invented, describing the class of things that are jackastic. I liked the sound of the suffix, because it makes it sound like it came from french “la jackassérie.”

    I’m kind of amazed by the pushback I’ve been getting on this post on fb and G+. People are writing in saying “Chinese IS hard!” Interestingly, though, no one has written in saying “Spanish IS easy!” not yet at least!

    More telling, though, is that nobody is negating my thesis, which is that you can ace a class if you make learning to speak the language a priority.


  2. Hi JP,

    I have a question. I am half Latin, but I just started learning Spanish (via podcasts and pdf handouts). My dad speaks fluent Spanish. What would be the best way for me to utilize my dad’s knowledge? Since I have access to a native Spanish speaker on a daily basis, how can I get the most out of it? Should I get a Spanish text book? I am guessing that our “tutoring sessions” should be somewhat structured. No?


    • Hi Andre, sorry it’s taken so long for a reply. The best way for you to learn Spanish is to take a class or get lessons somehow from someone that’s not your dad, and then use your dad as a reference or resource.

      A parent-child relationship is very strong, and it’s hard to change that into a language learner/language teacher relationship, especially if the parent is not a trained language teacher. If your dad is the only option, then yes, get a textbook, and structure the lessons…. but you’re going to have to get your dad to read the text and prepare the lessons, which may be tough.

      I remember telling my parents at the age of 5 to teach me Tagalog, speak to me in Tagalog. At the age of 30, after having studied 5 or so languages and having a master’s in teaching, I sort of gave my mama a training session on how to talk to me to help me learn (i.e., if i don’t understand something, don’t say it in English; instead offer me options, etc). She did MUCH better after that, but at the end of the day I wanted her to be my mama and not my teacher.

      My dad had some psychotic idea that you could learn language by listening to popular music, and he saw it as his role to stump me rather than to teach me. My dad is really good at creating discouragement. I once tried to put together a sentence, and he said “yah, you have THINK about it before you speak,” which showed he had no clue; I was learning by trial and error, and he was telling me not to try.

      So as you can see I have my own issues and therefore do not have a lot of faith in turning parents into teachers. Let me know how it goes!

      Ps. You don’t have to say you’re “half” latin, you can just say you’re latin. Or Latin AND your other ethnicity. It’s time that we trained majority people that fractions are not helpful. 🙂


      • Hi JP,

        Thanks for the tips. I will let you know how things turn out. Btw, I just listened to your “Pura vida!” podcast. You and your sister have great chemistry. Maybe you guys should think about doing a Spanish podcast on Radio Lingua or something.


  3. Hi JP,

    In my opinion, the main challenge with your approach of trying to speak the language is frustration and embarrassment. Now, I think you are right not to include “don’t be frustrated” nor “don’t feel embarrassed” because learners cannot control these emotions; thus, telling someone “don’t be frustrated” or “don’t feel embarrassed” makes about as much sense as asking people to stop their heartbeat for two seconds. However, I think you should pay more attention to this challenge.

    Usually, teachers would try to minimize the frustration and embarrassment. (Video games are particular good at it; I’ve recently read “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy” by James Paul Gee, which explains many of the techniques that video games use to avoid frustration.) And, I guess, that’s what most learners expect.

    Now, actually trying to speak a second language will result in lots of frustration and embarrassment. Thus, if you want students to go through this, you have to teach them how to handle it. If they can’t handle their frustration and embarrassment, most of them will probably not follow your approach.

    Thus, I think “do make mistakes” is actually the most important advice. You might add: “do be proud of your mistakes” (however, that’s not easy). But there are also some other strategies, that I find useful:

    – Do smile when you are frustrated: communicate your struggle with the language with a positive facial expression: it helps both you and the person you speak to.

    – Don’t try too hard: just use that English word that you cannot translate if you don’t know how to avoid it. Yes, it’s important to speak the second language but it’s more important not to be too frustrated while trying to speak it. And, no, using a single word in English isn’t the same as switching to English: Don’t stop trying to speak a language just because you failed to know a single word.

    – Do fail spectacularly: learn some phrases to express your frustration (in an exaggerated way); it’s not about showing off but about moving on with the conversation by steering it towards the question of how to say something.

    And by the way:

    – Do look away if it helps you. Not looking people in the eyes helps me to concentrate and focus on speaking. (Today’s example: a pretty IKEA assistant who asked me for the number of my order.) And maybe more importantly, it helps me to reduce the time pressure that I feel in real conversations when I need a lot more time to respond than a native speaker would. For me, it’s a way of buying enough time to answer. (I still don’t know the face of that IKEA assistant when it took me 5 seconds to say 554 in Danish. I guess she thought something like: “what a jerk, he cannot even look at me when he speaks to me”. O well. 🙂

    And one last suggestion for JP: Do take the frustration and embarrassment of learners seriously. 😉


    • Hi Martin, thanks as always for writing in!

      I do take the frustration and embarrassment of learners seriously, I know that their fear is debilitating. I do my best to make the learning environment non-threatening. Teaching negotiation and confidence strategies is par for the course in any modern classroom, including mine.

      However, I can’t say that “do look away if it helps you” is a strategy for how to ace a language class. There are better ways to buy time than disengaging your eye contact when your teacher is trying to help you through a negotiation. I’m glad that strategy worked for you at Ikea though! 🙂

      Finally, Amber told me something once that I wrote down; I want it on a poster and on a t-shirt someday ( She told me “Fear is False.”

      Imagine the worst possible thing that can happen if your L2 communication negotiation fails in a language classroom… what is the worst, most disastrous thing that can possible go wrong….

      Now realize that it will never, never happen. Fear is false.

      You may still experience fear in a language classroom or another L2 environment; and yes, I still do. However, I know that fear is false; it’s not going to help me get through, and the anxiety is almost always ends up being bigger than the L2 obstacle itself.


  4. Hi JP,

    I didn’t want to suggest that you weren’t taking frustration and embarrassment seriously in the classroom; I just felt that you weren’t addressing them sufficiently in your list of do’s and don’t’s. Maybe you could share some of the confidence strategies that work best in your experience?


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