How To Teach Languages (or, How To Nearly Win Mastermind)

By Ana Herrera, founder of Bond Street Languages

Before I founded Bond Street Languages, I had tried and tested all sorts of language learning methods. Now I realise that the most valuable lesson in all those years wasn’t about any of the languages, it was about learning itself.

Once you understand how to learn, you can understand how to teach.

(Jump to the end to read my golden rules for teaching.)

A childhood of languages

Growing up in Spain, most of the people I knew were bilingual. Having two mother tongues, Castellano and Catalan, seemed perfectly natural to me. 

Then I learnt Italian, which is so close to Spanish I picked it up by reading, studying on my own and travelling around Italy by train. I also took other non-language courses in Italian. Believe me, waiting for the Italian command to come out of downward dog will really focus the mind!

I had started studying English at the age of ten. But despite the years of effort, this was by far my least satisfying language learning experience. Along with my 20 classmates, I spent hours every week befuddled and totally bored. We would open grammar books go through endless written exercises: filling in the blanks, completing dry sentences, formulating pointless questions out of answers…enough to make anyone fall asleep.

We rarely practised speaking. The few times we did, the set-up was so unnatural, the time allowed so short, that we were always embarrassed and awkward. We certainly never had the time to get into the flow of the language, and as anyone who has ever been an adolescent will know, the idea of 20 of your peers laughing at you is hardly encouraging.

After university, I came to London to ‘practice’ English and two things struck me in the first week:

  1. I knew more English grammar than the average privately educated and university-level linguist in Britain. (I remember watching an episode of Mastermind where the specialist subject was English grammar and realised I had learnt the answers to even the most difficult questions when I was 12. I could have won Mastermind – if only I could understand the questions!)
  2. Despite a decade of learning English I couldn’t understand ANYBODY.

In London I watched TV with subtitles, and spoke mostly with shopkeepers, tube attendants, or other foreign students whose bad English was a variation of mine. Friends, even English friends (especially English friends), were too polite to correct me, prompt me, or make me keep trying until I pronounced things correctly.

I realised that even coming to live in the country of origin of the language without being fully immersed wasn’t enough. The financial and personal cost for me was huge, but this investment was not going to make me fluent. There had to be another way.

Learning to teach

I have a teaching degree and I studied business and finance at the London Metropolitan University. However, I don’t think it’s the academic qualifications that led me to develop the BSL teaching method. Rather, I think it was a lifelong and time-consuming affliction: a total addition to learning.

I’ve been going to different classes since the age of two – from music, to languages, to sports, to science. I have encountered wonderful and terrible teachers; teaching that makes learning a joy, and teaching that makes you die inside.

I know what damage a bad teacher can do to your confidence. Anyone who laughs at your mistakes, loses their temper when you repeat questions, lectures endlessly about an obscure grammatical point, or generally speaks more than you, will hinder your progress. A bad teacher can make you say ‘I can’t do languages’, a familiar cry from those who have started – and stopped – normal language classes.

A good teacher, on the other hand, can change your life.

Everyone has the ability to learn another language. All they need is excellent, supportive teaching, full immersion in the language and a good dollop of determination. I devised the Bond Street Languages method to provide the kind of great teaching that makes learning a thrilling, empowering, life-changing experience.

A surprisingly simple methodology

The methodology at Bond Street Languages is not new. It includes elements as basic as repetition, or the process of practice-mistake-correction. It is the unique combination of a large number of these elements, along with the skills and enthusiasm of our team, which is revolutionising language learning.

In short, here's what I've learned in 30 years of language learning (and teaching!).

Bad teaching (or What Not To Do)

  • Lecture
  • Speak more than the learner
  • Go too slow or too fast for the individual
  • Force the learner to adapt to the text book or lesson plan
  • Use teaching materials that will bore the learner
  • Show off your academic knowledge
  • Consider the qualifications of your teaching team ahead of their natural ability to teach. After all, Formula 1 drivers make very bad driving instructors! 

Good Teaching (or What To Do)

  • Give tools to your learner and invite them to try, without making them worry about  making mistakes.
  • Plan lessons according to the learner’s needs and natural learning rhythms.
  • Adapt themes or subjects and materials to the individual – make sure you’re talking about something they find interesting!
  • Use material that naturally develops all the skills required in a language: speaking, listening, reading, writing.
  • Use all the senses in the learning process. Knowledge will be anchored more firmly when it’s linked to an emotional memory.
  • Create a positive, fun, flexible environment to empower and enthuse the learner.
  • Allow plenty of coffee breaks – but make sure they’re all carried out in the language you’re teaching.

Read more about Ana's approach to teaching here, and find out about Bond Street Languages' methods here.

To book a course at Bond Street Languages and see the method for yourself, get in touch.