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Say hello to a new language

Scared of Spanish? Flunked French? It could be time to try again, says Enjoli Liston, who's finally tackling Hindi
  • @enjoli_

The first, and last, time I attempted to sit down and learn an Indian language was in 1996. My mother (originally from Mumbai) had given 10-year-old me a "teach-yourself Gujarati" textbook and cassette tape. One of the first, and last, phrases it attempted to impart on me was: "How many goats do you have in your village?" I didn't make it past the fifth page.

At school I studied French and Latin GCSEs, at university I passed an Italian-for-beginners course, and since 1996 I have picked up some Gujarati from my mum. But in spite of all this, I remain a jack of several languages and a master of none.

Until this year, because I have resolved to master Hindi. Friends ask: "Why bother? India's national language is English – the whole world speaks English." Dr Catherine Hua Xiang of the Language Centre at the London School of Economics says it's this attitude that means modern languages are so badly represented in British schools.

The number of students learning French and German at GCSE level has more than halved over the past 16 years. In 2011, 154,221 pupils took French compared with 350,027 in 1995 and 60,887 students took German last year whereas 129,386 did in 1995. A similar trend can be seen at A Level.

"English is the international language and despite efforts made by policymakers and language teachers, not all students or parents see the need and potential of learning a foreign language," says Xiang. However, most language experts insist that the world is not about to adopt English as its one global language. In fact, globalisation means second-language learning is even more important. A total of 68,575 adults learned languages at 189 colleges across the UK in 2005-06, according to the last language trends survey conducted primarily by the National Centre for Languages (CILT). Of those, more than a third studied Spanish, just under a quarter learned French, and Italian was third most popular. Many adult learners take courses to top-up the basics they learnt at school. Most do it for work purposes, some for fun. Others have less academic reasons; in a survey of the Italian class I attended at university, around two thirds of the men said they wanted to learn Italian "to chat up girls".

I want to "bother" to learn Hindi as a means of getting closer to people of another culture. This time, I'm determined to become fluent. But what are the best ways to learn? Some people ( "hyperpolyglots") are naturally good. I am not. New language tools are evolving with technology and a vast bank of resources is available online. Students can apply their skills through avatars which communicate through the virtual world of Second Life, chat with other learners across e-learning platforms such as Moodle, use apps for vocabulary testing, or listen to podcasts that use film clips.

Offline methods are also evolving. My favourite is a project run by Gloucestershire College last year in which students attended Cucina D'Inferno (Hell's Kitchen) – Italian cookery classes which helped them hone their language skills.

However, the essence of these methods has not changed for decades. Learners can be taught by a teacher, or they can teach themselves.

Kamlesh Arora, a Hindi tutor at London-based adult-learning centre City Lit, naturally swears by classroom-learning. "A learner needs a teacher who is trained, experienced and ideally a native speaker, especially for pronunciation," she says. Arora says learning with other people also helps "motivate students and gives them confidence". She insists her students still prefer face-to-face interaction over online resources.

She recommends making time for at least one class a week (around 90 minutes) plus homework. If I stick with it I should reach GCSE level within two years, but I'm impatient. "You can learn quicker if you put the time in," says Arora. "Diplomats can be given around three months to learn Hindi. They have two-hour lessons every day."

Duane Sider, director of learning at Rosetta Stone, which produces the world's most popular language-learning software, says his method is successful because it utilises cognitive psychology to help people learn in the same way that children learn their first language – through sound, text, images and "constant interactivity" which gradually seeps the language into their brain "in an almost unnoticeable way". However, both Arora and Sider agree on one thing. There are no tricks. Practice does make perfect.

There is no one way to learn. I'll try the classroom, Rosetta Stone, online and offline tools, and hopefully this time next year I'll be able to write this article in Hindi.