This is a problem that many people face. It can come in many flavors:
- The 100% use-only-the-local-language immersive courses (Israel’s Ulpanim did this, and then they were picked up by other places as well, most notably in Scotland and in Wales [and in the latter they call them “wlpanim”. No joke!)
- Learning a language in a setting where the teacher and many of the students have a language you know but may use a lot of expressions that “go over your head”.
- Group settings which begin OUT as using a language you know, but then transfer towards using the local language and then you get left behind somehow (this is particularly relevant in college or university settings).
There are a number of ways to surmount these obstacles. I’ll go through each of the three scenarios described above in more detail:
For the FIRST situation, in which you feel as though you are struggling in the immersion setting, the key is to be vulnerable and honest. Feel free to express to the teacher that sometimes you may have issues picking up words (use the target language, of course!) Once thing I’ve done in Ulpanim is request pictures (these really help).
Otherwise one thing you need to do is make learning the language a source of GOOD feelings. And you can do this outside of the classroom. Ask your teacher or other native / fluent speakers you know for jokes or memes. You’ll even come to remember entire grammatical functions in this respect! (Because sometimes a phrase will be so funny that you’ll remember the entire thing FLAWLESSLY, even if you’re just a beginner….case in point, the only thing I know how to say in Afrikaans is a long and detailed curse. I don’t even know how to say “hello” [I can say thank you and please, however]).
Television can also be helpful towards this end, but it has to be things you REALLY like. (The same is true with YouTube or other video streaming services).
Now for the SECOND situation, I’ve been here before. I’ve been in German- and Irish-Language classes in which I’ve fumbled so badly I almost got the teachers very angry (and obviously with my reputation right now I can laugh about it. Literally every single hyperpolyglot, WITHOUT EXCEPTIONS, have been in situations like these).
The key is to latch onto the most essential information. Keep in mind the Pareto Principle (something hugely important for language learning), the idea that out of 20% of your effort will come 80% of your results. Your goal (even if you were a native speaker of the language used) is NOT to remember everything, it is to make enough gains in the class in order to “move forward”. Any progress is good. I know it can seem sometimes (as someone who struggled with language classes myself) that “everyone seems to be doing better than you are”, but trust me, this is genuinely not the case.
Write things down as often as you can, even if you think you misheard things.
Get SOMETHING. Feel free to ask your peers or instructors if necessary. And, again, don’t forget to cement your studies of the language with fun topics (see my “recipe” above).
Then there is the third one—turbospeed. And this is merely a combination of the two situations I’ve just outlined.
And one final word: the classrooms are not a substitute for the primary goal of language learning, which is making up for the childhood you didn’t have. For that, you’d largely need to do a lot of activities on your own. But it can be done. The classroom is good for building a fantastic basis in the grammar and structures of the language as well as using opportunities to use it. But it is not equivalent to installing a language package in your brain. For that, you need active usage and entertainment.
And nowadays, with the internet, both are readily available at no additional costs.