Most people who’ve tried to learn a language and failed probably have traumatic memories of the “traditional language learning experience”. You probably know what that is all about: Standing up in class to speak when called on. Conjugating verbs before you know how to introduce yourself. Filling out multiple-choice tests with information crammed in your head the night before.
There’s a reason that despite mandatory language courses, so many people graduate without being able to speak the language they spent years studying. To understand why this happens, we need to look at how foreign languages are traditionally taught and see if there is a better way to do things.
How Schools Teach Language
Chances are if you took a language course in school, they treated it like any other academic subject. And that creates problems. While there’s a lot of debate about modern teaching strategies and their effectiveness in the classroom, the truth is, you cannot teach languages like you would other subjects.
That’s because, first and foremost, language is a tool. It needs to be used. Academic subjects, on the other hand, are concepts that need to be studied. Examined.
Then there’s the role testing plays. When you introduce language in a classroom setting, there’s a need to gauge progress. And because the academic setting has a pass/fail attitude, mistakes are often penalised. This is problematic because learning a language involves making mistakes. As a result, students end up treating language learning like math or science, memorising a bunch of information just to pass a test.
There are also issues with time constraints. To begin with, most secondary language programs in U.S. schools begin in high school. This leaves between 2 – 4 years to spend learning a language using only a few hours a week. And within that time, you’re hit with grammar, syntax, speaking, writing, writing, and listening all at the same time. All of that while surrounded by 30 other students. The end result is that despite feeling like you spend a lot of time studying your target language, you actually don’t.
First and Second Language Acquisition
While there are plenty of learning methods classrooms can implement to accommodate a variety of learners, we all acquire language in the same way. You can travel to any country in the world and see this at work by studying nature’s language learning experts: toddlers.
Toddlers work full-time as language learners. Their goal is to survive. Communication develops out of this NEED. Toddlers begin by listening. They’ve got plenty of native speakers around them to study, after all. Only after listening for a while do they begin to speak. At first, it’s simple: “cup”, “juice”, “no!” etc. Simple words used to point out needs. Eventually, this develops into increasingly complex phrases and sentences.
Have you ever seen a toddler study a grammar book? Ever seen once stand up and speak in front of a class, having each mistake in pronunciation corrected? Probably not. And yet, this is the traditional language learning approach we see so often.
There’a Better Way to Learn Languages
Stephen Krashen, a highly-regarded linguist, developed the Theory of Second Language Acquisition to explain how people learn languages. He studied the way children develop their language abilities by interacting with their environment. His theory consisted of 5 hypotheses that outline the language learning process:
The Acquisition-learning Hypothesis
Acquisition-learning requires that the learner experience the language and develop an understanding of it through listening. Speech isn’t the priority here. Instead, it’s about immersion into a language learning environment. If you only focus on the rules, you only master the rules, not the language. So, the goal here is to listen and learn from your environment.
The Input Hypothesis
Once you’re comfortable with the language, you begin to use the language through comprehensive input. This is material that is in your comfort zone of challenging. Think: not too hard or too easy. It also needs to interesting. If it bores you, you’ll have very little desire to interact with it. (This can be a huge problem in language learning classrooms that focus on general information instead of content that each student finds interesting.)
The Monitor Hypothesis
No one likes to make mistakes. And as you grow older, you become more self-conscious about this. When you’re in a foreign language classroom, surrounded by your peers, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect. This can shut down the language learning process completely. Krashen argues that we all have an internal filter that wants to make sure we make mistakes, but we need to let that go and embrace them instead.
Toddlers have no problem making mistakes as they learn. They need to communicate and they push through. It’s part of the process.
The Natural Order Hypothesis
Grammar matters. Syntax matters. Sentence structure matters. BUT. It’s not vital from the beginning. There’s a natural order to learn a language. Some grammatical concepts simply won’t make sense until you have a strong foundational knowledge of the language.
Grammar should happen naturally along the way. This is a vastly different approach than classroom settings that usually focus on grammar from the start. But without any prior learning to connect it to, these concepts simply end up forgotten.
The Affective Filter Hypothesis
You cannot learn in a stressful environment. And the language learning classroom can be incredibly stressful. Imagine (or remember) being called on suddenly in front of your class to SPEAK in a foreign language. It’s unnerving.
When you’re scared, stressed, or overwhelmed, you cannot let go and practice using the language. You first need to feel comfortable and safe for learning to occur.
Choose the Right Way to Learn a Language
Keeping Krashen’s hypotheses in mind can open up a much better way of learning a language. Sadly, there are very few schools where appropriate strategies for foreign language acquisition are currently used. Whether you’re learning a language in the classroom or on your own, you want to make sure you choose a programme that reflects how people naturally learn a language. Only with that approach can you avoid the pitfalls of language learning and finally reach success.
Remember, you already speak one language. There’s a natural process that works. Trust in that and you’ll see the stress fade away as you learn a new language. With persistence, hard work, and the right language learning programme, you can reach fluency in no time.
Entrepreneur and Linguist, Jonty Yamisha created OptiLingo after his efforts to protect his native language, Circassian, from extinction. Using scientifically proven strategies such as Spaced Repetition and Guided Immersion, OptilLingo has helped thousands finally achieve fluency.