Language-Learning Orthodoxy vs. What Really Works — How to Learn Languages, pt. 1
Most of us learn a second language in school, and we don’t learn it well.
If you’ve attempted to learn a second language in a classroom setting, it has most likely been a dull, joyless exercise in reading fixed phrases out of the textbook to your neighbors in a feeble attempt to have a “conversation.” Said textbook generally contains very little information about the culture behind the language you are studying, and nothing in the way of material that you would read outside of class in your native language if you had your druthers.
How do most people learn languages?
School-based language education has gone through many fads, but the current fad (and the method of pedagogy I was taught while studying to be an ESL instructor) is called the Communicative Approach.
The Communicative Approach stresses speaking as the main method of pedagogy. The student actually spends rather little time hearing the teacher correctly use the language, but instead spends the majority of his or her time “communicating” with the teacher and the other students in the target language (i.e., the language to be learned). Each class usually also contains a short grammar section, with attendant written exercises.
While it’s true that most people want to learn languages in order to speak them, the Communicative Approach actually keeps you from speaking by introducing a very limited working vocabulary and focusing on grammar to the exclusion of allowing the students to hear the language fluently and properly used in context.
At the end of two years of Communicative Approach language classes, students will have learned about 1,000-1,500 words in the target language. The minimum needed to carry on a sustained and somewhat fluent conversation is about 5,000.
What a waste.
When you don’t know something, you simply cannot teach it to others. Why, then, does the Communicative Approach focus on interactions between students as one of the main sources of language acquisition?
If you’ve never before spoken French, for example, you don’t want to copy your French accent from your equally ignorant neighbor. Doing this just ingrains mistakes in pronunciation. Nor are you likely to get much out of parsing eminently forgettable dialogues between textbook characters for whom you care nothing, or poring over grammatical texts whose content is utterly devoid of any context.
No wonder that people find it such a difficult, expensive, frustrating task to try to learn a language. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
The alternative? Input-Based Language Learning
The input-based language learning method stresses taking in as much authentic material as possible, and progressing from beginner books to real, living language texts within three months (at most) of beginning to learn. This has several distinct advantages:
- Using interesting, authentic material that you have picked yourself is more likely to hold your attention than canned textbooks.
- You’ll get a sense of how the language is currently used in context.
- It’s a lot cheaper than classes: material at all reading and listening levels is widely available for free or at low cost on the internet.
- Because the main focus at the beginning is on listening and reading, you’ll understand when people speak 50 miles an hour at you when you visit other countries.
- When you do start to speak, your big vocabulary (from listening and reading) will make conversations easier and more pleasant, because you’ll be able to say and understand a broader range of things. The more good conversation experiences you have, the more likely you are to keep speaking.
Ironically enough, input-based learning prepares you better for writing and speaking because it introduces language in context, allowing you to hear and see the language as used by a wide variety of people. In choosing the topics of reading and listening that are most interesting to you, you build up your vocabulary in these areas, paving the way for being able to converse on those topics in future.
Challenge the language-learning orthodoxy.
Steve Kauffman runs a company called LingQ, whose product is pretty useful in automating the input-based language learning approach. I have no affiliation with Steve — other than having used his product and spoken to him once or twice in my faltering French — but I think he presents a pretty good case for the input-based approach in the video below.
There’s no way to make the language learning process effortless, or we’d all speak 50 languages. Learning languages can be made a lot easier, however, and I’d like to show you how.
In future posts in this series, I’ll be showing you a bit more about how I go about finding material suitable for language learning, what my study schedule is like, and what to do in order to keep up the language you’ve learned.