Teaching and Learning Languages: Part 1 – Introduction

jezik

I’m going to write a series of articles on teaching and learning languages, as well as self-directed studying of languages. It will be based on the following:

  • the science of language education, also known as glottodidactics, which deals with approaches, methods and techniques for teaching languages.
  • the science of second language acquisition, which deals mainly with natural, spontaneous way in which people acquire second language, but also studies, to a lesser degree, the acquisition of language in scholastic context.
  • classroom based research about language acquisition.
  • my own personal experience in learning and teaching languages, which include English, Italian, German and French.

So far I’ve noticed the following trends:

The science of language education has produced numerous approaches and methods and has really come a long way, but, interestingly, nowadays there is less confidence in specific approaches and more tendency towards combining approaches. This is actually a good thing, as no approach is completely wrong or completely right, they have all produced some tools that we can use in teaching languages. Also, in earlier decades, there has been some dogmatism in language education, and the new approaches would often come as a reaction to older ones and they would try to debunk and discredit them, while affirming their own position as the only true position. This trend, while still existent, is also becoming less pronounced, but it can still sometimes hinder creativity in teaching languages and impose unnecessary restrictions. Finally, I would like to say that language education is a science for teachers, as it mainly deals with typical classroom situations and tries to provide teachers with best tools, but sometimes it can neglect individual students and their needs.

The science of second language acquisition has provided us with many useful insights about how people naturally acquire languages, but it has also produced certain misconceptions. For example the order of acquisition hypothesis is often misunderstood. It states that there is a specific order in which all language learners acquire the grammatical features of their first language, and when it comes to the acquisition of the first language, it is generally true. However, when it comes to second language acquisition, it is much less clear if there really is a specific order of acquisition which is the same for all learners and in all situations. It is probably more true in situations of natural and spontaneous second language acquisition, and less true in classroom settings. The assertion that the order of acquisition in classroom setting will always remain the same and be the same as the natural order of acquisition, no matter in which order we teach grammar, or what type of lessons we give, is much more difficult to prove, and probably not entirely true.

Finally, I would like to say that the science of second language acquisition, while fruitful when it comes to insights about natural acquisition of languages, isn’t very oriented to practice, and it could be put to use only indirectly, by using its insights in the development of concrete teaching and studying practices.

Now there is also classroom based research regarding second language acquisition. It is very useful for teachers because it has generated lots of studies that examine effectiveness of specific approaches to teaching languages, which can help teachers make better choices. However, it is mainly a statistical field, and it usually doesn’t ask why certain approach is better than some other approach. It just looks at the results. And this question “why” is very important, because it helps teachers (and students) understand the process of learning language and make necessary modifications to an approach that could potentially transform it from completely ineffective approach, to a very effective approach.

Finally I would like to summarize my experience with learning languages. First, I would like to say that, from my personal experience,  single most important factor for success in learning languages is motivation. That is whether you REALLY want to learn that language or not. Is it your goal or not?

If you want to LEARN GERMAN and dedicate yourself to it, you’ll do it. If you just want to have an A grade in German, or to achieve B2 level, or to pass certain exams, or you just want to attend German classes while actually focusing on other priorities, you’ll probably gain some German skills and improve your German, but the process will be much longer, slower, and probably less effective.

If you’re highly motivated to learn a language and really dedicate yourself to it, you’ll be able to make many shortcuts and you might not follow the natural order of acquisition, and some practices that can be ineffective in some other situations such as intensive studying of grammar and vocabulary, can actually be very effective and helpful if you’re dedicated and if you combine it with the actual use of language.

The second most important factor, almost equally important as motivation, is whether you need to use that language in real situations? The only thing that can enable you to learn language quite well, even if you aren’t very motivated is the real need to use it. This need comes in two “flavors”:

a) you live in a country in which the language X is spoken, and you need the language X to communicate in your day-to-day life.

b) you live in your own county, surrounded by your native language, but you need the language X to access content that you’re interested in, and that is ONLY available in the language X. It’s important that you’re really interested in such content, and that it’s ONLY available in language X.

In these cases, your language acquisition will probably follow the natural order, because you aren’t really that interested in learning language or grammar, but you need to use language to decipher the spoken or written content that’s important to you.

Now, here are the tables with languages that I studied, the methods, motivations, time used, and results. Note that my native language is Serbian.

English
Need for language Very high. I use English daily to access content I am interested in: articles, blogs, forums, wikipedia articles, etc.
Motivation I started learning English at a very young age and I knew that I will need it, so I was always fairly motivated to learn it. However, there was just one period, lasting around 2 years, in which I was VERY MOTIVATED and focused just on improving my English.
Total time of any contact with the language Since the age of 9, so it’s around 21 years so far.
Time spent on dedicated STUDY of the language Around 2 years, some time in high school.
Studying methods used Classical schoolwork, attending English courses, studying grammar and vocabulary on my own, learning language by using it, mostly online.
Time spent actually USING the language Ever since the age of  12, when I got my first serious computer. So it’s around 18 years.
Level achieved Advanced.
Officially verified C1 level, CAE certificate. I can understand and produce pretty much any text in English, sometimes with the help of dictionary. I still struggle a bit with oral fluency and with understanding rapid speech with lots of slang. My vocabulary is still more limited than in my native language.

 

Italian
Need for language As a student of Italian language and literature, I have a high need for Italian, in everything I do at University and in academic settings. I need it to communicate with my professors, also for studying various subjects, and not just language.
Outside the academic  and professional context the need is smaller than in case of English.
Motivation When I started learning Italian, I had just one goal : to really learn it, as soon as possible and to learn it well. I was extremely motivated. This was a period of my life before switching colleges, and learning Italian was a big deal for me, and the first step towards what was going to become my career. I was very serious about it.
Total time of any contact with the language Since the age of 21, so it’s around 9 years, so far.
Time spent on dedicated STUDY of the language Around 2-3 years in various periods since the age of 22. The most active and dedicated period was the first 6 months of study.
Studying methods used Initially: A self directed, all-out approach, using anything and everything that I could get my hands on, including list of words ordered by frequency, classical textbooks with lessons, grammar and vocabulary, various Italian phrasebooks, watching Italian TV as much as I could, podcasts, various texts online, encyclopedia articles, etc… Later: attending Italian courses at home and in Italy, and studying Italian on University.
Time spent actually USING the language Two months in Italy, around 4-5 years in academic context, and limited time spent using it outside the academic context.
Level achieved Advanced.
Earned maximum grades on Italian exams at University, but haven’t yet officially tested my Italian and I don’t have a certificate. My estimate is that my Italian is still slightly bellow my English, but I think I would be able to pass C1 test, with some preparation.

 

German
Need for language At this moment very low. Potentially, I might need it, but currently I don’t.
Motivation When I just started learning German in primary school, I thought that it would be really cool to learn German, and I was fairly motivated. Soon, the ineffective teaching methods, and my lagging behind the course killed all of my motivation. During 12 years of German in elementary and high school my motivation was ZERO. Much, much later, when I was 28, I restarted learning German on Duolingo. At that time, I was more motivated, but I was still learning it just for fun. I wasn’t serious about it.
Total time of any contact with the language Since the age of 11. It’s around 19 years so far, but most of that contact was just a passive exposure.
Time spent on dedicated STUDY of the language Just around one month… and it never happened in school. It happened later, on Duolingo.
Studying methods used At school, I wasn’t motivated so I wasn’t studying it, at all. I would only study a lesson or two to be able to get a passing grade, and that’s all. Much later I studied it via Duolingo, and reading a few basic German readers.
Time spent actually USING the language Just around several hours. Been using it to read a few elementary German readers.
Level achieved Elementary
Around A1.

 

French
Need for language At this moment very low. Potentially, I might need it, but currently I don’t.
Motivation I’ve been learning it only on Memrise. I wasn’t serious about it, I was doing it just for fun. However, I was very motivated to finish my introductory French course on Memrise, and the platform itself is very addictive, so I was spending a lot of time on it, and I was enjoying it very much. But still, it was mostly, just for fun.
Total time of any contact with the language Since the age of 28. Less than two years.
Time spent on dedicated STUDY of the language Around 5 months, concentrated in two periods of around 2-3 months.
Studying methods used Only Memrise.
Time spent actually USING the language Practically zero.
I used just some basic phrases in some messaging on Viber and that’s it.
Level achieved Elementary
Around A1.

As we can see, the most important factors deciding the success and results of language learning were the intensity and seriousness of motivation, the actual need for language, and the time spent on dedicated study of the language, and even more importantly, the time spent on actually using the language for achieving other goals, unrelated to language learning. On the other hand, the time of passive contact with the language seems to be completely irrelevant.

In my next articles I will write in more details about the methods I used for learning English and Italian, about ineffective teaching approaches and how they kill the motivation, about the areas of language study that are often neglected in schools, courses and at University, about Duolingo and Memrise, and about useful insights that the sciences of language education and second language acquisition give us and how this can help us in teaching and learning languages.

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