February 21

Language Learning Dissected

There is still a lot we don’t know about the process of language learning, but there is also is a lot that we do know. Confusion arises for many learners (and dare I say many of their teachers) because there are so many views out there about it and the weight of existing beliefs tends to press down on any changes that undermine those beliefs. A lot of the existing perspectives are informed by practices and ideas that roll over generation to generation without much change. If these practices were working we would not mind so much but as we know, language learning outcomes for the vast majority are quite poor.  In this post I will share some insights that were highlighted recently when I was teaching English to beginners, and extract some key points for you to consider and possibly use, so you can can get better outcomes for your efforts.

One thing I noticed was that learners need to bring to their learning certain qualities to be able to truly learn. By this I mean so that the end result is increased facility and confidence with the language ( not just knowledge). The ones who struggled were the ones who did not engage in the learning process in possibly one but sometimes more of the following ways. The aspects I will talk about below are not necessarily in order as the learning process is a complex interwoven cyclical process.

The successful learners were the ones who:

  1. wanted to learn from their heart, so they were fully attentive and had fewer filters. This desire was not encumbered by beliefs and worries that diluted their desire. I saw students just sitting there, not engaged, too caught up in their thoughts, beliefs, expectations and outside lives so they seemed to gain little from the language exercises in the class.  Their desire to learn was conditional.

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  2. perceived a relationship between actions (or perceptions) and the words that reflect that.For eg with the English articles ( “a” and “the”), “a” is used to signify one of many, so that there are, for eg, many pens on the table and the requester only wants one of them (not a particular one). That is where we use a.  Then there is “the” – when there is only one pen on the table we might say, as an appropriate utterance, ” Give me the pen. I only explain this here so that the ones of you who may not be aware of all this ( and quite possible use it accurately every time!) can relate better to what I am writing. So this awareness of the relationship between the words ( a/the) and what they saw, needs to be reached by the learner if s/he is to ever use them accurately.

    There are of course a few complications with them,  however what I just described is at the core of the use of a/the.Here is another an example of this “perception” I am talking about which I recently noticed with with my 10 month old grandson. His dad switched the light on. My grandson noticed the light go on and looked up. Next my son switched the light off. This time my grandson noticed the light go of and the movement that my son made to accomplish that. Within a second he was over by the switch to test his hypothesis! This is the kind of learning we all did ( and still do!) and need to do if we are to learn a language successfully.

    Language learners who never go to school or study use mainly this kind of learning and in fact, to varying degrees, most language learners use this kind of learning. The poorer language learners, the ones who get stuck and the ones who struggle, are the ones who don’t use this approach, but rather rely on explanations, study, translation and drilling, all of which in fact tend to dilute the powers we just talked about. There were ones in the class who switched on to this learning real fast and understood that looking and listening were a key. Then there were ones who struggled to see connections. They were waiting to be told (they asked me to tell them) and hence not being attentive to what actually was happening in the class. Once they understood that I was not going to tell them, they started the process of looking more carefully at what was going on around them.

  3. worked on the pronunciation aspects so it could be said in ways that were easily understood. To learn how to utter sounds so it sounds natural and then embed it in to the language requires a different kind of work to what we just talked about in point 2. At its heart though, this work requires the same – our total and undivided attention driven by our desire to “get it right”.

    Getting it right sometimes means doing things differently to what you are used to. Some students just kept repeating what they already knew. Frustration at not getting it right can be used to power yourself on, OR use your “self declared  lack of talent” to decrease the pressure on yourself and hence make that belief stronger – then little or no improvement is forthcoming until something changes that dynamic.

  4. remained attentive to what they said, and integrated the new learnings into their speech. This requires a recognition (going back to the example of the articles) of which one is the right one prior to the utterance.  So, even once one understands the use of a/the, this needs to be applied to “all” the nouns where it is required. The complications of the kinds of nouns, whether there are pronouns ( my, your,… this, that….)  there, etc also need to be integrated into the learnings. So whilst they are talking learners need to do multiple things. They need to:
  • keep track of the meaning they are trying to convey
  • form a “grammatically sound” sentence
  • work at the pronunciation elements
  • be attentive to the issue of – is the noun to be uttered one of many or the sole one…and actually will oneself to say  the right one…here is an exercise of control that needs to be exercised by the learner and the learner alone.

We can see that depending on the language of the student, there will be various and multiple language features that the student may be working on concurrently From this what can be observed is the need for the learner to stay attentive. Learning language obeys the laws of habit formation, even though it is a complex creative act. So the learner needs to be attentive until the use of the language item becomes habituated. The more often the learner uses the new form after having learned it , the more it is going  to become habituated, and eventually will not need any extra attention at all. You can see that there is a LOT of emphasis here on what the learner does. It can be no other way if you are going to learn.

The problem is that so many language courses and teachers ( and even you dear learner) can easily undermine this by believing if you translate this, memorise that and study that that you will learn the language. NOTHING could be further from the truth, even though this may work for a few people.  What is required are distinctly human qualities..which need to be developed if they have atrophied.

To become a better language learner you need to do whatever it takes to become more attentive, to listen more carefully and to be able to put two and two together without being told ( ie not being spoon fed).  Most of us had our learning powers clipped in our earlier years by being trained to emphasise aspects of “learning” that really took us away from our inherent powers. However regaining these powers is within the grasp of each person.


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