June 17

Is There a Natural Way


What's after language classes?

One seldom discussed question for language learners is how are they going to keep learning once they leave classes. This is really a critical question. The answer to this can help you decide on what is the best course of action in your language learning, now and in the future. Do you continue with the same kind of studying/learning you were doing in classes, or do you change something? If so, what? 

This issue is not something that many people, including teachers, concern themselves with. That is why I have said before that language classes can be "dangerous" for you. Even if we accept that classes are of great value, the inescapable conclusion reached by anyone who cares to look closely enough is that a great deal of language is learned outside of the class. In fact, it needs to be learned out of the class if you are going to keep improving to the highest levels. So preparing yourself for that would seem to make some sense.

There are endless aspects of language which can only be gained through extensive use and by continuing to learn from all the experiences one has. Full natural fluency, accent reduction, casual forms of language use, subtleties in meaning as expressed by tones, understanding and expressing innuendo, to mention only a few areas can really only be picked up while you are using the language. Native speakers are capable of expressing dozen of meanings in a phrase, such as "I love you," or even a word such as "Yes", just by varying tone and inflexion. Learning all this in formal classes or from texts is just not possible. 

However this way of learning, learning as you speak, is not what is encouraged, called upon or exercised in regular language classes. Typically in classes the primary emphasis is on instruction, making sure the learners pick up what they are taught. I have seen many language learners flummoxed and not really sure how to keep learning outside of a formal language learning environment. Hence so many language learners get stuck at a level well below what they were aiming for.

A key distinction between most language classes and a "natural" way of language learning

In classes, the teacher takes responsibility for organising the learning and finding the errors learners make, correcting them and providing answers where needed. So students are trained to look to the teacher for help in nearly all aspects of their learning. 

This emphasis lies at the heart of why language classes are notoriously unsuccessful for most people. Learners are taught to be dependent upon the teacher. This unintended outcome follows the learner long after they have left classes.

The reality is that until the learner starts to take responsibility for their own learning, learning that leads to enhanced skills and confidence comes slowly or not at all for most.

Out of classes, learners can only rely on themselves to adjust what they know and correct themselves. No one else will do that. If you have not been trained in class to do that, a whole new way of learning awaits you once you leave classes. There is a difference between learning something quite new and improving on what you already know. So many students I have seen don't get this distinction so they continue to study grammar, phrases and so on. Rather than focus on improving what they already know.

So they don't concentrate on what they need to, driven by what they see needs their attention. There seems to be in many a lack of understanding that they need to learn from what they are doing, finding instances where they need to improve. Instead, they turn to resources that may or may not address the very issues they need to work on.

Inevitably improvements will happen, but mainly in an ad hoc way. Ad hoc because there is no real appreciation of how they are learning and what they can do to take charge of it. Rather than let circumstance dictate the improvements. 

Should not classes, from day 1, be preparing language learners for the inevitable...namely that they will have to take responsibility for their own learning? Surely, there is just no other way to learn once you have left the narrow "nurturing" confines of a class than to rely upon yourself and learn as you go along. That is the way we learn and improve all skills.

People DO successfully learn languages out of classes

For some people this may be obvious, however such has been my experience teaching and learning languages that I believe it needs to be stated that we can all successfully learn languages without needing classes. Don't get me wrong, language classes can certainly add real value, of the kind that would be hard to produce outside of them. I am just making the point that there is not enough attention given to the kind of learning that happens outside of classes! People do talk about "doing" things - talking, reading and watching movies but how to learn from that experience is not really explored.

Let's consider the following observations which I believe are not contentious:

  • many people learn languages later in life without ever attending a class (this was certainly the case before there were classes  or even formal grammars/dictionaries etc), 
  • once people leave language classes they have no choice but to keep improving on it by themselves, 
  • some people keep learning after leaving classes..and in fact flourish... whilst others don't learn much after leaving classes - many of these become despondent and end up giving up on their learning thinking they don't have what it takes,
  • not many people go on to native like proficiency.

From these observations we can see that some people learn languages more effectively than others. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of them. They typically:

  • utilise effective strategies so they stay engaged in the learning and the language,
  • don't have disempowering attitudes and beliefs that sabotage them, or at least work to minimise their impact,
  • ensure they make the time to use the language,
  • create opportunities where they can use the language,
  • have a real commitment to improvement and don't give up on their goals

There are those people who keep learning languages in much the same way as they learned in class. Namely, they keep doing exercises from texts, practicing phrases, drilling themselves, and creating and memorising word lists, etc. They do this as they don't really know what else to do. This is a sad indictment on the classes they attended, which did nothing to prepare for the time outside of classes.

Alternatively, there are people who spend the bulk of their time using the language by any means possible, talking, reading , listening to the radio, eavesdropping in cafes, watching movies, writing a diary, etc. The latter way is what I would call for our purposes here, organic learning. With this way of learning, when needed you may consult the internet, a dictionary, and whatever resource you could find to help you with the learning you needed as you are progressing. This way, the more formal learning is driven by the needs you have as you use the language. You don't let the formal learning dominate your learning.

So, if you were struggling with vocabulary to describe your feelings, you may want to look up vocabulary that describes feelings. Better still watch some movies, or read some books about people going through lots of ups and downs! Of if you were struggling to express levels of certainty, you may do some research on that.  A part of that is remaining attentive to others doing the same in the new language.

Key ways that natural language learning happens and can be encouraged

If we are to employ this way of learning we need to approach it in ways that cultivate it and allow it to blossom. To aid that we need to bring or develop an attitude towards our learning so we approach it with curiosity, wonder, expectation and interest. Approaching learning this way can transform the most difficult of situations into one approaching something like a game, rather than one typified by regarding language learning as "difficult" or as something that has to be done.

Even in games we can be sometimes a bit overwhelmed. People become successful at games when they master a beginning skill to a level of confidence. In basketball for example, throwing a ball is maybe where it starts. Once we can do that to a certain level of skill, we may move on to throwing it straight or throwing it far or throwing it so it flies fast. 

Once we master some of these basic skills, we start to feel confidence in "playing" basketball. With that our attitude towards it gets transformed. Maybe then we start throwing at hoops or learn to bounce the ball (slowly first then at speed, whilst we are moving, etc ) Each skill is measured by how we feel about what we can achieve.

This comes from achieving an improvement in our skills in doing what we set out to do. Others of course will make their comment or reaction about our skills development. Ultimately though, it is our decision, built on our confidence, that will determine whether we feel good about what we doing and go on with it.

A key aspect to all this is not to place unrealistic expectations upon ourselves but to accept that improvement happens by steps. Feeling despondent because we cannot play grade basketball after playing for a few hours would be totally unrealistic.

Learning languages is the same. As we master parts of the language and can gain confidence in the use of it, our impetus to continue grows. Problems can happen when our "learning" exceeds our confidence levels. Namely we come to "know" a lot, but we can't use and have little or no confidence in what we can do with what we have learned. This happens typically when we learn language as knowledge, not as a skill. or possibly when we don't give sufficient time to using what we have learned. 

So the way we approach language learning and what we do with it IS critical. With an approach that builds skills and confidence, we can become unstoppable. With approaches that don't provide us opportunities to grow our skills AND confidence we soon become disenchanted.

So my advice is to look for ways of learning that inspire you, that motivate you and that give you heart. Together with that you need to see a growth in your confidence (confidence in your skills is the necessary outcome that tells you you are on the right path.)  I have seen language learners develop confidence in their abilities even at the low levels of the new language. I am not talking here of misplaced confidence ... but of confidence based on real skills in using the language.

Misplaced confidence can happen when there is a low level of self-awareness and you believe all is well. A remedy for this is to cultivate more self awareness and be more watchful of yourself and others. Do not think because you are being understood that all is well! 🙂 That is an important step, but it remains just that if your aim is to get to the highest levels.

Confidence can be achieved at any level of language we are talking about. Even if you are at a beginner stage of proficiency, there is no reason why you couldn't have confidence in the skills you are working on. Realising of course that outside of these limited parameters you will not and to expect otherwise is not realistic. For confidence to develop there is a:

  • need for authentic language experiences (language is being used naturally - natural conversation, movies, novels etc ) is a prerequisite. 
  • need to be attentive to everything in that experience. Worrying about what people might be thinking about us, thinking about what else we might be doing or about tonight takes valuable energy away from our attention. We need to be fully attentive, absorbing, taking in, processing whatever is there.
  • need to move our awareness to the various aspects of the experience. Letting it stay with one area and not exploring the others is a recipe for getting stuck. By this I mean, as well as seeking meaning, we need to also focus for example, on:
    • the words that were used
      • "Are these words similar to what I would use?"
      • "Are they in the same order as I would use them"
    • the tones that were used
      • "Was there some tone used to add to the meaning of the words?"
      • "How were the tones used to add to the meaning?"
      • "Would I use the same tones to convey the meanings that were intended?"
    • the non verbal aspects of communication (face/body/gestures), all of which conveys meaning
      • "Was there something new for me here?"
      • "Is this common or just particular to this person?"
    • the environment
      • "How does the situation effect the language?" Formal situation? At home? Age of people? Do they know each other? Gender of people? etc
    • what happened before 
      • "How does the situation leading up to the language used affect what was said? Emotion? History of people? Difficulties?
    • what happened after, as a result
      • How does the language affect the result?
    • what language forms were used
      • What exact forms or structures were used?

I went to a bit of detail here to highlight just some of the factors that you can pay attention to at different times to fully appreciate the meanings, the uses and subtleties of language. Clearly a language learner can't focus on all this at the same time. However great language learners learn to pay attention and become aware of all these factors, and more, at different times so they can gain finer and finer distinctions about the language they are learning. By doing this they can then learn to improve on their skills in the use of the new language.

Some language learners come to these realisations by themselves. Others need to be actively led towards these by a teacher or possibly a coach. Finding those who can do this is not that easy, as most have not been trained in this and have not reached these understandings for themselves. They are out there, you just may need to keep looking until you find them.


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