In language learning, it is the experience of the learner that is the teacher.
(From a presentation to a group of language teachers via Skype)
I am delighted to be here to speak to a group of dedicated language teachers. I will use my own experience to explain why language learning success is dependent on the learner’s experience.
Let me say first of all that I am a learner of languages, not a teacher. Since the age of 16, I have been interested in learning languages, and during my career as a diplomat and business executive, I learned eight or nine of them.
The Language Learning Revolution
At the age of 55, I decided to learn Cantonese. I had studied Mandarin and could read Chinese characters, but I needed to develop the ability to understand how Chinese characters were pronounced in Cantonese. I went through a period of six months of intensive listening. That was when I discovered the minidisk player. For the first time, I experienced the power of small portable learning devices that would evolve into mp3 players, iPods, iPads, and the like.
To me this was the beginning of the language learning revolution. As someone who learned Mandarin listening to open-reel tape recorders, the power of the minidisk was a new and powerful experience which rekindled my interest in language learning. I not only listened to the languages I was learning, but was also able to easily record casual and natural interviews in English for learners of English. Wow! Language labs were going to go the way of the dodo bird.
At the age of 62, I wrote a book about language learning, and in particular about my experience learning nine languages. Now, eight years later, I speak 13 languages and I’m working on two more. In other words, I added six more languages during this period.
Experience is the Best Teacher
When I think about my learning activities, what I remember most is the pleasant experience of reading and listening to interesting content, stories, interviews, books, and more, all of which introduced me to worlds that were previously unknown to me. This is what Stephen Krashen calls “compelling content.” With compelling content, the very experience of learning a language becomes compelling.
It is not just that an enjoyable experience with the language helps learning, but this experience is at the essence of our learning. Any attempt to understand, or even master grammar or pronunciation, in fact, requires considerable prior experience with the language. These new explanations and rules need to relate to something we have already experienced. If we follow a natural approach to language learning, relying on exposure and experience with the language, a lot of things fall naturally into place.
The Three Keys to Language Learning
Some years ago when I participated in the ACTFL conference in San Diego, I heard Dr. Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Head of the Language Acquisition Resource Center at San Diego State University, say that there are only three things that matter in language learning: the attitude of the learner, the time spent with the language, and the ability to notice. I agree.
Attitude: Successful language learners just throw themselves into learning the language. However, the vast majority of language learners resist the process. At some level they don’t want to learn the language, they don’t think they can learn, they don’t like learning it, and they find it hard. They haven’t yet experienced success in language learning. As a result, they resist learning the language. I believe a major task for teachers is to overcome this resistance, to provide learners with a meaningful and positive experience with the language, and with language learning as a process.
Time: Dr. Lyman-Hager referred not necessarily to time in a classroom or instructional hours. Her reference was to time spent with the language, reading, listening, writing, and speaking. As we all know, it takes time to learn a language.
The ability to notice: Experienced language learners notice things in the language, how words are pronounced, how ideas are expressed, and what new patterns look like; poor language learners don’t notice these things. Teachers can help point out these things in the language, but ultimately learners need to develop the ability to notice them themselves. Grammar review, making mistakes, and becoming aware of one’s gaps in the language all help us to notice what’s happening in the language. However, I think the main prerequisite to developing this ability to notice is a lot of enjoyable experience with the language. We need the experience, and we need to know the language at some level, before we can learn it.
Krashen’s Meaningful Input
This brings us to Stephen Krashen’s brilliant input hypothesis. As Professor Krashen says, “if you understand the message, you are learning.” I would go further and say “if you enjoy the experience of learning, you are learning.”
My learning has always been built around interesting content which resonated with me and which I enjoyed. More than any specific conversations or situations where I used the language, I find myself remembering enjoyable experiences with content that captivated me while listening and reading.
I remember the impact on my French learning that my fascination with French civilization and culture had on me once I took my learning out of the classroom as a 16 year old. More recently, I remember how Proust came alive in audiobook form, as did Balzac and Marguerite Yourcenar and other authors. Listening to them was not only an enjoyable experience and a deep journey into French language and culture, but it also improved my French.
While learning Mandarin, I remember listening over and over to Chinese 相声 (xiang sheng comic dialogues), and to artists like 侯宝林, even when I didn’t really understand them all that well. I remember my sense of satisfaction at reading 骆驼祥子 (The Rickshaw Boy) by 老舍 (Lao She). I remember listening over and over to the NHK radio special on the history of the Showa Era in Japan, 昭和の記録, while driving around in Tokyo.
I know exactly where I was when struggling, as a beginner in Russian, to understand while listening to the “Who is She” beginner course in Russian at LingQ. Soon after, I was able to move on to Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, both in audiobook form and by reading it at LingQ. I remember standing in the airport customs line-up listening to it in audiobook format and going over the text at night on my computer. I can still picture myself jogging around the park while listening to a wonderful radio drama version of Turgenev’s Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons). I did the same with Il Narratore’s wonderful audiobook versions of Pinocchio and I Promessi Sposi. I could go on and on recounting my experience as a beginner, intermediate, or advanced learner in most of the languages that I have learned and enjoyed. These are lively experiences that have shaped my involvement with these languages.
Our first uncertain experience with a language is with simple texts that are not always clear, but which provide some context to help us get a sense of the structure and pronunciation of the language. At first we have trouble understanding these, but as we persevere these texts become clearer. Only with a lot of input do we start to get a good sense of how the new language works. As an intermediate or advanced learner, we progress away from learner texts and deal with more meaningful content. Now the learning process becomes its own reward, as we immerse ourselves in subjects of interest, even though often without full comprehension. The adventure continues, and so does our learning.
How to Study Compelling Content
Compelling content is often difficult. Given that relatively rare words that appear only once or twice may account for 15% of the words in meaningful context, we obviously need to deal with material that has a fair number of unknown words in order to read and listen to content that is of interest.
That is why there are a number of conditions that make accessing this kind of content much easier today. In my experience, I prefer to have audio with whatever text I’m reading, at least until I’m a strong intermediate. I want an ability to look up words and phrases immediately by using electronic dictionaries. I want an ability to save words and phrases that I have looked up because I usually forget the meaning of words that I look up in a dictionary. I even forget that I have even seen them before. I need a way to highlight words that I have met before in order to help me notice them in the future.
I want to be able to highlight phrases that contain patterns and grammar structures that cause me problems. I want to be able to tag them into different categories for later review.
In other words, I want to be able to interact with the text that I’m learning from and to interact with the words and phrases that I’m learning in a way that has not been possible with traditional learning material. More than that, I want to be able to choose content of interest to me from which to learn. All of this makes the language learning experience more intense and ensures that I will stay with it. This experience, the accumulation of many years of language learning, is what led me to the creation of LingQ.
What About Output?
I have only talked about input because to me, input, vocabulary, and comprehension are the foundational skills for progress in language learning.
However, what about the role of output in all of this? What about what we might call “GPS” (grammar, pronunciation, and speaking)?
Of course, all three are important. What’s more is that teachers and learners typically attach a lot of importance to GPS. The question is how much emphasis should be put on GPS and at what stage in our learning.
Again, I refer to my own experience. I typically start a new language with one or two starter books, perhaps something from the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series, and try to get an overview of how different thoughts and concepts are expressed in the new language. However, I don’t expect to remember any of this and I don’t try to force myself to learn it.
I don’t do the questions or drills in these books. Instead, I often look at the answers to these exercises, where typically I can see the same pattern repeated many times. I don’t try to force my brain to answer the drills or questions because I find it an unpleasant experience, and because I am not convinced it helps very much. I prefer to focus on listening and reading, as I described above.
This activity may seem passive, but in my experience, it builds up my vocabulary and familiarity with the language, preparing me for the stage when I can start speaking.
It’s somewhat the same with pronunciation. I don’t attempt to nail down pronunciation at the beginning because I have found it too difficult to do so. On the other hand, after listening to hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio, I find that my ability to notice the pronunciation and intonation of the language improves, and thus my ability to reproduce these improves. I delay any major effort at pronunciation until later.
This means that I usually delay speaking whenever I am learning languages and am not in a location where the language is spoken, which is usually the case. However, this was not the case when I lived in Japan because I was surrounded by people speaking Japanese. However my main learning activity, even in Japan, was listening and reading.
I always advocate starting to speak when the learner feels like it or has the need or the opportunity to speak. I don’t think learners should be encouraged or forced to speak if they are not ready to do so or don’t want to.
But there comes a point when we have to speak, and speak a lot. At that time, we have to throw ourselves into it, without worrying about how we sound, or about whatever mistakes we make. We want the experience of speaking to be enjoyable. The more we understand, the more words we have, the faster we will improve, and the more pleasant our speaking experience will be. But it won’t be easy, and especially not at first. However, our experience with the language and the wealth of compelling content that we have already absorbed will sustain us if we have the right attitude.
In summary, if we follow the three keys as put forward by Dr. Lyman-Hager, language teaching and language learning depends on experience. A positive experience ensures a positive attitude. This will usually ensure that learners put in enough time, and that they are not reluctant to spend the time with the language that is needed; in other words, the learning process becomes its own rewarding experience.
Helping to create an enjoyable experience for learners by providing timely guidance, assistance, encouragement, stimulus, and the teacher’s own enthusiasm are more important than the teaching of the nuts and bolts of a language. At least that has been my experience.