October 10, 2010
Language learning is not like learning to ride a bike or training a dog.
Some thoughts on what makes language learning different from the learning of other skills.I always have trouble with the idea that languages can be taught. I believe they can only be learned. The teacher can create the conditions for success. The teacher can stimulate, guide, encourage and provide feedback, but the learning has to come from the learner confronting the language. This is because language skills are basic to our nature as humans. I believe that speaking more than one language is just an extension of our basic language skill, and learning to speak another language is best done largely the way we learned our first language, while taking advantage of what we already know in our own language.Let’s look at other skills and forms of training. It is relatively easy to learn to ride a bike. Kids learn to ride a bike quite quickly, once shown how. The experience comes after the fact. They are shown how and just do it.Training a dog, depends on the trainer. It takes a bit of time to train the dog, but the trainer is in charge. Once the dog is trained, over a relatively short period of time, the habits are then repeatedly enforced. However, no previous experience on the part of the dog is necessary.Learning a language is different.The experience must precede the instruction. New habits need to be acquired that can only be acquired through lots and lots of exposure to the language. This takes time. Children spend two silent years listening just in order to start to acquire a language. Adults need to spend a similar period getting exposed to the language through meaningful input. It is perhaps counter intuitive that the seemingly passive accumulation of language experience through listening and reading, is more effective than the “I taught you, so now you can perform” instructional model.If people cannot learn to speak languages just because they are taught, why test them.
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