Why Content is King
One of the most important ingredients for language learning success is interesting, captivating and meaningful content. I am rediscovering this truth as I proceed in my 90-Day Challenge in Polish. The discovery of Real Polish has been a major turning point in my Polish studies. The material that Piotr has created is outstanding, especially the beginner stories. The way in which the same material is repeated from different points of view and in different tenses is highly effective in helping us get used to the language. Piotr’s pleasant voice and narrating style makes it all interesting and captivating. Well done Piotr!
As Piotr says, we acquire languages almost subconsciously. The deliberate study of grammar rules is difficult because there are not just a few rules, there are many rules. There are more and more rules and exceptions and pretty soon it’s a great jumble of confusing instructions about something that we know very little about. Something we have had little experience with, a new language. That is why his approach to teaching grammar through simple but captivating stories with lots of questions allows us to discover the language, until we are so curious about some points of grammar that we go and look up some of the grammar rules. And when I do look up grammar tables, as I stare at a table of verb or noun endings, I still have trouble absorbing this material. So I go back to letting the language flowing into me through interesting content. Granted for this to work best, we need to have access to a glossary or better still, a system like LingQ in order to be able to make sense of it.
A lot of language instruction seems to focus on output or communicating. For example the task-based language teaching approach which tries to get the students to act out different roles. It seems that the rationale here is that if someone is going to be the retail clerk then they should pretend to be a retail clerk, act out the role, and that this will help them speak the language. I have quite a different approach. I feel that the most important thing is to get that language into the learner, through captivating input. Without this input, lots of it, through appropriate content, it is very hard to act out anything. Nor can any scenario which limits the language to what a retail clerk might hear be successful. The retail clerk may face a fairly wide range of language situations, and so a broader base in the language is necessary.
Another school of language instruction is called the communicative approach. This again is based on the idea that we learn by communicating. Of course eventually we want to communicate, but my experience is that the easiest way to acquire the language subconsciously and without stress is to allow language to flow in to your brain through content that captivates you. Once your brain has gotten used to the new language to some extent you’re now in a much better position to start communicating. At that point the specific technical vocabulary or type of language that you required for specific tasks can be quite easily acquired.
So we get back to the importance of content. One trend in language instruction is to teach subjects other than the language itself, in the target language. This is known as CLIL or Content and Language Integrated Learning. Unfortunately much of the use of this approach is focused on English which is perceived as the most important language to learn both for professional and academic purposes. However the same approach can be used for other languages. I know that I progress most rapidly in the languages that I’m learning, when I can read and listen to content of interest to me and in particular when the voice of the narrator is natural and pleasant.
To get started, though, we need an approach like Piotr’s beginner stories. This is an approached that I would like to see applied to other languages too. Now back to my Polish challenge.