My Language Learning “Credo”
May 2nd, 2012
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here again. Tonight I’m going to talk about what I call my language learning credo. In other words, what my beliefs are when it comes to language learning. I’m going to try to summarize the kings of things that I talk about quite often here at my channel.
I get criticized from time to time from two quarters when it comes to language learning. Either it’s from the more academic language learners, those who are very happy studying grammar and who sometimes have a linguistics background or, at the other end of the spectrum, I am criticized by those who claim that I’m too academic, too interested in reading books and that really people should just get out there and talk and it’s very important to sound like a native.
So either I’m considered too academic and I don’t fully understand the importance of speaking and speaking like a native or, at the other extreme, I don’t have the credentials or I tend to gloss over some of the important linguistic underpinnings of language learning including such things as the International Phonetic Alphabet and knowing terms such as morphemes and whatever
So my credo, first of all, I think language learning is a very personal activity. You do it for yourself. You do it so you can communicate with other people, so you can access other languages and other cultures and, therefore, I think we do it however we want. It’s our personal thing and, therefore, I’ve always felt that a teacher standing over me takes away from that sense of my personal thing, teachers asking me to tell them what the meaning was of this passage or, as is now often the case with ESL teachers, teaching critical thinking. In other words, teaching me how to interpret the language, how to think and so forth and so on. To me language is personal, that’s the number one thing. You do it however you like to do it. It’s you. It’s your accent. It’s your use of the language. It’s you. It’s a part of you. It’s personal.
The second thing is that I often talk about the three keys, which are attitude, time and the ability to notice and I still believe that’s the overwhelming thing. Attitude is perhaps the largest element. Are you confident? Do you like the language? Do you want to learn? Do you think you can learn? Those attitudinal things are huge. Time, it takes a lot of time, with a few exceptions. Most people need to spend months and months, possibly years, to achieve a high level of fluency in the language. The third thing is this ability to notice that I’ve mentioned before. The good language learners notice things in the language. They hear the pronunciation. They hear the intonation. They notice phrases. They pick up these phrases and as they notice things the brain eventually starts to incorporate these into the brain’s sort of system for managing that language and pretty soon you’re able to use them.
Now, I am very much input focused. Some people like output. I don’t believe you can start with output. Some people actually say you begin by speaking. I don’t see how you can begin by speaking because, first of all, you have to get the language in you. Even if you do a lot of speaking, as Krashen points out, mostly you’ll be listening at the beginning because you have so few words you can’t say very much. So however you do it, whether you acquire your input through interacting with people or whether you do it through listening, watching television, reading or any combination of those, input is key.
When I talked about the time spent with the language, that’s time spent in any way that you’re interacting with the language, that you are acquiring the language. You need to spend a lot of time, but my preferred way of studying is through input because it’s so easy to organize. I can pick up a book and read wherever I am, on the bus, on the train; I can listen in my car. It’s so much easier to organize that. My good friend Keith Swain, who describes himself as a social linguist, only likes to learn languages where he has enough opportunity to talk to people in that language. I can’t do that because I don’t spend my day learning the language.
I don’t spend my day in a language-learning environment. I spend my day working. I have my wife. I have friends. I have my Old Timer’s Hockey twice a week. I have a business to run. I have other things to do. I can’t drop all of that just to spend time with people who speak Czech because I happen to be learning Czech. I can’t tell my wife that I’m going out twice a week to have dinner with Czech-speaking people. So it’s just not practical for me to organize my social life around learning whatever language I’m learning, but it is practical for me to devote an hour or so a day, half an hour here, 20 minutes there looking at my iPhone while I’m sitting in a doctor’s waiting office or whatever it might be. I can arrange for that input that way.
So I’m very strongly pro-input because it’s more practical, in my sense, and it’s equally effective, you don’t need to speak. Now, when we get to output I will, of course, agree that to speak well you have to speak a lot, to write well you have to write a lot. However, when you choose to start that will depend on your opportunities, but the more input you have, the more tools you’ll have, the more words you’ll have, the more familiarity you’ll have, so when you need to start speaking you’ll speak, somehow you’ll stumble and you’ll speak. The more input you have had the better you will speak, but to really get good at speaking, of course, you have to speak a lot.
Now, on the subject of grammar, of course we look at grammar, but to me there’s not that much in grammar. I have bought various books on grammar. Here’s a book on Italian grammar, look how thick it is. Here’s a book on essential German grammar, it’s this thick. I mean it doesn’t take long to go through it. Here’s one on Swedish grammar. I haven’t yet read it, but I thought I should get it just in case. There’s not that much there. You can’t possibly learn it just by looking at it, but you can leaf through it from time to time. It helps, but it’s not a big part of learning. The biggest part of learning, in my opinion, is acquiring the words; again, getting back to input.
Another thing where I’ve not necessarily been challenged, but I recently said that it’s futile to think you’re going to speak like a native and people have said oh well, if you really try you can and you should try and so forth and so on. If I think of the people that I most admire, non-native speakers of English, it’s people who use the language well, who have a rich vocabulary, who have solid phrasing, who express themselves clearly and accurately with just the appropriate word usage and so forth and so on. Those are the people whose language use I admire, not those that can sort of hi, I’m gonna, like, you know, yeah, and so like what I was saying was like, you know…
Somebody who’s picked up a very colloquial form of English has very few words and can’t express themselves very well. I don’t respect people who speak that way who are native speakers and I certainly don’t respect non-native speakers who speak that way. So the idea that you just go out there and you have about a couple thousand words and you’re fluent, yeah, you’re able to operate if that’s what you want to do, but if I say what do I want to do, who are the people that I admire who use my language, it’s people who have a lot of vocabulary and who speak well and the way you acquire vocabulary is through a lot of reading. It’s true in our own language, people who are well read, use the language well, express themselves well and it’s the same for non-native speakers of a language such as English.
So that’s my credo. It’s my credo. It’s my belief. I don’t have any peer-reviewed studies according to some rigorous scientific methodology that proves any of this and I don’t believe in those studies. I have spent a fair amount of time reading through the different studies on how you acquire vocabulary and how you do this, that and the other and they’re all more or less contradictory. So it still boils down to what I said at the very beginning, language learning is a personal thing. You do what you like to do. It’s you that’s going to be speaking the language. The language will represent you, you do it the way you like to do it. If you like a certain activity you’ll do more of it and the more you do of it the better you will learn.
So we don’t need, in my opinion, the rigorous peer-reviewed studies. Basically, we need learners to be committed to learning, to enjoy the process and to spend the time to develop the ability to notice, if they do those things they will improve. I would say the likelihood that many learners will end up being mistaken for a native is so small that it’s not worth worrying about. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to pronounce as close as possible to the native pronunciation, but it shouldn’t be the number one goal. The number one goal is to use the language well, to express yourself clearly and in a way that the native speaker finds pleasant. As a native speaker, I know that I find it pleasant when I speak to a non-native speaker who uses the language well regardless of how native-like their accent is.
So there in a nutshell, a bit of a ramble on my language learning credo. Thank you for listening and I look forward to your comments.
Hi, there. I listened through my video, as I sometimes do, and there is one thing I wanted to add or correct an impression. I don’t necessarily just admire or respect people who speak English well or who speak other languages well, so when I said I admire those people who use the language well I’m talking about those people whose language skills I admire. I have had many dealings, both professionally and socially, with people who do not speak English well, both native speakers and non-native speakers. Many of these people I very much admire and respect and enjoy their company and we have a great time together. I also know people who are excellent using the language whom I don’t admire as people. So there’s a difference between people that I admire and respect as people and people whose use of language I admire and respect.
So in my video when I said I admire people who use the language well, whether native speakers or non-native speakers, I was referring specifically to my sense of admiration for their language skills not necessarily for them as persons. Nor do I believe that someone who doesn’t have good language skills is somehow less admirable or worthy of respect than someone who has good language skills because there are many, many qualities that go into making a person and language skills are just one amongst many others. So I just wanted to add that point.