In this article, I would like to illuminate the principle that language teaches itself.

As an example of how language teaches itself, consider the fact that in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian, instead of saying “green tea,” you literally say “tea green.” Some teachers may point this out explicitly, and with good reason. Others may provide an explanation such as, “nouns precede adjectives.”

I might do either, however it is of greater interest to me that my students be able to pick this pattern out and immediately apply changes to every other possible example, even if they don't know the specific words for the other examples. For example, you may not know how to say “blue sky,” or “red car,” but because of “tea green,” you know, or can reasonably assume, that it will be “sky blue,” and “car red.”

In Hindi, Farsi, and Japanese, to say “I drink coffee,” you would literally say, “I coffee drink.” This could be analyzed explicitly by saying that these languages are SOV (subject object verb) languages. But instead of dwelling on such explanations, I would most likely be too busy populating the matrix with other examples, such as, “I car drive,” “I computer use,” “I Hindi speak,” and so on and so forth.

The secret to learning language, and I believe, the secret to why children are able to learn languages so quickly and effectively, is the infinitely generative nature of language. In other words, one sample sentence in a language actually contains the “DNA” of the entire language. Each sentence or phrase is like a mathematical formula which contains variables: a = adjective, n = noun. Is the language you're learning an AN language like English? Or an NA language like Spanish? In either case, pay attention to the underlying, immutable pattern which generates the language you are learning to speak.

What about exceptions or irregularity? I have observed in children that their pattern-based guesses in language, although most often correct, will sometimes be flawed. For example, a child may have gleaned the idea that to make most verbs past tense in English, it is a matter of adding –ED: I played, I jumped, I danced. The child will then assume that it is correct to say ‘I goed’, ‘I bringed’, ‘I thinked’, and so on. So how does the student of a second language, be he or she a child or an adult learner, survive this veritable game of verbal Russian roulette? Here's how: make those guesses anyway, even if you may be making a mistake.

There are two reasons for this: first, you will most likely be understood, and this is the most important thing. Second, by committing the error (if it is one) you will give your speaking partner a chance to correct you, thereby improving your language for the next time around. This is a big part of why children learn quickly and effectively, they are not afraid to make mistakes, and by their mistakes, they give a parent or whomever else the chance to correct them, thereby improving their language.

I recommend making as many mistakes as possible, and as quickly as possible. As a student of a second language, you have a certain amount of unavoidable mistakes out there waiting for you, so why not get through them as quickly as possible?

Once a student has become proficient at identifying critical patterns and applying the changes automatically (effectively guessing well in the language and not fearing sometimes being wrong) he or she no longer needs a teacher. In fact, I believe much more language learning can be done on one's own than what is currently thought. I didn't teach you “sky blue,” or “car red,” nor did any other teacher. “Tea green” taught you, the same way that “I coffee drink” taught you “I Hindi speak.” A previous example teaches all other examples. Language teaches itself.