As a language teacher I am often asked: “what’s the best way to learn a language?” The simple truth is that there is no best way, but only the way that’s best for you.
There are, of course, many theories about the best way to learn a language. In this article I’m going to dissect a few of those theories in order to help you understand what they could mean to you as a language learner. I will also discuss the various ways that they’ve been successfully used by students all over the world.
First off, it’s important to ask: “what does it even mean to learn a language?” Are we talking about becoming fluent? Are we talking about passing an exam? Learning a language is an individualised process, and I personally think that it’s really helpful if you have clearly defined your own personal criteria for success before you begin.
So now, here are some of the leading theories that have been used throughout history in regards to language learning:
Back in the 1500s the only language that was considered worth learning was Latin, and there was only one way to learn it: slow, steady and meticulous rote grammatical memorisation. When other foreign languages slowly made their way into school curricula in the early 19th century, the approach to teaching them was fairly similar.
The idea was not to be communicative in the foreign language, but to be able to read it and write it perfectly. This meant that students just had to sit and learn grammar rules by memory and then practice the rules by doing grammar drills. While grammar drills are important, imagine if this was the only method for studying a language!
For a video example of Grammar Translation click here.
Watson and Skinner, behavioural psychologists, argued that language is a set of habits that we acquire by means of conditioning. This fed into the audio lingual theory that language could be memorised by learning large passages and dialogues.
According to this particular viewpoint, it didn’t matter if students were not actually able to understand what they were memorising, as long as they could repeat it perfectly. The job of the teacher, then, was simply to encourage students to parrot dialogues perfectly and to discourage mistakes.
When I was teaching English at the university level in China, I often felt frustrated watching my students walk around in aimless circles, memorising page after page of new vocabulary without ever being encouraged to actually use the new words. It was probably for a similar reason that this method of vocabulary memorisation supported by the audio lingual theory fell out of favour in the West in the 1980s. In fact, when I was teaching at the high school level in Britain, I’d probably have lost my job if I made students sit and memorise dialogues all day long without making sure that they knew what the dialogues were about. Similarly, I’d have also lost my job if I chose to never speak to the students in the language I was trying to teach!
So, while it’s important to learn new vocabulary as a student, you also need to make sure that you’re learning how to use it. In this instance, I’d say that there’s a healthy balance that can be found between studying vocabulary and grammar directly and learning the language through speaking and listening. This includes watching television in your target language, as well as listening to the radio, reading the news and, most importantly of all, getting into contact with native speakers.
You can learn about an example of Audio lingual teaching here.
Theory of second language acquisition
You might not have heard of Stephen Krashen, but he’s been having a huge impact on second language education in the United Kingdom since the 1980s. His theory of second language acquisition can be summed up in his own words as this:
We all acquire language in only one way… when we understand messages, that’s it. We’ve tried everything else, we’ve tried teaching grammar, we’ve tried having students memorise vocabulary, we’ve had people memorise dialogues… we’ve tried everything, but the only thing that works is giving people messages they understand.
Is it really that simple? Can we really just throw out all of our old grammar and vocabulary books? Based on this theory alone, there’s no need to spend hours learning dialogues, repeating after the teacher or learning new vocabulary. All we have to do is put ourselves in an immersive language environment and keep trying. However, while there is a great deal of validity to Krashen’s theory, don’t throw your grammar and vocabulary textbooks out just yet; you’re probably still going to need them.
Theory in practice
The impact of Krashen’s theory has been so profound that the British government has updated their official guidelines of what constitutes an Outstanding Lesson. According to Ofsted (the government’s inspection body), an outstanding lesson is one in which:
The target language (TL) is the dominant means of communication in the lesson and teachers have high expectations of learners’ use at an appropriate level. As a result, learners seek to use the TL as the normal means of communication when talking to the teacher or informally to each other.
In other words, the teacher is supposed to create an ideal language learning environment.
OK, so those of you who learned English in Germany, Norway or The Netherlands (to name some of the most obvious countries) are probably laughing right now and thinking “well, duh. Is there any other way to learn a foreign language?” Despite this, I still meet many people from other countries, Britain included, who tell me how their language teacher hardly ever spoke to them in English (or the language they were learning).
Language learning is not just a habit. In my opinion, and as Noam Chomsky argues, language learning requires innovation. We build sentences from new patterns in accordance with the extremely intricate rules that we have learned. We do this by using our knowledge of abstract rules of grammar and meaning.
In other words, committing a dialogue to memory isn’t much good for anyone if they still can’t use that language. Similarly, if you go to the shop for the first time and you’ve never looked at a dialogue, you might really struggle to understand what’s being said to you.
You need to make sure that while you’re learning grammar, vocabulary, phrasal verbs, idioms and everything else, that you’re also using them and making plenty of contact with native speakers. In this way, you can eventually just a get a feel for “what works.”
You can find a video explanation of Chomsky’s theory here.
No more vocabulary or grammar?
Does this mean we can just throw out our vocabulary sheets and grammar books? Not very likely.
Language learning is an individualised process that works best when the individual is aware of their own needs. No one knows the best way for you to learn a language better than you do. Of course, all of these theories can help you to better understand yourself and a good teacher will be able to show you different techniques, help encourage you and push you beyond your comfort zone. However, ultimately, only you know what you need and how you learn.
In my experience, I’ve seen students go from knowing no English at all to speaking at an Upper intermediate C1 level in a matter of months simply by applying themselves rigorously, studying hard every day and making an effort to use the language. I’ve also seen students study English half-heartedly for years and achieve nothing. At the end of the day, the most important factor is you.
Of course, language learning theories can help us to understand the language learning process better. However, in the end, the most important factor has nothing to do with theories, academics or even teachers. As stated above, the most important factor is you. So, if you are motivated as a student, and if you are willing to put in the time to learn new vocabulary, talk to native speakers, watch TV shows in your target language, read books, and ultimately get out of your comfort zone and push yourself, you’ll be quite amazed at how much you learn.
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