In my day to day teaching of English students, I come across a wide variety of personalities. There are some who are highly motivated and have an unbelievable amount of energy. If I give them a topic to research, they'll spend a week reading articles and watching videos about it to prepare themselves for the discussion ahead. They absorb all of the information so that it's fresh in their heads for class.
In class, I try and stay as quiet as possible. After a brief "Hey, how was your weekend?" chat, I ask them a question about the topic and away they go. I can't stop them. It's inspiring to see it happen. They're so enthusiastic about telling me what they have learnt that my job is to simply ask questions in order to nudge the discussion down different pathways and to keep their momentum going.
Sometimes I offer corrections; sometimes I don't. Correction is still a debatable topic. Will the small number of corrections that I give my students really change their life? I think as teachers we have to dig deeper than that. To me, what's more important is putting students through the natural process of language learning and encouraging this as best we can. Unfortunately, it is quite obvious that a lot of schools fail in this regard; it's there in front of my eyes every day.
Students from various countries around the world tell me how they sat through years and years of grammar instruction, teachers "explaining" a language in front of a bored class, exercises, tests and very few chances to have a conversation. That's hours and days and months and years of wasted money, wasted energy and wasted time.
The result? There is a huge amount of frustration and insecurity about learning the language. Thus, one can only conclude that the process they were exposed to is clearly incorrect. If the process was correct, we would have fluent and happy students. As far as I can see, students in these situations aren't being put through the natural process of language learning.
So, what is the natural process? It's what you do in your native language everyday. It's what you did when you were a child. Remember, you have achieved the fluency goal already in your first language! So, why can't you do it in a second language too? I think the problem is that we are actually now trying to be too clever; we try and use tricks, we use more technology and we learn about the science of the language (i.e. grammar). However, what we don’t do is simply use the language, nor do we even enjoy it.
That means that we don't go through the natural process. When you were a child, all you did was observe. You watched and listened to the world as it passed you by. First, you understood nothing. But soon you made some connections. You made the connection that every time your mother made the sound "baaallll" she was giving her attention to a round looking object. Every time she made the sound "taaabbbbleee" she was pointing her finger at a big square thing in the room. You were naturally learning about nouns.
Then she started making the sound "eeeaaatt" while trying to feed you. You were learning about verbs. "Biiiigg," "smaaaalll." You now knew some adjectives. Then, she started putting some of these sounds together. "Throoowww the baaalllll," and you slowly made the connections.
You were learning about nouns, actions and articles all in one sentence. And then you tried to make some of those sounds and combinations yourself. You made mistakes, but you carried on.
The beautiful thing is that parents naturally adjust their language to their child's level. They say things slowly and clearly. Then, when you get older, the conversations get a little more sophisticated. This is natural learning. You listened, started to speak, learned to read and then learned to write. You never gave a second thought to grammar structures, rules or tricks. You just observed the language over and over again until you began to use the same structures naturally.
What you were really doing was learning about the world around you, and learning the language was just a secondary process. It was simply the result of learning about new areas of life.
Your parents told you bedtime stories. They would tell them slowly while making gestures with their hands so that you could understand and make connections in your own mind. Your mother sang songs to get you to sleep. You would use your imagination to picture a story. You would hear stories from your friends, and you would tell stories to your friends. It's all about receiving and giving information really, and learning how to do so in patterns and structures that develop naturally over time. When you finally got older, you read books and watched your favourite TV programs and movies. Even movies adjust their language for children! It's all very natural.
Then when we grow older and the process is finished, we get a little too clever for ourselves. We attempt to learn a new language, but we try and cut corners. We seem to think that by simply learning about a language, we will conquer it. Grammar seems like this magical thing that, if mastered, will somehow unlock a language. We stop enjoying learning languages. It becomes a very serious and analytical thing. We are given a mountain of rules and explanations to learn, all of which get in the way of the natural process.
So, the reason that you aren't fluent after years and years of study is because we decided, as a society, to use unnatural processes in schools and language institutions. We need to get back to reading material at our level simply for the joy of it. We need to start understanding new words that we come across, taking our time, hearing the sounds that are being spoken and listening to interesting material at our level.
Material must be understandable. If your mother started speaking to you about finance and economics at the age of four, you would have made no connections at all. Work at your level. Keep discovering new words. I am becoming more and more convinced that learning languages really just comes down to building a larger vocabulary foundation by constantly reading and listening to interesting material. Patterns and structures will slowly fall into place after you've observed thousands of examples.
Maybe you need even more than that, but just let go and enjoy the process. So, my advice is this: stop learning about a language, and start learning about the world through a language, using that language.
Learn languages the way you learnt your native one. Learn about different topics in life. Learn about travel, technology, history, famous people, sport, current events or politics using the language that you want to learn.
The rest will fall into place naturally.
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