The history of language teaching is one fraught with abysmal results. Since the earliest theories on language learning in the mid-1800s, applied linguists have been on the quest for a magic recipe. Vastly different schools of thought have come and gone. Theoretical and descriptive approaches to language teaching have taken turns to dominate the science of language teaching, but none has lasted.
While academics and practitioners in the field work on bettering their approaches, methods and techniques, we learners have a task at hand: learning languages effectively. In the inaugural article in this column, I present an experiential approach to the necessary conditions and effective strategies for better language learning.
A very short history
If you studied a European language in a public school system in your youth, chances are that it followed the Grammar Translation (GT) method. This method was based on the belief that language learning is a cognitive phenomenon and that people learn languages much like they would learn mathematics or the sciences. It involved learning the grammatical rules of a language and then working on translating sentences of increasing complexity from one language to the other. There was little, if any, interest in the strategies a learner could employ to facilitate her learning.
Due to the fact that several of its graduates failed to achieve the communicative competence of a native 6-year-old, GT was dumped in favour of the Audiolingual method, which was developed in the United States during World War II to produce people who could translate and interpret effectively. This method, though involving more speaking than GT did, had little more than formulaic drills. Insisting that language learning was a ‘habit’ and that any learner could learn to speak by establishing these habits. The Audiolingual method undermined, and firmly discouraged, learner efforts to support their own language learning.
Retaliation from Noam Chomsky, and later Stephen Krashen, resulted in a definitive return to the cognitive paradigm in the early 1980s. This eventually resulted in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), which has persisted to this day. CLT, which keeps formulaic exercises and explicit grammar instruction to a minimum, focuses on developing contextual and situational competence.
Practically the only thing we know for sure is that scarcely anyone has learnt a language to a very advanced level using any single method. Talk to just about any successful language learner and you will find that she achieved her success through employing various methods and strategies simultaneously. The failure of the Grammar Translation and Audiolingual methods, which either downplayed or discouraged learner involvement, could suggest that preventing students from actively employing strategies played a part in their ineffectiveness.
Factors affecting success
At a conceptual level, researchers of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) identify a number of variables thought to affect success in language learning, amongst them motivation, age, gender, first language, personality, learning modes and styles, aptitude, beliefs, and emotions. But some of these are intrinsic qualities, and can’t help us much as learners. Motivation and affect are, however, within our control, and being aware of some of the other factors can help you tailor your learning to suit your characteristics.
Perhaps the most important factor is motivation. Whether you intend to learn a language for personal satisfaction or to get a job in a particular country, you are unlikely to succeed if you are not particularly motivated. If you are not sure why you are learning a language, it may not be the right one for you, and it’s probably better to drop it rather than to work hard at something you are not too passionate about.
However, motivation tends to reinforce itself, so if you start out with low levels of motivation, do not despair. Create opportunity to be complimented, by speaking or writing to native speakers. When I began learning German, I had no particular reason for learning it. I slowly found that I was able to accurately pronounce the names of German companies, recognise words in the German section of user manuals, and say Wie geht es Ihnen? to German people I ran into on the streets of Singapore. Being told that my pronunciation was good gave me a big motivation boost. A few months later, I realised I could understand my friend pretty well when he began complaining to me in German about his roommate. That motivated me to go for an advanced course in German just when I had begun to consider learning a different language instead.
Another major cause of learning obstacles is learners’ beliefs. For example, it is a widely held belief that older learners find it much harder to attain fluency. So, if you are well past your adolescence and have this very fear, here is where research in SLA comes to your aid. It has not yet been conclusively proven that older learners find it significantly harder to attain fluency, and there are several thousands of exceptions. Think about immigrants in your city, and I dare say you should be able to recall one person who speaks the host community’s language at a very advanced level. The chances are that these successful adult learners have a number of the very characteristics listed here.
Many learners believe that women learn better than men or that extroverts are better learners than introverts. Still others believe that some languages are easier than others or that children learn languages more easily than adults. However, academics are struggling to find convincing evidence that either is true, and plenty of introverts achieve greater success in grammatical competence owing to greater focus and effort. Researchers have however found that negative beliefs relating to internal factors (such as age, gender, first language, etc.) tend to limit language acquisition to a much greater extent than those attributed to external factors (quality of language learning environment or context, teacher quality, etc.).
Additionally, emotions (or affect) determine success to a large extent. Many students experience anxiety when placed in situations where they have to process input or produce output in the target language. Some feel anxiety when using the language because they have very high expectations of themselves or are perfectionists. Others are anxious not to sound uneducated or childlike to native speakers when they are unable to express themselves fully. Learners are therefore hesitant to speak to native speakers around them, preferring to speak in a common language.
Learning modes, too, can have a large effect on your ability to process and recall features of a language, be they grammar, vocabulary or syntax. If you are a highly visual learner, sitting in a classroom that makes great use of audio material is likely to be frustrating and hardly beneficial. Similarly, if your memory is largely auditory, reading language-learning books is unlikely to help you very much.
If I were to articulate my top recommendations for language learners in a book, it would stand a definite chance of being found in the self-help section of the local bookstore. What is clear from my review of some of the most salient factors below is not just that learner characteristics matter, but that you can help yourself become a better learner by paying attention to them.
You need a high level of personal motivation. Focus on learning a language you would really like to learn, out of love for its culture or its people, and go for it. Don’t learn it to pass exams, and don’t take exam results too seriously. Language learning is about communication, and the true litmus test for your readiness is your ability to communicate with native speakers of the language. If you make sincere efforts to speak to native speakers, not only are you very likely to improve your competence, but you are also likely to gradually become more motivated to study the language as you begin to connect more with their culture, history and worldview.
Take responsibility for your own learning. Teachers and language classrooms are only part of the solution, so consider them tools. You can pay for classes, but you can’t buy a language. Ultimately, the teacher’s obligation is not to convert you into a near-native speaker, but to facilitate it.
Disregard the naysayers. Whether or not it’s true that women learn better than men, extroverts better than introverts, or that there exists an innate language-learning aptitude, believing one and allowing it to negatively affect your motivation or confidence levels is not going to help. Since there’s no strong evidence for any of them, why believe them?
Don’t be a perfectionist at the early stages of your learning. Everyone is afraid of sounding like a stuttering child and being unable to get one’s point across. But most native speakers will be so happy you’re learning their language that they’ll bend over backwards to help you. They will probably help you complete your sentences and attempt to communicate at your level.
Try to identify the reasons for your anxiety. If you don’t want to sound silly around your friends, arrange to meet a native-speaker friend in private. If you are worried you won’t be able to understand or speak about complex topics, learn how to say things like “Can you paraphrase that?”, “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know how to express this in x”, to indicate to your interlocutor that you’d like them to slow down or rephrase. Your anxiety could also stem from the fact that you find it difficult to answer questions. Instead, do the asking yourself. That way, you can steer the conversation towards topics you are comfortable discussing.
Find out how you learn best. If you know what mode of learning suits you best, you can tailor your language learning to it. If you’re visual, try your best to get your hands on learning material such as novels, books on grammar, etc. If you’re an auditory learner, find some podcasts or video series to help you out. No single mode of learning can help you in all areas of language competence. For example, if you focus exclusively on visual input, your oral and listening competence may not necessarily improve. So, remember that becoming fluent in a language requires a mixture of approaches and learning modes.
Short of becoming academics ourselves, we cannot prove which camp is right. We are left instead to take the mugwump line, and apply whatever works best. If languages are both cognitive and social phenomena, successful language learning will necessarily require both good learning techniques as well as good social strategies. If you take these recommendations to heart and remain open-minded, adaptable, and motivated, near-native levels of fluency will be well within your reach.