You know the story. Student takes a language course. Student sweats every night through all the homework. Student get’s a “D”. Student concludes she is lousy at language learning.
We’ve heard it before.
You may remember being awash in a sea of confusion, just waiting with dread for the teacher to call you out and expose you. Or perhaps the memory of verb charts and flash cards mocked you in the moment you simply could not remember them to save your life, much less fill in the blanks on a test.
In spite of the dedication of many talented teachers, a large number of people walk away from class convinced that they are unable to learn a new language.
If you are one such person, I have good news for you.
You weren’t the one who failed.
The truth is, a classroom is one of the least effective places to learn a new language. Even in a small class, say 10 students to one teacher, in one hour of instruction you will be lucky to get six minutes of interaction with a (hopefully) native speaker. Traditional methods of instruction ignore the last 25 years of research in language learning, still relying heavily on grammar and translation. Locked in place by an institutional setting, students learn to talk to other students about life in an academic setting.
So for most people, the content is irrelevant, rarely giving them language they can actually use in real life.
It turns out that learning to speak a new language in a classroom is a lot like learning to swim in the desert.
It involves a lot of theory, a lot of explaining, but no actual experience.
There is a better way.
But before we can start into the water, we have to let go of the past.
Here’s a truth to replace the lie that you can’t learn another language:
You are hard-wired to learn language.
That’s right, in fact it’s one of the characteristics that set us apart from the rest of the planet. Take the magnificent you as an example. As an infant you learned to distinguish all the sounds of your parents’ language. You were already learning at genius level. Over the next five years, you learned over a thousand of the most common words and worked out how to build sentences and tell stories. As you grew, you added thousands of words to your vocabulary and learned how to use hundreds of different communication strategies. Bravo!
Unless you’ve suffered some kind of brain damage, all those abilities are still there.
Here’s some even better news: as an adult, you now have even more cognitive strategies to learn language.
Observation: You can selectively observe and listen to language that is meaningful.
Record and Find Patterns: You have methods to record and find patterns in that language. Your computer and your smart phone and/or digital camera are powerful tools for recording language.
Plan and Experiment: You can make guesses about how the language works, and then create opportunities to check for accuracy.
Control. You choose the time, place and content. A child is more or less at the mercy of the adults. A toddler is not going to say, “enough of animal sounds, I want to talk about air traffic control protocols.”
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