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Learning Languages – My Reflection

Congwen Wang's picture

Learning Languages – My Reflection

“I learned a hilarious French word today.”
“What is it?”
“ ‘Se defenestrer’. It means ‘to throw oneself out of the window’.”
“It’s a REAL word?”
“Oui, et… Oops, did I speak in French again?”

After starting learning French this year, the same kind of conversations has taken place again and again. My progress over this year is quite amazing, but the way I deal with multiple languages fascinates me even more.  My first language is Mandarin, and I started learning English since primary school. I taught myself some Latin last summer, and now I’m learning French in college. With different extents of exposure to different languages learned through different methods, I find how the brain handles the task of learning languages, especially second languages, a topic worth exploring.

At present, we still can’t fully understand how the language learning process works in our brain, and why our ability of learning our first languages and our seconds are different. Linguists have posed various theories to explain their observations from related studies. Among them, Chomsky’s theory has gained much attention. He argues that our ability to learn a language is innate, and there is a “universal grammar” at the base of the structure of all existing languages, which enables infants to learn whichever language they are immersed in (1). This theory is often cited in studies on first language learning. On the basis of his theory, S. D. Krashen developed the concepts of second language acquisition and second language learning. He suggests that there are two independent systems of second language learning. Second language acquisition is a subconscious process that resembles the process of infants acquiring their first languages. It does not require knowledge of grammar and structure. Second language learning, on the other hand, is a conscious process involving theoretical knowledge and practice. This system involves logical thinking, and what we learn through it will not necessarily turn into the unconscious functions (2) (3). In 1977, T. D. Terrell put the theory into application by developing the Natural Approach to language teaching. He suggests that, instead of teaching grammar and giving tests, teachers need to engage the class time to communication related skills such as listening and speaking (4).

From my personal experience and my observations of people around me, the result of the Natural Approach is very rewarding. It is, in fact, much more effective than the traditional, grammar focused approach of teaching.

In the city I’m from, all primary school students are required to learn English from their primary school. My first year of English learning was a disaster. Although we didn’t really learn grammar, we didn’t speak or listen either. I remember looking at the textbook full of exotic combinations of letters, and write them down, five times for each word (as homework). I had no idea about what I was learning. The sentences made no sense to me at all.

Fortunately, my grandfather, a professor of Arabic (which he learned in Egypt with English), had his own opinion on how to teach children foreign languages. He found an English major student in his university to be my tutor. And rather than a teacher, my tutor was more of a friend to me. Once every week, we sat together and read some English text. She never talked much about grammar; she just let me read the text out loud and try to understand what it said. At first the tutor sessions didn’t seem useful, but after one year or two, I became aware of the difference. I could handle the English class better and easier. Unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t need to improve my English by memorizing the grammar and vocabulary – they just came to me naturally.

However, though I didn’t encounter problems in comprehension, I couldn’t speak. Grandfather’s approach helped me develop the intuition in using the language, but he couldn’t create an environment where I could listen and speak to native English speakers. Before coming to America for college, the perception of not being able to communicate with people troubled me. Again, Grandfather saved me. He said the ability to understand what people say is more important than phrasing sentences, so he suggested that I watch English movies, first with English subtitles, then without. I did as he said, and it worked. I didn’t experience the discomfort of miscommunication as I expected; the transition was rather swift and smooth after I came to America. Of course I’m not a great English speaker, but my skill is adequate.  

Sometimes I do wish I could have a chance to be surrounded by native speakers so I could be better at English, but I still feel lucky not to have to learn English like most Chinese students do. It might sound unbelievable, but most Chinese student can’t even speak like an American first grader after graduating from college. I’ve been through all of the English classes and tests in China, and the only thing I learned from those is – forget about grammar, follow your instinct. My grandfather always said, “You need think in that language to actually learn it well.” And that it exactly what I find myself doing when using English, and what many Chinese English learners cannot do. I successfully acquired my English, while most of my friends stumbled through the years buried in grammar books and multiple-choice questions, only to find they cannot communicate with people at all. The traditional teaching method can be very effective for learning classical languages because we only need to understand the languages and translate them into modern languages (I studied Latin by reading a textbook full of grammar and vocabulary). The ability to converse with others, as we can all feel, is more innate, and therefore hard to achieve merely through the conscious process. 

Compare to the thirteen-year ordeal of learning English, my experience of learning French is very enjoyable. On the first day of my college career, I entered the classroom with a pair of sweating hands; despite my love for learning languages, I was nervous. It was the intensive French class, with some students who had been studying French for several years, while I had no previous exposure to the language. And our professor said she would only speak French in her class. Not mentioning that I had to learn a language with my yet-to-master second language. I thought I wouldn’t survive the week. To my complete surprise, however, the class was not hard to follow. By relating similar English words, along with the help of our professor’s body language, I could understand her speech quite well. This knowledge brought me confidence and motivation, pushing me to do my best in class. In addition to our professor’s class every weekday, we spent three more hours having conversations with teaching assistants every week. Looking back at the end of the year, I can hardly believe how much progress I have made; The French I learned in this year is at least as much as the English I learned in five years. Even saying it rewarding is an understatement.

Surely my former knowledge of English helped my learning French, but I think it is the teaching method that made the real difference. Since we learn modern languages mainly for communication, speaking and listening are the fundamental skills. Because we usually don’t have many chances to engage in conversations with foreign speakers outside of classroom, practice of listening and speaking in class become crucial for improving these skills. Also, in my own case, studying French with the acquisition system is easier. During winter break, I reviewed my French by reading a grammar book to keep myself familiar with the language. However, when I got back to school, I discovered that what I could remember clearly was still things I learned during classes, and I couldn’t utilize things I learned from the grammar book as naturally. When I consciously think about a sentence, I stop thinking in French – which is never a good thing for using a language. After that, I further realized the advantage of acquiring a language – the subconscious process makes me think faster. And the conversation at the beginning of this paper can only occur when my brain switches to “French mode”, built by language acquisition. I think the unconscious switch of languages explains the name of Natural Approach – because acquisition is subconscious, we retrieve this part of information subconsciously as well, and therefore the process feels more natural.

The process of language learning in our brain is a popular topic for ongoing studies these days, and we still have much to explore. The case study of my own language learning experience apparently cannot represent every student’s situation; however, I hope it could provide some implications for students and teachers in choosing their language learning methods.



kgould's picture

I find it very interesting

I find it very interesting that, not only did you find the Natural Approach very effective, but that you also used visual, social cues, such as the professor's body language, into account when understanding what she was saying. I think it would be very interesting to investigate how much of what we "say" is actually non-verbal-- and how much of those non-verbal cues branch between different cultures and languages.

In that same sense, could body language also be used to emphasize understanding of material other than language? Is there any application of it in, say, a Bio lab?...

jpfeiffer's picture

Most Effective Way of Learning a Language?

I found this post very interesting for many reasons. First of all, I thought it was important to gain insight on learning the English language from a non-native speaker. I found this particularly interesting, especially at an institution as Bryn Mawr where the international student rate is quite high, as well as the requirement for all students to be proficient in another language. I found the idea of the Natural Approach the most interesting as I also find this the most effective way to learn a new language. I found it interesting, for example, that many native Spanish speakers stress the fact that they do not worry about grammar when they speak compared to native English speakers trying to learn Spanish for the first time. In many courses grammar is stressed first and foremost before any other part of the language. Native speakers, however, take a different approach when learning a language. Therefore, when they were children, they, like the idea of the Natural Approach spent time listening and speaking and concerning themselves with minimal grammar and took the same approach as the Grandfather in this post with the idea of "Forget grammar, follow your instinct".

Jessica Watkins's picture

Language is  very much a

Language is  very much a man-made concept. Humans were blessed with the ability to communicate in extremely fine detail, setting us apart from other Earth-dwelling creatures and their primordial grunts and groans. Because language is so human-centric, it makes sense that immersing students in a speaking/listening environment would work best  while teaching them a new language because these two skills are natural gifts that have already been hardwired into human thought.  In order to survive, we must be aware of our surrroundings and communicate with others--what was originally an evolutionary adaptation is now useful in helping students learn languages, which are arguably artificial, a creation based on human need.

Paul Grobstein's picture

from language learning to learning in general?

"I hope it could provide some implications for students and teachers in choosing their language learning methods"

Maybe it could provide as well some encouragement to create/choose alternate ways of teaching/learning in areas other than language?