From time to time I feel great temptation to share my own learning and teaching experience with other people. The way we learn something is critically important to the final outcome.
How do we learn languages? Normally, we memorize some basic words and phrases, then we learn some grammar rules and try to compose phrases using wrong words and making predictable mistakes since the interference from the native language is so strong. Why is it that after years of studies many still fail speaking fluently? Do they fail because they are stupid and lazy? Definitely not. At the very beginning of our lives we learnt our native languages perfectly well, so we are capable of learning languages. Probably, the way we acquire a new language is not the most efficient. Most likely, it is quite inefficient. We didn't learn the native language as a sum of vocabulary and grammar rules. We never thought about the grammar at all, and yet we succeeded.
How do kids acquire their first language? They use it from the very first minute. They hear voices of people around and react to them. Meanwhile their brains collect statistics of the word usage, grammar structures and pronunciation (neurologists believe every healthy human brain has a capability to collect and analyze the language statistics by nature). Then kids try to express their emotions, needs and wants with sounds mimicking the speech of other people and adjusting their grammar and word usage according to our reaction to their speech. So the more a kid speaks the better he gets at it. We have to learn from our own childhood experience how to acquire a language; after all, it was successful once.
Photo by Nina
Of course, it is impossible to recreate the circumstances of our early pre-language childhood, but what we can do is to change our learning strategy. Stop learning and start using seems to be a more efficient way to acquire a new language, and this is not so hard to do.
First of all, it is useful to remember that there is a difference between using a language passively (listening and reading) and actively (speaking and writing). When learning a new language, one should develop both active and passive language skills. It is relatively easy to improve reading and listening in our age of the Internet. Passive skills are all about consuming language. For developing listening skill, you can watch movies, listen to online radio broadcasting and the music you like, memorize lyrics with no efforts (this is, actually, how I learnt English). It is not a big deal to find a good book to read (please note that this should be the book you really want to read) and/or to subscribe to blogs on topics that are interesting to you.
Active language skills means that you produce some text (oral or written) and address it to your audience. Finding an audience that is ready to help a non-native speaker with corrections is not so easy, but again, there is the Internet with its powerful resources like Lang-8 or iTalki. I would also suggest a website www.forvo.com that is a social pronunciation dictionary. I use it each time when I hesitate how to pronounce this or that word.
So why not use the advantage of the Internet epoch? Why be so persistent in methods that rarely lead to success instead of trying a natural way of acquiring a language? If you want to learn dancing you go to the dancing studio, pick up a partner and dance, improving gradually. Buying a book “Waltz and Tango course” instead would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? Language is a practical skill too, just like dancing, however, nobody has found learning a language from books absurd. Let us be like children, forget that learning is hard work (it is!) and enjoy discovering a new language, tinkering with it, exactly like we tinkered with our first language many years ago.