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Life Learning Languages

Life Learning Languages
By David Nance

There is nothing more natural than learning a language. We start doing it from the time we are born, if not before (some people suggest that even in the womb, babies are becoming accustomed to the cadence of their mother’s language). Nearly every person who lives past infancy masters at least one language, and fifty percent or more of the world’s population speaks two or more languages. Many of the world’s multilingual people learned two or more languages simultaneously and informally, rather than learning through formal instruction or schooling, simply because one language might be spoken at home, and another language is used in official or commercial settings, for instance.

As we all know, there are many reasons to study a foreign language. Some people do it for business. Others do it for love. Some learn a language for the adventures and opportunities that it opens to them. Some people study a language simply because the opportunity arises, or because they want to be a good neighbor, or because they have heard that it is good for brain health.

Unfortunately, many of us have had bad experiences with language learning. While there are many good foreign language teachers, and while the tide seems to be turning toward better approaches to teaching languages, the fact remains that if you studied a foreign language in high school, you are probably among the ranks of people who can say, “I studied (French, Spanish, German, etc.) for X number of years, but can’t speak it.” Like math and so many other subjects, classes convince many people that they are not good at foreign languages, or that foreign languages are difficult to learn. Just as math and numbers are not difficult if approached in a natural way, foreign languages are not inherently difficult, and no one is inherently bad at learning them. The problem is almost always the approach, and not the learner.

Language learning should not be about memorizing vocabulary lists, grammar rules, verb charts, and cheesy dialogues (I had a professor who liked to repeat a useless phrase that he had memorized decades before, El desfile se ve muy bien desde el balcón – “The parade can be seen very well from the balcony”). A much better approach to learning a language is to find something that you like doing, and simply do it in that language. If you have an interest or hobby, chances are that someone who speaks your target language also shares that interest or hobby. In the world before the internet, it would have been difficult to find Spanish-language yoga videos, or French sports articles, or German gardening blogs, but today, that is no longer a problem. We will come back to this momentarily, but first let’s discuss a few important things about language acquisition.

Second language acquisition is a relatively new field of study, and so, to summarize one expert, any statements about it should be taken as guidelines, and not as definitive, inviolable truths. Having said that, experience has led me to gravitate more toward some language-learning theories than toward others. One of the most-discussed experts in the field is a man named Stephen Krashen, who argues that learning a language is entirely different than acquiring a language, and by extension, the process of acquiring a language is very different than the process of learning one. As life learners, we want to focus on acquiring a language rather than learning it, because presumably we want to be able to actually communicate in the language, and not just repeat El desfile se ve muy bien desde el balcón.

So what does it take to acquire a language? Krashen argues that it takes lots and lots of language input. In fact, he says that it is not input that matters, but compelling comprehensible input. Compelling comprehensible input is anything you hear or read that is so interesting that you forget it is in another language. For instance, if you are watching a cooking video in French, and you are following the steps and creating what the cook in the video is creating, and you get excited to taste your wonderful concoction once it is finished, then you are absorbing compelling comprehensible input, and you are well on your way to acquiring French. In this case, the language is contextualized, it is captivating to you, and you don’t even realize that you don’t understand some (or most, or all) of the words that you hear.

Now, will following along with one cooking show in French make you fluent in French? No, of course not. But if you do this on Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday, and so forth, and get into a habit of doing it, then before you know it, you will understand more and more of what you hear, and the French will rub off on you. It is a very long process, and the results are not as easy to see as if you were memorizing lists of vocabulary words, but the effect is much longer lasting. As lifelong learners, we believe that math is better learned through practical application (such as measuring, sawing, and building) than through drills, worksheets, and formal instruction. If this is true of math (and reading, and science, etc.), it is even more true of language acquisition.

So what exactly does success look like? Success with a foreign language does not mean immediately being able to speak. In fact, a silent period is a normal and natural part of the process. Think about how long the silent period is for babies–most listen for a year, some for two, three, or even four years before they start to say anything. That is countless hours of input before they ever start to produce. If you are the gregarious type, who loves to jump in and try to say things right away, then by all means, do it. But if you are nervous about trying to speak, don’t stress over it.

The time will come when you are ready, and you will start to do it without even thinking about it (assuming, of course, that you have had countless hours of compelling comprehensible input). Even at that point, you will most likely speak in choppy words and phrases, followed later by semi-grammatical sentences, then simple sentences and finally grammatically complex sentences. (One major problem with language classes in general is that they ignore this natural order of language acquisition, and instead expect learners to master discrete grammatical concepts in a formulaic manner.) Rather than striving for perfection, remember that language is about communicating, and the first signs of communicating are understanding the big picture and getting the point across. Don’t worry about understanding or memorizing individual words or phrases, don’t worry about trying to say something specific, just focus on the big picture.

As a final point, I want to address classes, websites, apps, and other programs. We hear many promises about many of these options (particularly those that advertise heavily). We may have had negative past experiences with others (such as classes). Is there value to them? There can be, but we have to be careful. Although many classes are far more focused now on communication than they were in years past, teachers still tend to be gatekeepers of the language, limiting students in what words they can use, what topics they can discuss, and railroading them into using certain grammatical constructs, rather than allowing them to follow their passions and envelop themselves in meaningful language input.

Apps and online programs are inherently limited by some of these same factors (particularly since a computer must evaluate based upon a predetermined list of acceptable answers, rather than using common sense as a real teacher would). The value that these types of things bring, though, is that they can maintain the motivation of students who might otherwise quickly lose interest. It is easy to feel enthusiastic about a new endeavor, but as the honeymoon wears off and progress slows down, it is just as easy to lose interest and move on to something else. Some people are motivated by the knowledge that they have a course to complete, or the course itself builds in incentives for continuing. And of course, there is always the potential of a diamond in the rough–a teacher who values student interest and autonomy, and who encourages true flexibility, creativity, and initiative.

Again, nothing is more natural than learning a language. This is just as true for a second (third, twelfth) language as for a first language. By finding ways to live life in the language that we want to learn, we allow ourselves to acquire another language while living and loving life.

David Nance has been teaching Spanish online in a variety of formats since 2007. His approach was originally very structured and traditional, but as the years have passed, his views on language teaching and on education have changed dramatically. While still proud of the success that his early efforts had, he now encourages as much student autonomy as possible. David and his wife are raising five little life learners of their own, and hope to relocate to Panama in the near future to give their children the opportunity to broaden their horizons and improve their Spanish. You can find out more about David’s foreign language philosophy at or by reading his ebook, Teach Yourself a Language, available on Amazon.

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