In this post I’m going to share some observations that I made while learning foreign languages. These observations contradict the common beliefs, as I found out that that we don’t need to study grammar rules, to practice speaking or writing, or to get corrections. This realization is what brought me to try to find alternative learning methods and alternative explanations to the different phenomena encountered by language learners.
Practice doesn’t work
Practice is made a big deal of in formal language instruction. This is based on the theory that learning how to speak well a second language is all about creating the correct habits. According to this theory we should practice the language by writing essays and talking to people, and getting our mistakes corrected. Practice is supposed to help you remember words, and after using a word several times it should come to mind automatically. Another common belief is that trying to recall a word brings it from passive vocabulary to active vocabulary, so by trying to remember a word you will be able to use it in conversation, even if until now you could only understand it. However several experiences I’ve had make me think that practice doesn’t work.
The first experience I want to mention is the one I had with the English word “drawer“. I just can’t seem to remember it when I need it. Ever. I had to think really hard even now, and the same word for all the other languages I know came up sooner (tiroir, 引き出し, cajón, calaix). I’ve had to use this word a few times during my life, so I would say I’ve got some practice. Eventually I manage to recall it, but even though it is a word that I wouldn’t have any problem understanding in a conversation, practice saying it doesn’t seem to help me produce it when I need to.
Another experience is my usage of the verbs “iru“/”aru” (いる/ある) in Japanese. The Japanese language has a very particular way of saying that “there is” something, in that you choose between two different verbs depending if you are talking about an inanimate object or about an animate being. The rule for when to use each one is quite clear, and I can explain it without problem. I’ve practiced it tons of times both in writing and in conversation. However, that doesn’t keep me from making mistakes. I constantly use the verb “aru” when it should be “iru“. I’ve been doing that for years. Furthermore, every time I make this mistake I notice it and I correct myself, saying the sentence again with the right verb.I’ve found myself unable to fix it no matter how much I correct myself and no matter how much I practice saying it correctly. These two verbs were actually one of the very few things I learned during the first week of learning Japanese, in which I did some conscious study of the grammar before switching completely to immersion without study. There are many other features in the Japanese language that are also very different from any of the languages I know, which I never learned consciously and I don’t make mistakes when using them (conjugated adjectives, negative verbs, marker particles), so again one point against practice.
Finally I’ve also noticed this same problem happening to other people. Many people from my country keep making the same mistakes when speaking English for very simple things for which they definitely know the rule, which we had to practice many times when we studied English in school, and which they wouldn’t make in writing (in particular saying things like “I didn’t went” and “He doesn’t likes“).
You can learn unconsciously
The second big reason that made me discard traditional language education is my realization that we can and do unconsciously get a feeling for the grammar and the nuances of the words of the target language without studying them, even as adults. That first happened to me when I improved my English after graduating from high school by just reading on the Internet. I got used to many grammar structures which I hadn’t learnt in school and I also knew intuitively when something was wrong because it just didn’t sound correct. This same thing happened again when I learned French and Japanese.
One very clear example is the usage of the Japanese particles “wa“/”ga” (は/が). Apparently that is a very common sticking point for people who study Japanese as a second language, since there is nothing like it in English or in other European languages. My approach to learning them, like the rest of the Japanese language, was to not think about them and just get used to them by listening and reading a lot. Now, I won’t say I use them perfectly in every single situation, but I got a quite good intuition for when each one should be used, or when none should be used at all. Japanese has a quite flexible grammar in that in many situations a lot of the connectors are optional, but that doesn’t mean that you get the same nuances when you use them or when you don’t use them. Getting used to the grammar naturally allowed me to unconsciously get an intuitive feeling for those nuances. When speaking Japanese sometimes I even surprised myself using words and expressions that I don’t remember seeing anywhere, and which I surely didn’t study, but when I looked them up I was actually using them correctly.
This unconscious learning even applies to pronunciation. In Japanese there’s a particularly versatile character (and phoneme), “ん“. When I first learned the Japanese script I learned it as “final n”, meaning the /n/ sound at the end of a syllable. However after some time living in Japan and listening to Japanese for many hours, I realized that I was pronouncing the “ん” at the end of a word in a completely different way, something like the French “n” at the end of a word, but lighter. I had never learned the different pronunciations of “ん” and I hadn’t even paid attention to it consciously, but I realized out of nowhere that I was pronouncing it the same way Japanese people do.
The most sensible explanation I’ve been able to find after much research and after reading about the ideas of many teachers, linguists and polyglots is that as adults we still learn like babies. By being exposed to the language in a context that we can understand, we naturally get used to the grammar and to the different nuances in the meaning of words, even if we never study the language. We can get a similar feeling for the language to the one native speakers have. Associating meaning to words by actually listening to the second language in context is what makes us become fluent, and allows our brains to build the same structures that children’s brains build.
There’s one difference between children and adults, though. Adults can think about the language. Conscious study affects a different part of our brain, and allows us to think about language, but doesn’t allow us to become fluent. What’s more, practice can never take the place of natural acquisition of the second language, and by practicing speaking a language we’re not really positively affecting the part of our brain that transforms our thoughts into words during a spontaneous conversation, but rather we’re interfering with its function and its capability to correctly acquire language in the future.
Other explanations could be proposed as for why I never seem to be able to remember the word “drawer” or to stop saying “aru” when it should be “iru“. Maybe some kind of exceptional short-circuit happened to those particular words in my brain that doesn’t allow me to learn them properly. However, my experience seems to be confirmed over and over by research that shows that whatever students learn when practicing a language doesn’t last long and that it has no effect when in a spontaneous production situation, such as when having a conversation (Truscott 1996).
It is harder though to argue against my experience that an adult can gain an intuitive feeling for a second language, since me and many others have done it. You could argue though whether that has been done unconsciously or not. You could argue that my learning wasn’t really unconscious, that I figured out the patterns by thinking about them but I just don’t remember, and that people that are less “talented” at learning a language can’t do that, and therefore need explicit instruction. Whether my learning was unconscious or not can’t really be proven. However, something that can be proven is that explicit instruction is detrimental to achievement in a second language (video by S D Krashen, Gradman 2011).
So, how do we fix it?
In every post I like to introduce a bit of my ideas about how the concepts I present could be applied, so that we can hopefully come up with methods and strategies that can have a real impact in how we learn languages.
In case you’re learning a language on your own, I suggest to stop practicing and asking people to correct your mistakes, and start trying to develop your own intuitive feeling for the language by listening to and reading it a lot. That intuitive feeling is what is going to actually let you speak fluently without stopping every two words to think. If you are already at a level in which you can have a conversation with a native and enjoy it, please do so. That listening practice is going to be invaluable, since you are going to be remembering much more from it than you would from a movie or a book.
If you are a teacher, stop giving your students practice sheets, or making them practice speaking. Give them opportunities to hear the second language in context and in a way that’s interesting to them. Give them recommendations of easy movies to watch, and things to do to surround themselves with the language daily. Raise their interest in the culture of the target language, so that they will be compelled to keep learning the language on their own.
Personally I’m really interested in new methods that can be developed to take advantage of these observations. It’s not difficult to take advantage of the unconscious learning once you get to a certain level, since you can do it just by watching TV, reading and talking to people. It’s more difficult though in lower levels, since it’s not easy to find authentic resources that you can enjoy and at least partially understand at your current level. There is a lot of value in developing a method that can offer comprehensible input at a level that language learners can understand. One example of such a method applied to a classic classroom setting is AUA (www.auathai.com), but better methods can be developed for people who don’t have time to go to school, or who live in the country of their target language.
The glass is half full
One final thing that I want to mention is the widespread belief that it is not possible for an adult to become native-like in a second language. That adult learners will always have an accent and make mistakes. In this case what I have to say is: you’re looking at it backwards. Instead of focusing on the mistakes non-native speakers make or on all the people who have a strong accent, look at the people who learn a second language as adults and manage to speak without an accent (Armando’s Hebrew , Luca’s English). Look at all the correct grammar that every learner acquires without the need for correction. Let’s figure out how the learners acquired that grammar, how the accent-free people learned their languages, and let’s try to replicate that. Instead of sampling 100 people and concluding that becoming native-like is impossible because 99% didn’t make it (as many research papers do), let’s look at the outliers. Let’s study what they did, and maybe then we’ll learn something new.
Summing it up
I have discussed the two main reasons that made me conclude that traditional language education is broken. Namely that practice doesn’t work and that we can get native-like intuitions for the grammar and usage of words without ever having studied them. I made these realizations long before I made it my goal to find better methods for second language education, but they still fuel my motivation. I think it is worth exploring why these things happen and what we can do to reduce those we don’t want and promote and accelerate those we do want.
I would love to hear your opinions on the subject. Do you have experiences that support or contradict mine? Can you think of alternative explanations that make more sense? Have you come up with or do you know of a way or method that take these into account? Please let me know.