Some facts on Language Learning

Seven principles of input based language learning.

Seven principles of input based language learning.

1) We learn languages by listening, not by speaking.

A new language has words and phrases that are strange to us. Before we can learn to speak the new language, we have to make these strange words and phrases familiar to us. All learning consists of creating new patterns in our brain.  Language learning is no different. We have to listen to the language in order to form these new patterns in our brain. We cannot generate these new patterns from within. They must come from an external source, the native speaker. The greater our interest in the native speaker, or what he or she has to say, the better we can learn a new language.

2) Language learning is a gradual, morphing and unpredictable process.

It takes time to form these new patterns in our brains. The process is not linear, nor is it a step by step process. It is random and unpredictable. As more and more new patterns are layered onto our brains, the language gradually becomes clearer and clearer. Some new words and patterns resist our efforts to learn them, until suddenly they just click in.

3) Meaning is easier to learn than grammar.

Words, phrases and meaning are easier to learn than grammar. The reason is that new words and phrases can be associated with concepts we already have. Often grammatical rules in a new language are different from the patterns that we are using for our first language. Even if these new rules are explained, they are difficult to remember or apply, because our established patterns interfere. That is why it is easier to focus on meaning, and listening, and gradually let the language penetrate our brains.

4) When we read, we are also listening and speaking.

Reading is a powerful way to learn languages. When we read in a foreign language we vocalize. We are, in fact, speaking the sounds of the words, and listening to ourselves. We have the added advantage of seeing a visual form of the words, which helps us remember them.

5) Listening prepares us for reading.

As we listen, we gradually get a better and better sense for the sounds and rhythms of the new language. This helps us when we read, and, as pointed out above, when we listen to ourselves read. As beginner and intermediate learners, we should use the same texts for our listening and reading, and avoid doing the one without the other.

6) Learning to notice, and noticing to learn.

The brain learns a lot on its own, naturally, without us noticing. But for some aspects of the language, and often some of the most basic aspects, we need to help the brain to notice. Error correction, including noticing one’s own errors, grammar explanations, word and phrase review, focusing on certain phrases while listening, highlighting certain words and phrases in texts, tagging or labeling certain words and phrases, are all ways to help us notice aspects of the language that are hard to remember. Noticing is best done while listening and reading. Deliberate noticing, divorced from listening and reading, should be a minor component of language learning. It is useful in making us more attentive to the language, but does not help us learn as effectively as listening and reading.

7) When we speak we should focus on listening and noticing.

We should start speaking when we feel we have something to say, and want to speak, and not before. It is best to avoid artificial classroom activities like role playing or other situations that involve speaking with non-native speakers. The reason is that speaking is an excellent opportunity to listen and notice how the native speaker uses the language, and to notice the gaps in our own use of the language.

Author: neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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