Learning a language like a native speaker is an example of how children succeed at mastering their mother tongue. Although parents and other close adults may help to “teach” the language in an informal way (like through repetition, games, or made-up dialogues), still the process of learning is unconscious and depends on the environment. What the child gets is considerable exposure to language which he or she mostly understands. And at the end of this process, the conversational skillset is there as a result of exposure, a clear motivation to communicate, and opportunity to use what is being acquired.
Hence all that one needs to learn a new language are those three elements: exposure, motivation, and opportunities for use. This was the view put in practice in one British university by the end of last century. The students already had some English knowledge, and trainers had the task of improving the English language skills of students from overseas.
Throughout the course, students were provided with tasks to do outside the classroom (such as interviewing people and searching for library books), which involved them in speaking and reading. These were real tasks for which the professors supplied no language training, advice or, the most important, correction. Students also participated in communication games where the only aim was to complete the tasks using the vocabulary at their disposal. Students had to draw the same picture as their partner without looking at the partner’s picture, for example, or they had to arrange objects in the same order as their partner without looking at their partner’s objects – both tasks relying on verbal communication alone. The results, although not scientifically assessed, were apparently favourable. Everyone enjoyed the process far more (especially the teachers), and the students’ progress appeared to have been more evident than in previous courses.
This approach is expanding nowadays not only for English learning but also over wider educational activities. It was noticed that the successful acquisition of a second language is determined by the knowledge input they received. Language that we acquire subconsciously is language we can easily use in spontaneous conversation because it is instantly available upon necessity. Language that is routinely learnt, on the other hand, indoctrinated as grammar and vocabulary, is not available for spontaneous use. Indeed, it may be that the only use for learnt language is to help us to check our spontaneous communication: but the more we monitor our saying, the less spontaneous we become! Thus, there should be a well-balanced option for tailored education, also known as “divergent learning”.
There is a great example illustrating the way we learn, not only English language learning but generally. You should definitely take a look at how creative thinking and divergent thinking are important to education in this animated presentation by Sir Ken Robinson.
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About the Author
Alex Shtern is a freelance writer and IT professional. He has written on a variety of subjects in a number of languages. He is fluent in English, Spanish, Russian, and Armenian.
This post was lightly edited for clarity and flow.
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