Why some people will never be fluent in a foreign language

 

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The answer is very simple – because they don’t know what we know….

It is a common believe that children learn languages more effectively than adults. And although it was scientifically proven that there is no correlation between age and ability to acquire a second language, language does not need to be taught to a child. Instead, language acquisition in childhood is a natural consequence and not an intentional plan. For adults, on the other hand, language acquisition is a language learning –  a deliberate, painstaking, intellectual process that regardless of intellectual ability or want to learn rarely, if ever, results in the total native fluency acquired so naturally by any small child.

Lets look at the 5 key things that children do and we don’t in language learning that prevent us from fluency:

 

FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES

Are children afraid to make mistakes?

No, children lack self-consciousness and concentrate on the only goal – to convey their messages to the world. They do not see mistakes as failure. Actually the concept of mistakes and failure is planted in us at nurseries and schools. Schooling system is based on grading where mistakes are penalised with low marks and usually anxiety that consciously or unconsciously impacts self-esteem.  

Unfortunately, schools do it so well that we carry a burden of being judged by others for all our lives. This state of mind also impacts our learning process and ability to succeed in acquiring new languages.

Yet, at the same time, humans are incredible in that we learn from our mistakes. Usually failure even helps to learn much quicker with a longer lasting impact.

So remember – we learn by making mistakes. Choose environment that allows you to fail without judgement and embarrassment. Embrace mistakes and learn from them – this is the only way to fluency!

 

GRAMMAR AND RULES

Children do not learn grammar. They learn from environment and context. So why do we, adults, think that knowing rules of how to use past simple versus past perfect continuous will make us fluent?

The concept of learning without grammar is very unusual to us. Some would even say unnatural. But think about children. They don’t learn grammar, they are curious and they learn from context which is a natural setting. Grammar, on the other hand, puts a language in a box, restricts it and puts pressure on a learner. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to learn all the grammar as there are too many exceptions, irregularities and diversions from rules.

So why bother wasting your time on becoming proficient in grammar instead of focusing on becoming proficient in a language? Grammar cannot make you fluent! Words and word conjunctions in a context will make you fluent.

As professor, linguist, educational researcher, and activist Dr. Stephen Krashen says: “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill.”

He continues: [language] acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”

Don’t get us wrong. If you want to pass an exam or become a writer, you will need grammar. On all other occasions, get to know the language, learn expressions and structures, gain understanding how the language is used in it’s natural form and only then worry about grammar.

 

INTERESTING AND RELEVANT CONTENT

When children start to speak, they do not talk about rocket science because it’s A) irrelevant to them, B) the language used in rocket science is not at their language skill level.

Dr. Karshen argues that second language acquisition is most successful when the conditions are similar to those present in first language acquisition that is: 

 

1) Focus on meaning rather than form

In a short term, trying to understand something without knowing each word and why it’s used the way it is used might feel weird. However, in a long run, getting to know a language through it’s natural use will make a more significant impact in becoming fluent.

Focus on enjoying the content and not getting caught up in detail and you will see how you will start to understand the use of words and their conjunctions in different contexts without studying any rules.

 

2) Input is at or just above the proficiency of the learner

Remember, children do not learn about rocket science because it’s not at their proficiency level.

If we start learning from content where we don’t recognise a single word, it is natural that we won’t understand anything.

However, if we are given interesting content with few familiar words and we can understand some more from the context, for example watching a movie and seeing people behave in a certain way after saying specific words, we will be able to understand the overall meaning of what’s going on.

Over time, such comprehension helps us to acquire more phrases, word conjunctions and language structures and language proficiency inevitably improves.

 

3) Engage in meaningful use of that language

Have you ever heard about adults who learn their second language just by watching movies, singing songs or being in a relationship with a foreigner? We hear it all the time!

In fact, learning from interesting and relevant content is gaining ground even in formal education. British Council has been promoting Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) as a competence-based teaching approach. 

This way learning is improved through increased motivation and the study of natural language seen in context. When learners are interested in a topic they are motivated to acquire language to communicate.

To sum up, learn from books, movies, music, news or any other content that interests you. Make sure that this content is just above your language skill level, that you can understand some of it and figure out the rest from the setting, context or visualisations. Do not focus on grammar or meaning of individual words. Enjoy the content, try to understand the meaning of the message and you will see improvement in no time.

 

DESIRE DOES NOT EQUAL MOTIVATION

Just to be clear – desire is something we want while motivation is the reason for performing an action. Motivation has been widely discussed and accepted as one of the factors greatly influencing the rate and success in language learning. Just think about this:

When learning a first language a child needs to gain identity within the family and the wider community. A child has a very strong and credible reason to perform an action of acquiring a language.

Now think about yourself. Are you that motivated to learn a language? Probably not, unless you’re moving to a place where nobody will understand you in any of the languages that you already speak.

It is natural that with busy adult lives our motivation is not the same as it was when we were children. So find a reason why, build a habit of learning and practising, find a language buddy, find somebody or something that gives you reason to learn and overcome that nagging desire to skip practising today/this week/this month.

 

ONGOING PRACTICE OR NOT FORGETTING WHAT YOU LEARN

We forget languages that we don’t use. Period.

I’ve been learning German at school for 6 years. Later on I went to study in France and work in Greece. I was learning both French and Greek and I was able to socialise and converse in both languages while I was in those countries. If you ask me if I can have a conversation in any of those languages now, the answer will be No. So what happened? No matter how much we want to speak a language or how much of it we know, if we’re not exposed to that language on a daily basis, we simply forget it. It is very unfortunate, but it is a given truth.

There is no way around it, except to keep practising at least a bit every day. Even 10 minutes a day will do. Read news in that language, text a friend who speaks that language, download a book or an audio-book to your phone. Whatever suits you most, just practice a bit on a regular basis.

 

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