How Languages Are Learned

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This morning in class, the question of correcting came up again (see post from February 18).

A colleague, who subbed for me while I was on vacation, seems to have a noticeably different practice from my own and three of us started talking about this after class.

The issue of correcting someone while speaking raises a lot of questions concerning the process of language learning on the one hand, but also on the subject itself: what is it that we are actually learning? What is or should be in focus?

Speaking practice, grammatical accuracy, vocabulary improvement, specific topics (content based language learning) … There is no need to choose: all of these things of course, and more. But the question is: how do we best reach our goals? And what are our goals? What is it that we mainly want to do together with the language?

One thing that became clear to me is that every once in a while it is of utmost importance to clarify – or discuss – these questions and to reflect on how each of us believes we learn best. And to find out where our language learning concepts come from; e.g. have we really experienced an improvement after a certain activity or practice or do we just believe in the remedy (and how do we know in the first place).

It is important – and interesting – to talk about how to get to wherever it is we want to get to. And although I have studied the questions and (some) answers from research on Language Acquisition/Learning studies and have (some) ideas on ‘How Languages are Learned’ (or ‘learnt’), there is no one answer, one concept, one way. And if someone feels he or she would greatly profit from being corrected more often, I will, of course, try to comply.

The concrete effect on language improvement of the different things we do in language teaching and learning is not really provable. When asked which language items my substitute had corrected, my course member remembered only one. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t remember more in a given context, but who knows. Our memories are tricky things and what we don’t need or use any time soon gets lost rather quickly.

For any learning process to take place, for any skill to be retained, practice and repetition are of utmost importance. But what kind of practice? Language skills are complex, language itself is a very complex ‘organism’. To stick with the metaphor: it is alive, it changes, it varies, because it is a tool whose users are alive and change and vary.

Who, Mr or Ms Native Speaker of whatever variety it is you speak, are you to say your variety is the one to learn all the details of? Or the one that sets the standard. Nowadays, with so many people world wide having to, trying to or wishing to communicate in this one language called English – which really is many languages or ‘Englishes’ – we have to compromise, select and focus on what is important for our communicative needs to be served and our communication to be successful. Especially when time is scarce.

I have already commented on the issue of accuracy versus fluency (see post from July 7, 2013). When asked to correct more often, my first reaction – emotional reaction I must say – is always reluctance. Then, after a brief consideration, I point out that I do, occasionally (maybe more often than people realize), correct (trying not to sound to defensive as I find feed back of any kind of essential value).

And I do (correct), but in situations where it seems more important to get your thoughts across, my corrections only occur when necessary for clarification. I try to keep any communication situation as natural as possible. And correcting others while they are trying to convey thoughts is not only unnatural, but can actually disrupt the thoughts.

The class member who brought the issue up thought that being corrected on the spot might help him better to remember his mistake as it would be closer in time to him making it than if I pointed it out or focused on it in a later session. And maybe he is right. I honestly do not know. However, so many people have problems learning a foreign language not because they wouldn’t be able to, but because they are afraid of making mistakes. I find it more important to dare to communicate with others even when I feel my language skills are limited than to worry about native-like accuracy.

So much so that maybe, indeed, I pay too little attention to accuracy. I will think about it.

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