Sunday, August 2, 2009

Language Learning in the Real World for Non-beginners

"Language Learning in the Real World for Non-beginners"

by Greg Thomson

1.1. Key principles of design for an ongoing language learning program

Language learning is at once complex and simple. When I think of the complexity of language learning, I'm amazed that people succeed. As a linguist, I have spent much of my life puzzling over the complexities of language, and I feel I still understand so very little about any language. Yet people do learn new languages, not only as children, but also as adolescents and as adults. Observing that process only increases my sense of wonder. People learn far more than they are aware that they are learning. How do they do it?

Fortunately, the bulk of the complexity of language learning is handled by your brain, without your even being aware of it. You simply need to give your brain the right opportunity, and it takes over from there. That is where language learning becomes simple. "Giving your brain the right opportunity" can be boiled down to three principles which are easy to grasp, easy to remember and easy to apply:

-- Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible input. That is, expose yourself to massive doses of speech (and perhaps writing) that you can understand, while gradually increasing the difficulty level.

-- Principle II: Engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking. That is, engage in extensive two-way conversational interaction, and other speaking and writing activities.

-- Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language you are learning. That is, learn all you can about their lives, experiences, and beliefs. Do this in and through the language.


Your language learning experience can be divided into four phases. As I say, during the first weeks of your language learning, you were able to understand speech provided it was well supported by pictures, objects or actions. For example, if you were learning English, and I merely told you, "The bump in the middle of my face is my nose", with my hands folded in my lap, and a blank expression on my face, you would not have had a clue what I was saying. But if I pointed at my nose, and said "This is my nose", and then pointed at my mouth and said "This is my mouth", and then at my ear and said, "This is my ear", and then back at my nose and said, "This is my nose," there would have been a good chance you would understand the meaning of "This is my nose", etc. That is because the meaning of what you heard would be made clear by what you saw. In the same way you would quickly come to be able to understand simple descriptions of pictures. That's life in Stage I.


Even though you are now beyond Stage I, you will still find that, other things being equal, it is easier to understand someone's description of a picture if you can see the picture than if you can't. That would even be true if you were listening to your mother tongue, but it is much more the case when you are listening to a language that you are still learning. In the case of your mother tongue, even when you can't see a picture that is being described, you can clearly recognize the words that the speaker is using, and understand the spoken sentences in a general way.

During Stage II, you can understand speech if the content is fairly predictable. The main contribution of pictures during Stage I was that they made the content of what was being said partly predictable. But, in listening to statements about pictures, you were typically hearing only single sentences, or at best short sequences of sentences. Assuming you now have developed some skill in understanding isolated sentences and short sequences of sentences, you need to start working on learning to understand longer sequences of sentences. However, in order for you to understand long sequences of sentences at Stage II, the content still needs somehow to be predictable. Here is a simple example of how that is possible. Consider the story of Goldilocks. If you grew up in the English speaking world, you probably know this story well. At the beginning of Stage II you can have someone tell you the story of Goldilocks in your new language, and to your delight, you will find that you can follow what is being said with good understanding of most sentences right as they are spoken. And so you are indeed able to follow a long sequence of sentences with good understanding. You have thus moved from understanding isolated sentences and short sequences of sentences to understanding long sequences of connected sentences. We will have more to say below regarding ways to do this.

At Stage II then, you are able to understand long sequences of sentences provided the content is fairly predictable. Getting comprehensible input at this stage may mean continuing to expose yourself to speech which is supported by pictures, objects or actions, but it can also mean exposing yourself to a large amount of speech which has this property of predictability, as illustrated by the story of Goldilocks.

Since, in addition to the language, the culture and local history is also new to you, there will be many topics which are common, familiar topics to all native speakers of the language, but which are unfamiliar topics for you. Even fairly straightforward accounts of recent events may baffle you because you are unfamiliar with the general nature of such events, and with the general beliefs associated with such events. Thus you will want to spend a lot of time during this stage making yourself familiar with new topics and types of events that are common in the culture. As you do this, you will increase your ability to understand speech to which you are exposed. I will provide suggestions as to how to do this below. But in the broadest sense, your goal remains the same: get massive comprehensible input. That is, expose yourself to masses of speech (and possibly writing) that you can understand...

Eventually you will reach the point where most of the speech that you hear around you in most situations is reasonably intelligible to you. That is Stage IV. At that point, continuing to receive massive comprehensible input will be a matter of lifestyle. If you choose a lifestyle which largely isolates you from people speaking the language, your progress in acquiring the language will slow to a snail's pace, or cease altogether. But since you are well aware of that, you will put a lot of thought and effort into finding a lifestyle which will support your continued progress in the language, right?


To sum up, Principle II is another way of saying that you learn to talk by talking. You might say that you learn how to talk by being exposed to massive comprehensible input, but ultimately you only learn to talk if you talk.

Given what we have said about Principle I, and Principle II, we might consider the following formula to come close to the truth:

Massive comprehensible input + extensive conversational practice = powerful language learning

Assuming you have a strategy for getting comprehensible input, and for getting conversational practice, the path to powerful language learning could hardly be more simple.

1.3.2 You can't speak well unless you can speak poorly.

Now you may be thinking that I'm ignoring your main concern. You feel that no matter how you struggle, you are unable to get the grammar right. If you have been learning the language through a formal language course, mastering the grammar may seem to be the central challenge. Perhaps you even got low marks because of all your errors of grammar. Well, I have good news for you. Errors are great! From here on in, you get high marks for errors, at least in my book, and hopefully, in your own book, too. If you're not making errors, you're not breaking new ground. The pathway to accurate speech is through error-filled speech. I therefore suggest that you move your concern for grammatical accuracy away from center stage. Concentrate on getting comprehensible input and conversation practice, and watch your grammatical accuracy improve without your even focusing on it. I will later suggest ways that you can focus on grammar, as well, but that will be more with a view to mopping up persistent problem areas.


Have you ever observed a real person learning English as his or her second language? If you have observed such a person over an extended period, you will have noticed that s/he began by speaking English very poorly, and gradually improved until, hopefully, s/he came to speak English well. It always works like that in real life. Granted some people do better than others both during the early weeks, and in terms of their overall rate of progress, and ultimate attainment, but nobody starts out speaking perfectly. Developing good speaking ability is always a gradual process. I can't understand why my high school French teacher and others like her hadn't noticed that.

When you are first learning a new language, your personal version of the language is very different from the version used by the native speakers...

The existence of interlanguages is one of the main reasons we know that brains know how to learn languages. The interlanguages of people learning a given language, let's say, learning English, go through similar stages, regardless of their mother tongue. For example most people go through this same sequence of patterns in learning to form negative sentences in English...

I say all of this to reassure you that if you keep exposing yourself to comprehensible input, and keep persisting in conversational practice, your speech will keep getting better. Some perfectionistic people don't like this. They would prefer to speak perfectly, or not at all. Well, if you are such a person, swallow your pride. Speak badly. The way to come to be able to speak well is to speak badly for an extended period of time.

So then, speaking the language imperfectly is essential.


Principle III says that you must learn to know the people whose language you are learning. All three principles are interdependent. Principle III, like Principle II, is closely related to Principle I (i.e., expose yourself to massive comprehensible input)...

But as we saw in the case of the English word Christmas, learning vocabulary means learning about the areas of human experience to which the vocabulary relates. Or take the word bottle. What if I say, "She screamed and screamed until her mother stuck a bottle in her mouth"? Or how about, "If my husband doesn't get off the bottle, I'm leaving him"? Or perhaps, "We found a note in a bottle". What rich areas of cultural experience, knowledge and belief are linked to this word bottle! Even a simple word like rain is associated with the experience and beliefs of the speech community which uses the word. Knowing vocabulary, which is a key to comprehending input, cannot be separated from knowing the world of the people who speak the language you are learning.

PriIII is also relevant to Principle II, (i.e., engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking). You want to learn to talk about any topic that people talk about. The more you know the right words and phrases, the less you will have to rely on communication strategies. And it is not just a matter of knowing the right words and phrases, and the areas of human experience that these relate to. As you get to know the people well, you also come to know the sorts of things that people talk about, and the ways that they talk about those things...

In another essay (Thomson, 1993c), I explain how that to learn a language is to become part of a group of people. Every language defines group of people, namely, the group of people who accept that language as their contract for communication. When people share a language it means that they agree with one another on a grand scale, and in very deep rooted ways, with regard to how to communicate....

Now, your new language belongs to a different speech community with a different culture, and different shared life experiences. You may share some of the schemas (or, if you prefer, schemata) which arise out of their life experience, but there will be many that you do not share. The more different the new culture is from your olone, the more serious this problem becomes...

There is much that people will tell you about how you should and should not behave. Be aware, that the cultural value system is more complex than those who follow it are aware of, and often the "rule" you are told will be an oversimplification. So you need to keep observing as well as listening.

So then, a basic ingredient of successful language learning is learning to know the people who speak the language, learning to know them in depth, and in detail, learning a large body of knowledge and belief which is shared by all normal speakers of the language, learning about the types of social relationships that exist, and learning values that govern behaviour, including speech behaviour. Some of the techniques and activities discussed below will be in part motivated by Principle III...

When I speak of X number of hours spent on language learning, I am referring to three types of activities. The central activities involve structured language sessions in which a speaker of the language works with you in communication activities which help you to increase your ability to understand and to speak the language. You should tape record some or all of what goes on in your session in order to listen to it later, and possibly to go over parts of it in a subsequent session.

The second set of activities are private ones. For example, you may spend a lot of time listening to the tapes that you made in your sessions. You may also write up your observations regarding how the language works, and add vocabulary items to your personal dictionary. If there is a body of literature in the language, you may do extensive reading in it as a private activity. You may also watch television or listen to the radio. So long as you can understand what you are hearing, this will contribute to your acquiring the language. You may also spend some time reading books or articles about the language. Reading about how the grammar works can benefit your language learning in various ways.

The third set of activities are those involved in developing and carrying on a social life. For some people this comes easily. For people like me, it doesn't happen unless I make it happen. Therefore it really helps if social visiting and other social activities can be made a part of my daily work goals. Thus if I spend thirty hours per week on language learning, these thirty hours might include ten hours spent in language sessions, ten hours of private activities (including the time spent planning and preparing for the language sessions), and ten hours of social visiting and other participation in social activities. Different people will have different blends of these three components, but you should devote reasonable attention to each.

To summarize, the three components of your language learning program are

1. Formal language sessions with someone who is providing comprehensible input and opportunities for extemporaneous speaking.

2. Private activities in which you listen to tapes, read, write, and plan.

3. Social activities in which you use the language, either in understanding messages, in uttering messages, or both.

2.2. Whom do you have?

To become a speaker of a language is to come into relationships. In the broadest sense, you come into a relationship with everyone who speaks the language, in that a language can be thought of a contract which all its users have tacitly agreed to follow. But you will have many specific relationships that are essential to your language learning progress. You cannot learn a language without the right relationships with people.For example, you cannot learn a language very well if your main source of input is television and radio, though these can be valuable resources in a balanced language learning program. From the standpoint of your language learning, the important relationships are of three types:

1. Language Resource Person(s) [ LRP's].

2. Other people with whom you spend a fair amount of time communicating--friends, fellow employees, your parole officer, etc.

3. People with whom you interact in very specific types of encounters, such as the postman, the butcher, or the judge.

A popular catch word in the field of foreign language education is proficiency (see Higgs, 1984; Omaggio, 1986). By proficiency is meant the ability to use the language for authentic purposes in real-life communication situations. A proficiency oriented course will thus be organized around real life communications situations. You might wonder why anyone would want to learn to use the language for any other purposes.

Strange as it may seem, I believe that it is easy to misapply this concept. I knew someone who said that the language learner living in the second language community should never learn anything that s/he does not specifically plan to use in communication. This person offered the example of a friend who had needed to buy shoes. The friend therefore spent several hours memorizing some specific sentences for use in buying shoes, went out and said the sentences from memory to the shoe seller, and returned home excited at having used the language for an authentic purpose. The problem is, how often do you buy shoes? Perhaps some of the sentences will carry over to other situations, but still, it probably isn't realistic to spend several hours memorizing specific sentences for narrowly defined communication situations. There is simply too much to learn and too few hours available for learning it...

There is a related movement for learning languages for specific purposes (Widdowson, 1983). It is recognized that learners will be more motivated to learn material which relates to their area of special need or special interest. For example, if a man is planning to work as a nurse in Thailand, then he will be more motivated to learn if the material he is learning is going to be useful in talking to patients and to other health professionals. Once again, a word of caution is in order. I once heard a nonnative English speaker fluently lecture and answer questions related to his special academic field. While answering one of the questions he started to talk about a party he had recently been to, and quickly became tongue-tied. He could talk about his specialized field almost like a native speaker, but he was not nearly as capable of talking about everyday life. Consider our nurse once again. Once he is in his hospital in Thailand he will be getting extensive exposure to the language of nurses and doctors as they talk to patients and talk to each other on work related matters. Obviously he will want to have some basic ability in dealing with such communication before starting work, but you can pretty well guarantee that, in the course of his day to day work, the nurse will have extensive opportunity to improve his job-related speaking ability, even if he develops little ability to use the language for any other purpose. So then, if you have extra time off the job to devote to language learning, there is much to be said for using some of it to improve your general speaking ability, rather than working further on your job-related speaking ability...

Like other aspects of language and culture, you can learn a certain amount about the rules for conversational interaction by careful observation. However, again as with other aspects of language and culture, you will acquire a large amount subconsciously through massive exposure to people who are conducting conversational interactions.

3.1.5. Focusing on special aspects of the language

If you're at all like me, you probably keep wondering when I will get around to talking about learning the grammar of the language, and improving the accuracy with which you speak the language. How do you find your mistakes? How do you overcome them?

Actually, I haven't been ignoring this issue. First of all, I pointed out that the vast majority of grammatical features of the language, and rules for interaction in the language, you will absorb from comprehensible input in your language sessions and real life situations. As you become thoroughly familiar with the language, you will naturally acquire the ability to use the language correctly with respect to countless details. You will not be aware of most of those details. If you are a linguist, you may be aware of a lot of details. But even if you are a linguist, you will acquire far more than you will be aware of, simply by becoming thoroughly familiar with the language, through massive exposure to comprehensible input.

Secondly, I have talked about things you might do when communication is difficult or when it breaks down. This may happen, for example, while you are relating your activities of the previous day to your LRP. In that case the breakdown may occur because you lack certain vocabulary or sentence patterns. Similarly, if you are unable to understand part of what your LRP or friend says to you, it may be because you lack vocabulary or sentence patterns, or it may be because you lack some area of knowledge regarding local life and culture. When the problem involves a sentence pattern that you have not learned, I suggested that you engage in some communication activity that will provide you with a large amount of exposure to that pattern. For example, Carol Orwig recently told me of learning Nugunu, an African language in which there is a special verb tense form that is used for events which occurred on the previous day, as opposed to events further in the past. It was easy for her to get a lot of exposure to this form by getting people to recount their previous day's activities. And it was easy to get a lot of practice using this form by recounting her own previous day's activities.

Most grammatical details will naturally occur with high frequency in specific kinds of speech. With a small amount of ingenuity you should be able to think of a way to engage in communication which will contain a large number of examples of the particular sentence form you wish to focus on...

There used to be a widespread belief that the learner would benefit from drilling in various ways on particular sentence patterns in the abstract, apart from using the patterns meaningfully in communication. The benefits of such pattern drills have been generally called into question. Your goal is not to be able to produce the pattern as an end in itself, but to use it in communication. You can get just as much practice using a pattern in communication as you can manipulating it in a meaningless pattern drill. Also, designers of pattern drills tended to have the students drill on patterns regardless of whether or not they were ones that caused difficulty. In current language courses, such drills are not used nearly as much nor as widely as they once were, since it is recognized that students need to be learning to communicate extemporaneously in the language. When the students' ability to communicate is hindered by their lack of familiarity with a particular sentence pattern, then it is common practice to stop and focus on that pattern. Or if students consistently make certain errors, there may be some focus on the problem. But the more common concern nowadays is to get the students using the language extemporaneously, both as listeners and as speakers.

Closely related to the issue of grammar is the question of whether you should get people to tell you whenever you "make a mistake". There is a near universal belief among language learners that it is desirable to have every error corrected right while they speak. They may tell people, "Please tell me whenever I make a mistake." But does this really make sense? Remember, it is normal to start out speaking very "poorly" and gradually get better and better. How can people correct every mistake? For a long time, unless you only say things that you have memorized, almost everything you say will be a "mistake" in the sense that you will not say it in the best or most natural way. But you'll get better if you keep talking and talking, and keep being exposed to language that is correctly formed, and within the range of what you can currently understand. The widely accepted view today is that you should mainly concentrate on communicating. Concentrate on understanding people, and on getting your point across. If you do that, your speech will improve. But if people really were to correct your every "mistake", you would get very little communicating done, since you would spend most of your time talking about the form of the language, rather than using the language as best you can to convey your desired meaning...

.2. Stage III language learning activities

That was fast! You're already at Stage III. Imagine how much slower your progress would have been if you had left matters to chance. You might have eventually reached Stage III, and you might not have. You might have developed a certain level of speaking ability, and then become extremely "fluent" in speaking at that low level, without much further improvement. This is called fossilization. But you haven't fossilized, because you have followed a strategy for exposing yourself to concentrated comprehensible input, and for getting extensive practice at extemporaneous speaking. If in addition to using powerful strategies during Stage II, you also used powerful and appropriate strategies during Stage I, and assuming the language is of average difficulty, then you'll have only been learning it for three or four months and already you'll have reached Stage III. Stage III is a long stage. You'll be in Stage III for many months.

At all stages, the goals are the same: get massive comprehensible input, engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking, and get to know the people who speak the language you are learning. Achieving these goals gets easier as you go...

3.2.2. Becoming familiar with unfamiliar topics

However, there is something far more important than getting people to talk to you on familiar topics. There is a severe limit to how far that can take you. What is more important is for you to increase the number of local topics with which you are familiar. This takes us back to the matter of schemas, and the fact that successful communication depends on a large body of shared knowledge and experience. Recall how your understanding of my traffic ticket anecdote depended on your knowing the general schema of how traffic tickets are given in North America. Each culture has a large number of schemas that are partly or wholly unique to it. Also, there will be schemas which are important in your new culture which were far less important in your original culture. I go many years at a time in Canada without ever attending a wedding, and when I do, it is quickly over. In Pakistan, by contrast, weddings are one of the major social events. They are very elaborate, and the activities associated with engagements and weddings go on for days. Now a Pakistani learning my culture would probably think that s/he needed to quickly learn the general Canadian wedding schema. Of course, it is something s/he needs to learn, but it is far less important than s/he might imagine. A Canadian in Pakistan might likewise under-estimate the importance of learning the wedding schema. In either case, it would be a serious mistake to assume that just because the two cultures both have weddings, the schemas are the same, or even similar....

Chapter 4. Conclusion

As I said at the outset, all you really need to remember are three key principles:

-- Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible input (possibly including written input).

-- Principle II: Engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking (and possibly writing).

-- Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language you are learning.

The rest of what I have written was intended to make these principles meaningful.


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