The headline “New study may revolutionize language learning” caught my eye the other day.
If I was hoping for a kind of miracle pill, or some means of downloading a language to my brain the way Neo learns Kung Fu in The Matrix, I would have been disappointed – the title of the article is a little optimistic. It don’t think this “discovery” is exactly revolutionary.
Nevertheless, it brings to the fore some “old knowledge” (as one of the commentators on the article puts it) that is worth revisiting for the language classroom.
The report suggests that the best way to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns, even if you haven’t a clue what it all means. Nothing new, perhaps, but how has this knowledge influenced teaching methodology, particularly when it comes to teaching beginners? Not much, it would appear. Beginner-level language courses still tend to launch into grammar from day one, and introduce vocabulary first in written form, before the learner ever has the chance to hear the language.
Without going into all the findings of the research, it rings true in the sense that this is surely the natural progression in first language acquisition: toddlers learn to speak by first listening, then imitating the sounds, and only then beginning gradually to formulate words in isolation. Not long after we moved to France I observed my 5-year old daughter begin to learn French from her school friends. I was fascinated one day to come across her babbling to herself unintelligibly much as you would expect a 2-year old to do. I realised that the sounds and intonation were not at all English-sounding, and it dawned on me that this “franco-babble” was an essential milestone for her in learning French.
Some feedback from a very brief Twitter conversation on the topic stipulated that that adults and children do not learn languages in the same way. This is undoubtedly true – it took my then-5 year-old only 7 months to reach the same level of French as her classmates – there are not many adults who could do that. As adults the way we learn a second (third, fourth etc.) language may differ significantly from the way we learnt our native language.
Nevertheless I wonder if the differences haven’t been overstated. This “new” research suggests that simply listening to a new language sets up the necessary structures in the brain required to learn the vocabulary.
One interesting line of enquiry which motivated the research was what makes it so difficult to learn foreign words when we are constantly learning new ones in our native language. It was found that even as adults each time we hear new combinations of sounds our brain develops new corresponding neural structures. The more exposure to the sounds, the better prepared we are to learn and retain the language.
The practical application of all this relates to how we can better harness the power of the Internet so that every hour in the language classroom is matched as much as possible with an hour of aural exposure to the language outside. In years gone by this kind of immersion was impossible – today we can surround ourselves with the sounds of a language through songs, movies, mp3s… according to this study language-learning is more about exercising brain tissue than learning facts, and an iPod may just be one of the best tools available for making those necessary neural connections when preparing to learn a language.
So what does that all mean for language teachers – should we not adopt the model of “trainer” or “coach” rather than “teacher”, if our role is to help learners exercise their linguistic neurons, rather than simply offload language facts. How should beginners’ classes look different? What if teaching “hello, good-bye, my name is , please and thank you” was replaced by a programme of listening to language spoken at a natural speed with activities designed to help learners identify and begin to practice the sounds of the language. How then should we help learners keep motivation levels high when swimming in long passages of spoken language before they have any “hooks” to hang recogniseable vocabulary on?
If you have any thoughts on this I would love to hear about it in the comments.
New study may revolutionize language learning, PhysOrg.com
For more discussion on these findings, E/FL 2.0 has an interesting post.