The headline « New study may revolutionize language learning » caught my eye the other day.

Blue pill red pillIf 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,

For more discussion on these findings, E/FL 2.0 has an interesting post.

photo credit: B Rosen cc

11 Commentaires

  1. 15 avril 2009 à 21 h 46 min

    Hi ya, Simon

    Very interesting points on acquisition. I’m still learning German and learned Spanish when I was in Ecuador.

    I definitely have noticed that my listening comprehension in both languages came first. Way, way, before being able to speak.

    But Spanish was much faster as there wasn’t any other option but to learn it and I was constantly surrounded by it. In Germany, so many people speak English that pretty quickly, they all speak that around me and I don’t get much real practice of my own.

    Still everyday I notice that I ‘understand’ more.

    I do agree that kids and adults are totally different but actually I wonder how much.

    The best way, of course, is to do some action research rather than just theorize so if I ever ‘have’ to learn a 3rd language I think I’ll make it a point to start learning by only listening (intensively) and see if I learn faster rather than launching straight into classes with endless grammar!


  2. 16 avril 2009 à 11 h 35 min

    Good thoughts Karenne. Like you I would be very interested to start learning a new language with intensive listening as an experiment. The hard part is finding the time, especially as I’m already trying to get my Spanish up to scratch.

    To my knowledge research on the differences in language acquistion in adults and children isn’t very conclusive. We assume that what we have already heard is correct, namely that after age 12 our capacity for language-learning is permanently altered. But not everyone agrees. Steve Kaufmann has some interesting thoughts on this, suggesting that adults are actually better language-learners than children.

  3. Tim-Reply
    11 août 2010 à 14 h 46 min

    Actually adults have much greater potential to learn faster than children. The more languages you learn the faster you are able to acquire new languages. I have passed 20 for conversational ability and mid-30s for comprehension of a news broadcast. I am faster now than every before. There are numerous reasons for this. Not all are analytical. The emotional aspect – being able to feel the language and the ability to identify with a new language and culture are critical.

  4. Elisa-Reply
    31 août 2010 à 11 h 56 min

    I’m 47 years old and I have been learning English for many years, but until 40 I didn’t study it intensely. Now I’m fluent,I attended different English courses, I like reading in English, and I’m fairly good on speaking. I couldn’t imagine to learn at my age this language and when I was at school I wasn’t so good , but I’m fond of it. By the way I’m confident in the way I speak.I think that the age it isn’t important in the process of learning, but it depends how much you like to learn new things.

  5. Tim 2-Reply
    3 septembre 2010 à 13 h 41 min

    If started to learn German, practically just by listening, as I live in Australia and travel to uni an hour each way four days a week so I listen to it in the car, which I’ve been doing for aprox a month so far.

  6. 11 janvier 2011 à 7 h 44 min

    OMG, I love all the things you’ve written, especially the last part. I’m learning French in that way, immerse in listening very much. I have a channel on youtube, with films being easy to listen. I hope there are s.o to help me improve that project ^^

  7. 31 janvier 2011 à 22 h 07 min

    Hi, just came across your 2009 blog about your daughter’s « franco babble. » I was struck by how much your description matched what I noticed with our grandson as I was writing my blog for (and I linked to yours). In my blog, I also describe the experience my husband and I had when we were learning Italian.
    I fully agree with you that Beginner-level language courses should be light on grammar and focus on listening first. That’s what we are trying with our program. We are currently beta testing the first few lessons of German 1 and will add a few French 1 lessons shortly. I would be interested in your thoughts.

  8. 28 août 2011 à 19 h 07 min

    I appreciate this article. I’m in my 50s and took German in High School. I’ve been trying to pick it up again over the past few years, but the vocabulary just enters my brain and leaves it immediately — but I’ve noticed that since downloading an app on my phone for Deutsche Welle and listening to the live news, etc., that the words « stick » much better as I try to learn them. I put absolutely no stress on myself to fully understand, but just listen — and I am picking up more in the past few weeks than I did in the past year using other means. I plan on continuing this…

  9. Kanjiboy-Reply
    6 février 2012 à 22 h 09 min

    I understand your concern with changing the way people learn language. But I think anyone who truly wants learn a language will do so at all means. First one must have a passion to move forward no matter what. It’s so easy to walk away but staying strong will win in the long run.

  10. englishlearner-Reply
    25 avril 2012 à 12 h 31 min

    The article isn’t really new but as far as I experienced it I’m able to confirm what is said here. Over a period of the last 5 month – did a 1 month break in between – I attended some university level online courses (30-40h a week). There were given in my second language English. Before I did this, I wasn’t really bad in English but due to the fact that I’m not surrounded by people that are able to understand English I would say I was far from being fluent in it. I could read an article (more slowly) or a listen to a podcast but forming my own sentences in real time was a hard task to do. Now, with this online course experience, I’m actually shocked how my brain rewired itself and the English sentences just pop out of my mouth. For sure there are still many words I was never exposed to and so I don’t understand every word all the time. But I would suppose that I went from B2 Level to a C1 Level in English and this just by listening. I did not expect this to happen so I’m really really exited. Funny fact is that I can really say I downloaded this language from the internet straight into my head – just like Neo did it. Got superpowers from the internet. Derp 😀

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