I was exploring different Spanish language programs online the other day, as I do from time to time, and came across a fairly new player on the mega-product market. On their website was a sample lesson. In the lesson, the company co-founder made a statement that grabbed my attention. You know that I claim my teaching methodology enables you to learn in a way that works with how your brain is naturally wired to learn languages. That’s why it surprised me to hear the following comment from someone who designs language learning software:
“We don’t believe there is such a thing as natural, or easy learning…Anybody tells you differently is just selling something.”
I had to chuckle because of the humanness that she was showing. Her comments were intended to sell the viewer on her language system. So, I suppose that it could truly be said that if someone tells you there is no such thing as natural learning, they are trying to sell you something. She clearly believes in what she’s doing. If she is devoting her energy to creating her product, she should passionately believe it is the best. I also believe that it takes consistent effort to become fluent in a language, and that there is no “easy” way, although some ways are easier (more natural) for your brain than others. Nevertheless, I believe that she has no idea of how incorrect she is about learning Spanish naturally.
A distinction is needed here between the terms “learning” and “acquiring”. When I say “Learn Spanish Naturally”, I am really describing the process of acquiring Spanish, and I think that most people understand it this way. But, in the language teaching community, learning and acquiring a language are two very different things. What’s the difference?
Stephen Krashen, linguistics expert and publisher of more than 350 books and articles, states that, “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drills.” Research by Krashen and others proves that learning about a language by practicing formal grammar drills is completely different than acquiring a language. Learning about a language is what most schools accomplish. That’s why students can’t speak the language very well when the semester is done, even if they get an “A” in the class. Language learning and language acquisition are mutually exclusive. You can’t become fluent in Spanish or any other language through a conscious process of learning about the grammar rules.
In contrast, acquiring a language is what I want to do if I’m going to travel to another country, or talk with a Spanish-speaking co-worker, employee or friend. When Spanish is acquired (not “learned”), you are understanding what a native speaker says, and you know how to reply without needing to consciously scan your memory to review conjugations and verb tenses before stuttering a self-conscious reply. Click here to see a short video from my last post that shows Krashen demonstrating this concept.
Is there a place for understanding grammar rules? Yes, but it is secondary, at best. As we are acquiring language patterns in Spanish, it can help to know what grammar patterns exist in the language (but with little or no detail about the specifics of the rule). After we acquire a specific language form, it can help to understand rules about how the pattern consistently works. As long as it helps us fit the bigger picture together of what we have already acquired, knowing a grammar rule can be helpful. But, if we learn rules too soon, acquisition of the language is hindered.
It’s kind of like someone trying to figure out in advance all of the different angles and possibilities of something before actually just trying it. My dad used to tell me, “Don’t overthink it.” That was wisdom. That is also how language acquisition works. You are able to just naturally reply in conversation without overthinking all the rules and conjugations. Isn’t that what happens when you speak in your native English? You acquired the language first, and later you learned (or didn’t learn) the grammar rules in English class at school.
Spanish can be acquired in a way that naturally works with the way your brain is designed to pick up languages. You don’t need grammar drills or memorization of large vocabulary lists. You need a large amount of exposure to the language, hearing and reading it in a focused way that enables your mind to understand everything it hears and/or sees. It also helps to see how the language is used in a scenario that is relevant to your needs.
Have you tried learning a foreign language? Do you agree with the difference between language learning and language acquisition as explained above? Please leave a comment to share your thoughts.
Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).