Speak When You’re Ready

You know how, in most beginning and intermediate foreign language classes, the teacher explains a grammar principle, and then you practice speaking the language in pairs or small groups? If this is familiar, can you say from your personal experience that your practice in speaking the language has developed your ability to communicate fluently? Ignore what conventional wisdom dictates, and think about your actual personal results.

I’ve taught Spanish to both youth and adults, and in my first 2 1/2 years I used this traditional language practice method. Sadly, I saw little or no language improvement as a result of classroom speaking exercises. At first, I thought it was me. I felt bad that the students weren’t learning to speak or carry on even simple conversations expressing their own thoughts. I did a lot of research to find a better way.

You will find that I often refer to the findings of language education researchers. Everyone has their opinions about what is effective in language education, but I strongly prefer principles that are backed by credible research. One of the most important researchers in the field is Stephen Krashen. He has been a leader of effective language learning research for decades. In the last post, I quoted Krashen talking about comprehensible input. The quote goes on to refer to the ineffectiveness of producing language in the early stages of classroom instruction. Starting from where it began in the last post, Krashen continues, “the best methods are…those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready’, recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.” The traditional method of expecting students to produce contrived Spanish conversations from assigned textbook topics will never succeed in producing fluency. What does work well is using a few frequently-used Spanish phrases or verb forms in an engaging manner. Sufficient repetition in a relevant way provides input that a learner can comprehend and eventually acquire.

I have seen this working in the classroom. When a student has listened to enough comprehensible input to acquire a Spanish verb form or phrase, s/he then understands how and when to use it. This is the time when the student is ready to speak with confidence. My observation as a teacher and experience as a foreign language learner supports this. Spanish, and any other foreign language, is acquired by listening to comprehensible input, not by speaking before the language is acquired.

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).

How Can I Learn to Understand Spoken Spanish?

You may have heard of Spanish immersion classes. They involve hearing and speaking only the target language in class. As a concept, it seems like it must be effective, since the language is heard and seen all of the time. Regardless of how it seems, I have heard from some students in immersion classes that the classes were frustrating for them: they “didn’t understand anything the teacher was saying”; they didn’t retain the language, and, ultimately, they ended up believing they could never learn Spanish. What a tragedy! Everyone who can learn English as a native language can learn Spanish if they want. What was the problem?

In the last post, I mentioned that you need a large amount of exposure to the language, but not all language exposure is created equal. To learn from the Spanish that you see and hear, you have to be able to understand it as you see/hear it. When you understand what you are hearing, even if you are hearing it for the first time, you will benefit. When you don’t understand it, it does you no good. So, immersion can promote fluency, but only if the language being used is given in a comprehensible way.

How is it possible to understand a foreign language if you have never heard it before? In an educational format (e.g. a face to face classroom, an e-learning program, etc.), the translation needs to be visible, and the words need to come at a speed that is slow enough for you to translate and comprehend everything. It also should be given in the form of a relatively engaging story or information that is relevant for the learners. There is more, but this is a good beginning.

This positive language exposure, the kind that you understand, is called comprehensible input in educator lingo. Comprehensible, because you comprehend it. Input, because it is going into the learner’s mind.

Regarding the many ways that foreign languages can be taught, Stephen Krashen says “the best methods are…those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear.” Hearing and reading Spanish are good for learning only if you are understanding what you hear and read.

If you are trying to learn Spanish, but aren’t currently receiving the comprehensible kind of input, I invite you to subscribe to my blog. The first e-learning lesson using this methodology will be ready soon. I would also love to receive your comments and suggestions for improvement. In the meantime, subscribe for more posts about language acquisition principles and research findings.

¡Hasta pronto!

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).

Is It Possible to Learn Spanish Naturally?

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).