The Natural Language Learning Process
Think about how you learned your native language. You may not remember the details, but it went something like this: At first, the language was a combination of random sounds, maybe like listening to a symphony of words. It was impossible to figure out where one word ended and another one began. Current research says that around six months of age you started to know that mama and dada (or something similar) were the names of your parents. If we follow the symphony analogy, you were starting to be able to pick out the sound of one of the instruments (e.g. oboe, violin, etc…) once in awhile. At approximately one year you started to recognize that words represent things. You knew hundreds of words, but could only speak a few. At a year and a half, you probably understood entire sentences, and could speak in phrases of two or three words. You learned the language by listening to it, not by speaking. You understood it first, and speaking came later, naturally.
As you grew a little older, you were able to use English grammar without needing to know the written rules. You made many mistakes as you learned, but kept trying and improving with each error. After hearing the language spoken by people around you long enough, you were able to recognize when it sounded right. When you learned the grammar rules later, they sounded right (most of the time) only because you already spoke the language. You spoke first, and the rules came later. You became able to self-correct as you got older, and, still today, you can feel whether something sounds right or not.
Some Good News about Language Learning as an Adult
Have you ever wondered, “Can I learn Spanish as an adult? Is it worth trying, or am I just wasting my time?” Adults can learn a second language faster than children, according to research and personal experience. You simply need to receive a second language in a way that your brain can process efficiently. As an adult, the most effective method for learning a language combines the best of how you learned as a child with the improved mental capacity that you developed as you got older.
Your mind is still wired to learn language in a way that is similar to when you were a child, with an important difference. Your thinking abilities have been developed by your life experiences. This is a positive difference. You can actually learn to fluently speak Spanish in the same amount of time, or less, than it takes a child to learn. What do I mean by “fluently”? A fluent speaker can communicate confidently and understandably.
According to Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California and author of over 350 papers and books, “It is true that those who begin a second language as children have a better chance of sounding native than those who start as adults, but years of research on second language acquisition have shown that older acquirers progress more quickly than younger acquirers in the early stages (older children are faster than younger, adults are faster than children). Most important, those who begin second languages as adults, given enough opportunity, can reach very high levels of proficiency in second languages” (Krashen, 2003, p. 26)
The key is making a foreign language understandable. Language teaching expert Blaine Ray, MA, a Spanish teacher for 25 years, well-known teacher trainer, keynote speaker, and author of several Spanish textbooks and novelas, points out that becoming fluent in a second (or third or fourth) language is accomplished by hearing and understanding it. He summarizes current research in the field: “If a person understands messages in the target language, s/he cannot prevent the acquisition of that language. Learning to speak a language comes from hearing it. Reading helps a person advance in learning the language and structures, but generally fluency comes from hearing” (Ray & Seely, 2010, p. 7).
Here is a short video of Stephen Krashen demonstrating this concept:
Even though hearing is the most important element in becoming fluent, reading has an important role, and cannot be ignored. Krashen expresses this scientific finding about voluntary reading in a foreign language: “There is overwhelming evidence for recreational reading as a means of increasing second-language competence. In fact, it is now perhaps the most thoroughly investigated and best-supported technique we have in the field of second-language pedagogy. Only one aspect of recreational reading remains uninvestigated: Why isn’t it used more frequently in second-language programs? (Krashen, 2003, p. 26)” The important thing about reading is that it be understandable and interesting to the learner.
In summary, you can learn Spanish best and easiest by hearing and reading something you understand in the language. And, contrary to the excuses made by failed popular language methods, adults can learn language faster than children.
I invite you to give it a try for yourself. Leave a comment below if you would like me to send you a link to Lesson One as soon as it is ready. I believe that you’ll like it, and will be surprised at how much beginning Spanish you understand after just one lesson.
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).
Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.
Ray, B., and Seely, C. (2010). Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. Eagle Mountain: Command Performance Language Institutes and Blaine Ray Workshops.