All over the world, young children move to foreign countries and through play and exposure, become native in that new language. At the same time, their parents spend time and money in language schools and with the exception of the first few months, never rise to the ability of their kids.
From this I am seeing two basic ways to think about language learning. The first way, the adult way, is how schools have been trying to teach language – structured and lots and lots of practice. The second way or child’s way, is to do what ever it is those young kids do – and NOT do the things they don’t!
What’s the difference? The adult way offers poor end results, a lot of work, and a 95% failure rate. The child’s way offers native useage, real communication, and a 100% success rate.
This choice should be a no brainer. But it’s not! We seem to be well ingrained with the idea that once we’re older, we simply cannot learn in the same ways as when we were young.
At risk of repeating myself, there is nothing to stop us from doing what young children do. It’s our added abilities that get in the way – the ability to translate, study, and do all those conscious things that make up the largest part of language classes. So the real problem appears to be this – we experience difficulty learning naturally, because we have an ability to grasp things consciously and through our own effort. What does it take to let go of that ability? Many of our students never do – and they wind up working at language learning and gaining the small gains they get from such effort.
For me, the bottom line is this: Which way produces the best results? The child’s way does – always. Does it take longer? No. It’s much faster but speaking begins after some time. The natural process requires that you wait for the ability to speak. Overall, nature provides us with the absolute most effective and efficient way of gaining a new language.
A student of mine was struggling over this point, and was about to decide that she would do both – the adult, hard work and practice way and the natural input way. I explained that these two ways are going in complete opposite directions. It’s probably impossible to actually do both at once. In any case, after she told me that the natural way took too long, I asked her how she would rate her English ability, compared with an American. She said somewhere around 30%. And how many years has she already studied? Over 10, with at least 1,500 hours of class time alone.
So why continue to invest more time, in a program that gives you 30% fluency after 1,500 hours? Going the child’s route, my student would be fluent already!