Language acquisition is a natural growth process. Sometimes, people worry about their progress or apparent lack of progress. “Am I progressing like I need to be?” is a common question. Often, especially in intermediate levels, students say, “I felt like I was progressing but now I’ve hit a plateau. I don’t seem to be going forward at all!”
To the observer, growth is an uneven, sporadic, process. When we plant a tree, there are periods of time when nothing appears to be happening. Then, as if suddenly, all sorts of growth seems to take place. Any parent who buys clothes for their child understands this as well, with wise parents waiting to buy new clothes until after a growth spurt.
Is what we observe the whole picture? Is there anything happening when we don’t see any visible results? Is it possible, in fact likely even, that very important things are taking place even though we don’t see anything happening? It is my understanding that this is exactly what happens. Without development and growth of unseen, dependent aspects, the visible* part of language cannot possibly grow.
In a study regarding human growth spurts reported by Steven R. Leigh of the Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Urbana, it was found that while human growth spurts followed the same patterns as other primates, human growth spurts are shifted to very late absolute ages. This seems logical. The more complexity involved, the more dependent aspects there are.
How complex is language? For the past 100 years of so, education has treated language as if it were a MacDonald’s hamburger. Pay us some money, study a few minutes and you will get your burger. When the results weren’t what was expected, everyone just started working harder on what seemed to be the problems. So today you can take classes to help improve every aspect of language, as well as classes to help you use the language in every different conceivable way. All of this specialized effort is completely in the wrong direction, and demonstrates a general lack of understanding regarding what language is made of at the most basic, inner levels. Remember this… language is a normal, natural phenomenon, normally acquired with ease, and without teachers, classrooms, study, or anything else associated with schools.
So what about language development or growth? I wish to use a simple growth metaphor – that of the person who wishes to gain more weight. The science is simple. Take in more calories than you burn. You may focus on certain types of calories, but the lack of balance in a diet creates problems that have to then be corrected. Let’s imagine that I want to gain 10 kilos. What should my eating habits be? Do I eat 10 kilos today and then go weigh myself? What can I expect to have happen? I think the story would go something like this: I begin to eat more. I don’t gorge, then stop for a few days to let my body recover. I just regularly take in more, each day, than I burn each day. After about 1 week, I might weigh myself just to see if I’m making any progress. I begin to feel heavier, and after about 1 month, the changes are visible. Regular weighing shows that my growth is uneven. Some weeks I’ve increased by 2 kilos, some weeks there doesn’t seem to be any change. The trend is generally upwards, which means I’m reaching my goal. The most difficult part comes toward the end as I begin to feel like I’ll never reach my goal. Things aren’t as easy as at first. There seems to be long stretches of time during which nothing is happening.
Language acquisition is like gaining weight. People who try to gorge and get it all at once, in a very short time actually gain very little. On the input side, you need regular, steady, and balanced input. Input with regard to weight gain is related to what goes into your mouth. Input regarding language acquisition is what goes into your eyes and ears. Feed your brain with the language – again, we’re talking about eyes and ears here – not trying to say stuff!
Don’t fall into the common trap of focusing on output. Output with regard to weight gain is body mass (fat, muscle, etc.) Just as I don’t focus on fat in order to gain weight, neither do I focus on speaking in order to gain language. The reason that people make this mistake is because of the lack of understanding about what language is in it’s basic form.
After you’ve taken in quite a bit of language, you may want to weigh yourself. How can you do that? The tool that we use is a chart showing the growth path a learner is on. Perhaps one day, we will have a scale that shows how the brain is changing at any given time – but until then, there is no easy way to know what is happening inside our brain or how exactly it’s changing. Until then, I’ll describe our tool here just a bit.
We track the number of hours of comprehensible input, and using averages based on the growth of language learners over many years, identify where a person is likely to be. The hours of input can be compared to the number of calories. The comprehensible part can be compared to the type of food. In the same way that we can plant a tree and know that in 5 years it will bear fruit, with language growth, we can say that depending on the variables, after a certain number of hours, a person will be at a given point. Interestingly, this chart is the same curve of the charge rate for a capacitor. With batteries, we understand how they charge in terms of time and level of charge. With the brain, we are also dealing with electricity and chemicals, and it turns out that language acquisition follows an identical curve, seemingly indicating that again we’re dealing with natural processes.
Getting back to our analogy, regular input of hours (calories) will allow language to develop. That’s all. Your brain will digest the input (experiences) and provide what you need. This is not magic and it works for children everywhere in the world. It also works the same way for adults – if we understand how to do the same things children do. If you want to do something different (as in language classes everywhere) then expect different results. And the plateaus, what of them? Expect them. There are many things that happen inside your head that you’re not aware of. There’s no reason you should be aware of all the things your brain is doing in putting together it’s new language. Just trust it to do it’s work, in the same way you trust your stomach to digest your food and supply your body with what it needs.
* by visible I mean the parts that our senses are aware of, such as speaking and pronunciation.