Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Learning a Second Language: The First Three Crucial Steps

(Hold Your Mouse Over the SUSTAINABLE EXPATRIATISM Book Cover for Clickable Link)

SUSTAINABLE EXPATRIATISMWhen I recently spoke with my 16-year-old nephew, he told me he would not be enrolling in Spanish III in his high school studies. He stated the reason was that he was so frustrated because he could read simple prose in the language but could not speak it. I was going to entitle this article, "Why Jimmy Can't Speak Spanish" but what I really want to say in this piece applies to all languages and all attempts to learn them. This especially applies to the United States with its abysmal 96% failure rate in those second language instruction courses, like the one my nephew finished this semester.

The Three First Crucial Steps in acquiring (not learning) a second language are so radically ignored in almost 100% of foreign language instruction that it makes one wonder if anyone really is aware of them. Curriculum is so skewed in language classes that it just gives one pause as to who on earth designed the standard approach in foreign language instruction: The Janitors?

From most Junior High classes to courses at the University level, you will encounter second language classes that, by design, produce a mere 4% success rate. And, those who do go on to develop fluency in a second language, I am convinced, do so because they find other channels to achieve bilingualism once they see the traditional approach is the wrong one.


Dare I state the obvious that not one of us puny mortals came out of the womb producing speech? Though this should be obvious to every one of us who have had children, it painfully is not. Before speech began flowing from our mouths in the miracle of acquiring our native language, there was a period of silence. Parents recognize that children begin understanding bits and pieces of what we command them until one day they begin producing in the language themselves, usually in the form of verbally refusing to do what we tell them.

Production in our native or first language came after learning meaning. Learning meaning came via watching, listening, and engaging in the actions of our environment.

"I want a cookie" production in the language came after, not before, a few thousand repetitions of watching Mommy take a cookie out of the crinkly-sounding bag, thrusting it into the child's face, and saying the words, "Does Jimmy want a cookie?"

Soon, after this scene is replayed over and over, Jimmy learns what a cookie is, that it is kept in a crinkly bag, it tastes good, and the word cookie means something delicious.

The second language acquisition seeker must begin with a program of instruction that stresses listening to acquire meaning in the target language.

Listening to acquire meaning must precede trying to produce speech in the foreign language.

Comprehensible Input

If speech, or verbally producing in the language, is to be the natural outcome or result of meaningful listening in the target language, the listening has to make sense. This is where some will take issue with me, but it seems to be a bit of common sense that you didn't force your child to listen to Chaucer and then write a term paper. No, you exposed your child to material in both speech and with the age-appropriate books you read to them. Just as you tried speaking and reading to your child to his age or appropriate level, you have to do this in your attempt to acquire a new language. It is programmatic approach, albeit informal, in speaking and especially in reading to your child with level appropriateness.

Whether in the precious few private schools providing this approach or the home study material that is in abundance, you've got to begin with listening to loads and loads of comprehensible input. That means input that is linguistically level appropriate.

From there, you advance with incremental increases in difficulty.


Ability to comprehend in the language must precede trying to produce speech in the language. Just like speech comes much later, years actually, after we are born, this does not mean we are idle. We were always listening, watching, and engaging in our environment with our caregivers. Speech or language production came as the result, but not the means, to meaningful listening. One preceded the other. We could not say, "Mommy, I want a cookie" if we didn't know what those words meant. Listening plus meaning equals meaningful speech.

When we become familiar with the sounds and images—texture—of the new language, then we can begin to speak, often naturally and without prompting.

However, there are courses available on the market that are designed around this natural approach.

Look for those that concentrate on the aural method with few to no grammatical explanations.


Comments can be sent to Doug Bower at his website.

No comments: