Have you ever wondered how on Earth that little Chinese girl learned to speak Chinese or how this young Arabic boy can pronounce these difficult Arabic sounds?
Let me let you in on a secret: they have about 10’000 hours’ worth of listening behind them.
Yes, you read that correctly!
Excluding sleep and admitting they are awake 12 hours per day, they get about 10’000 hours’ worth of listening to their mother tongue in two years.
And that is when they START to speak. Do you still envy babies and toddlers? I don’t.
You and I are WAY ahead of them. You can already speak at least one language and pronounce its sounds and you can already read in your language and understand high, abstracts concepts about language that actually make it easier for you to learn a language than it is for a child. Would you believe it.
Where then, is the problem?
The problem is two-fold:
- Lack of self-discipline, endurance and persistence
- Following an unnatural language learning path
The first is a separate post. Here, we will focus on the second problem, namely, following an unnatural language learning path.
The problems many face while learning a language is often due to following an unnatural language learning path.
So, first, how does that unnatural language learning path look like for a typical language student?
The path has varied a lot over the years and depending on factors such as:
- the language that is learned
- what the teaching strategies of the educational system happen to be at the time
- what a country’s culture and traditions dictate
Nowadays, for the most part, emphasis is put on learning to master the four skills simultaneously (listening, speaking, reading, writing) with a heavy focus on the speaking component (at least in Western countries). And in many countries, there is still a heavy focus on grammar.
I always get very worked up when I start speaking about grammar. I mean, have you ever seen a baby learning grammar before it learned to speak??!
Well, I believe you shouldn’t either. At least not with the focus it is still getting.
And though I believe in these four skills, I believe they should be taught in sequences rather than simultaneously. I believe it would be much easier on the brain and you would make quicker progress.
In the same way it would take a child WAY longer to learn the “four skills” simultaneously rather than just one at a time. We were not created to be multi-taskers on an on-going basis. It was meant for emergencies. Just like you can’t function on adrenaline 24/7. It would be unhealthy.
So, what does learning a language like a child, or “Natural Language Learning”, look like then?
According to me, here is what it looks like.
I’m going to be totally honest here and let you know this isn’t based on any “science” or “studies have shown that” or “research has proven that” stuff. It is based on down-to-earth observation of how children learn a language, what I have experienced personally to some degree and just basic common sense (sadly lacking these days in more places than just the educational system).
As we have already seen, most children have approximately 10’000 hours’ worth of “listening comprehension” behind them when they start speaking the language. That would be equivalent to you watching 10’000 hours’ worth of TV series without really understanding anything for a long time.
Do you see yourself watching TV series for hours on end without understanding anything before starting to speak? I always say that this is your test to see how long it will take you to start speaking a language fluently.
2. Pronunciation & Imitation of sounds
Next, babies start to babble and young toddlers start imitating sounds. They do that for quite a few months before they can start saying words and sentences correctly.
Can you picture yourself babbling the same sounds and words over and over again, even for just a couple of weeks? Many people find it downright embarrassing and sometimes even humiliating. Language learning is definitely not for the proud.
3. Repeating Words & Sentences
Next, children start repeating words & sentences.
Most people hate repetition, they find it boring. Yet repetition is what will drill the skill into your head. You wouldn’t really live in a half-finished house, would you? Good things take time and they are worth working and waiting for.
Once children can say a word or a sentence correctly, they will be so excited and proud they will say it over and over again and use it as soon as the correct opportunity presents itself. So should you.
You remember best by using what you know over and over again. This will help you internalize the words, sentence structure, etc. It moves your knowledge from passive knowledge to active knowledge and thus frees up “brain space” to learn new things.
Learn more about the surprising reason why your brain won’t learn.
4. Speaking & Conversation
Once children can pronounce words & even entire sentences, they will not wait to have a go at speaking & communicating their desires!
Here, the problem most adults face, is that they are way to self-conscious about speaking a foreign language, because they feel like children and like idiots.
You have to let go of all this if you want to speak French fluently soon.
5. Learning to Read & Pronounce Alphabet & words
It is only after children learn to speak, that they go to Kindergarten and learn the Alphabet and learn how to read.
I believe your ability to read entire texts and articles (aloud & silently) and your ability to understand them would be a lot easier if you spoke the language first.
6. Learning to write
Writing comes after reading.
It is no secret in the writing community that good writing skills come from good reading skills. How then, can anyone expect less (or more in this case!) from language students?
Finally, it is only after children can read and write, that they are taught to analyze their language. And most of them struggle, as you can probably relate to!
So, think about this for a second: if even native French speakers struggle with French Grammar lessons in school (like you probably did in your English class), then how could it be any less for students who are still LEARNING the language??
8. Audio & Text analysis, essays, synonyms, antonyms, presentations, etc.
And it is only many years later that audio & text analysis, essays and presentations are introduced.
I’m going to be bold and say that the process of language learning could be a lot faster if it respected the natural process for learning a language. It would save many students a lot of time, money and keep them from lack of motivation, discouragement and, in some severe cases, even depression.