In our previous article we described a typical scenario faced by most adult learners who are learning a second language today. They want to master a language and they want to do it fast. After a little research on the internet, they decide to invest a great deal of money in the latest “fail-safe” Spanish course supposedly created by experts that got so many people talking overnight. (You wonder where these speakers are!) After working hard watching videos and doing grammar and vocabulary exercises over and over again, they come to the conclusion that although they may have learned a lot of vocabulary and phrases, if they had to engage in one conversing with a real native speaker of the language, they would be in serious trouble.
I am sure many of you will relate to this situation, and unfortunately this is a common scenario today. Adult learners are generally drawn to the very idea of learning Spanish (or any other language!) Without any physical limits or time constraints. They find the idea of learning a language anytime appealing, in the comfort of their living rooms, bedrooms, or even their bathrooms. Time or place are not that important, they say. Why work with a teacher if you have everything you need on a small CD or DVD? There are so many videos there, native speaker voices, vocabulary exercises, audio exercises, pronunciation practice, etc., that the idea of having an instructor actually “teach” you anything seems to be a thing of the past.
However, no matter how much time, money, and effort you may put into making this program work for them, you will soon be faced with the harsh reality:
Fact # 1
You cannot learn a language without interaction.
The empirical research in First Language Acquisition and Second Language Acquisition clearly shows that without interaction, language acquisition cannot take place. Clear and simple, right? The leading linguists and neurolinguists specializing in language acquisition agree on this: interaction with another human being is essential to acquiring a language. If you did your homework and read the articles I suggested last week, you may have a clearer picture in this regard now. The following passage is a quote from an article published by TIME magazine on January 8, 2006 titled “Want a Smarter Baby?” Based on studies by Patricia Kuhl, PhD. Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl is co-director of the Brain Sciences and Learning Institute at the University of Washington. His research focuses on language acquisition and language processing by the brain.
“CDs and DVDs designed to teach a baby Spanish or Chinese are also problematic. Patricia Kuhl, who is studying acquisition at the University of Washington, conducted an experiment comparing the effects of Chinese audio recordings for children and a human from speaks Chinese. Native Mandarin speaker plays with a group of babies while speaking Chinese for 12 sessions of 25 minutes each over a four-week period. Later, she tested the babies and was able to show that they recognized the sounds of Mandarin. But when repeated the experiment with three control groups (a group of babies who saw the Chinese speaker play with babies on video, another who listened to an audio recording of the Chinese woman playing, and a third who had no exposure to the Chinese speaker) none seem to perceive the sounds of Mandarin. The presence of a living, breathing human being was essential. There is a lesson for any parent who wants to encourage early learning. experts agree that what matters the most is not the toy that the baby plays with, but the ways in which you interact with him (…) But the good news is that none of this costs money. Babies prefer humans to anything inanimate.
A key difference between human interaction and even the most sophisticated educational tool is that interpersonal exchanges involve all the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and, most importantly, touch. “
What are the implications of Dr. Kuhl’s research for you, a student interested in acquiring a second language? Although his research is based on the acquisition of the first language Y in infants, and although there are some differences between the acquisition of the first and the second language, as well as the acquisition of language in children and adults, one fact remains the same:
To acquire a language you need someone to interact with!
This raises too many questions about the effectiveness of so-called “failsafe” language programs on DVD or CD-ROM, intended to replace the teacher or even any contact with the real Spanish world. Why? Because even if they were the best materials money can buy, there is something they cannot provide you:
Many say they are interactive, simply because you have to do something yourself to get the computer to continue or evaluate you. But is that really interaction? No way. Currently, no program has the ability to follow even a basic conversation with someone, whether they are native or non-native. They can only process simple responses and not offer an actual sample or feedback on how the language is used in the real world. These materials could be considered, at best, good complements to a language course taught by a real human being. However, claiming that they are the “ultimate solution” or “the only tool you will ever need” or even claiming that they “will fully immerse you in your new language so that you learn quickly and retain what you learn” is totally false.
Dr. Kuhl’s findings agree with those of Stephen Krashen, probably the most authoritative word in the field of second language acquisition. Stephen Krashen (University of Southern California) is an expert in the field of linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition and development. Much of your recent research has involved the study of bilingual and non-English language acquisition.
After extensive research on second language acquisition, he came to the following conclusions:
“Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammar rules and does not require tedious exercises.”
What do most language courses offer almost exclusively? Grammar rules and A LOT of exercise (and when I say A LOT I mean it!)
“Acquisition requires significant interaction in the target language, natural communication, in which speakers are not concerned with the form of their expressions, but with the messages they convey and understand.”
What do ALL the courses offer on DVD and CD ROM? A total focus on sentence form. How you say something is more important to them than the context in which it is said.
What don’t those courses offer? Meaningful communication. You cannot communicate with anyone simply because there is no one there for you! You are only talking to a language software. Is that a real immersion in the language? Would you consider the main focus to be getting students to convey meaning and understanding?
“Therefore, the best methods are those that provide ‘understandable information’ in low anxiety situations, that contain messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready’, recognizing that improvement comes from providing communicative and understandable inputs, and not from forcing and correcting production “.
Traditional courses on DVD and CD Rom FORCE students to produce from the first contact they have with the new language. There is only ONE and NOT two or three answers. Communication is not the focus. It is form. Does this appear to be in line with these empirical findings on how languages are acquired? Definitely not!
“In the real world, conversations with supportive native speakers who are willing to help the buyer understand is very helpful.”
Can you really have a conversation with a CD Rom or DVD? You can repeat and hopefully learn a few sentences at best, just like a parrot. Does that mean a parrot can communicate? Does that mean that YOU will learn to speak only from those sources?
In conclusion, as we have seen, any successful language program must incorporate real opportunities for students to interact, to engage in meaningful communication.
Think and reflect on the two questions we asked in our previous article:
1) Why do most language courses fail over and over again?
2) Are audio and video courses per se enough to make you a proficient second language speaker? What does the research on first language acquisition say on this topic?
If you have any comments on this article, please feel free to contact me.
Your comments and suggestions are more than welcome. I hope to hear from you.
I hope you enjoyed this first issue as much as I did while creating it.
Have a great week!