Learning Languages

by Mark White (2005)

We learn our first language easily. As we hear sounds we connect them to things and ideas and then after we have built up a repertoire of sounds/words that we understand, we start to use them as meaningful language. The whole process is largely automatic and unconscious. We just pick it up as we go along. Why is it so difficult to learn a second language?

Many of us learn a second language in a school, in a classroom, with a teacher. But what do these terms “school” and “classroom” and “teacher” mean? Many schools have strict rules and in many classrooms, students are afraid to speak and many teachers focus more on evaluating students and ranking them in an order rather than making sure that everybody in the room has understood and is able to use the material that is being taught. Is it surprising that this kind of environment is not very conducive to language learning?

Nowadays many language teachers have realized that the traditional classroom differs so much from the environment where we learn our first language, that perhaps the difficulties associated with learning a second language stem from the environment in which they are taught. Stephen Krashen devised the common sense theory that we have a filter in our consciousness (the affective filter), which allows a lot of information to come in and stay there when we are relaxed and happy and enthusiastic. In the same way, when we are bored, scared or under pressure, it is more difficult to remember things. Why is it then that many schools make people bored and scared and put them under pressure?

Let’s not think about the answer to that question right now, but rather let’s just consider one thing: if we can create a learning environment where people are happy and enthusiastic about what they are doing, then the time spent learning will be more efficient. A simple example is when you are doing something for fun, like reading a really interesting book (in your own language) and you come across a word that you do not know, you look it up and then you remember it forever. Could it be that if we do something that is interesting and meaningful to our own lives, we retain it, and if we are bored and disinterested and only attend because we are forced to, we retain little other than an unpleasant memory of a stifling atmosphere.

How can we make language learning more fun and more efficient? On this website, we have tried to create interesting materials so that students can use them as a resource to learn for fun. Most of all we want people to have fun. That is why we have not posted any “lesson plans” or “pre-listening tasks” or “post-listening tasks” or “comprehension questions” or “listen and fill in the missing word” type activities to go with the conversations that we post. The idea is that as students listen to the conversations and read the transcripts, if they are genuinely interested in what they are doing, they will retain the information that they take in, and they will learn the language incidentally.

If we start evaluating students then we are taking the focus away from the material and what it might mean, and putting it on the fact that somebody is testing somebody else; somebody is evaluating somebody else. This is unnatural and stressful and we (at English Conversations) think it actually inhibits learning and works against our goal, which is education (not evaluation).

When people try to define what language is, they often get confused because language is many things. Among others things, language is song. If we listen to conversations in the same way that we listen to music and just allow our ears to get used to the sounds and our minds to follow the thoughts that arise as we listen, then that is enough. Just relax, listen and enjoy. If you are working on your own with this website, that is all you need to do.

If you are a teacher and you have to teach large groups of students in a room where they sit in rows and face you and the administration of your school insists that you have to evaluate the students or if you disagree with the theory that evaluation interferes with education then you can still use our materials by writing your own comprehension questions like

What did John ask Miyako?
What did she answer?
What did Yumie say?
How many speakers were there in the conversation?
Where is Yumie from?
etc. etc. etc.

The problem with this approach is the focus has been shifted from the meaning and content of the material to the teacher’s goal of evaluating. The teacher wants the students to perform a certain task so that the teacher can see which student is the best. This may benefit some students.

There are many types of learners and learning styles and each learner has a different profile. Some are very competitive and this type of system is good for them. For others, however, it is too artificial and their eyes glaze over with boredom as they mentally realize: “Oh! Another hoop that I have to jump through, as if I were some kind of performing animal.”

The problem here is that the activity is not meaningful. The only reason the students are doing the activity is that the teacher wants them to do it so they can be evaluated.

An American friend was teaching English to some Somali refugees who had recently arrived in the United States and were illiterate in their own language and had never been to any school anywhere before this. The teacher asked one of the students, “What is your name?” The student replied. The teacher then asked another student in the room, “What is her name?” The second student looked at the teacher as if she were an idiot. The teacher had just heard the answer to the question, so why was she asking it again?

In this case the Somali student did not understand the point of this abstract activity designed (by the teacher) to illustrate the difference between “your name” and “her name” because she had not before encountered an environment where these types of abstract activities were commonplace. The teacher thought it a good way to illustrate the point but the student did not find it meaningful.

Some students are happy to do things that have no meaning other than ranking them in an order. Others are not and grow bored and listless or become frustrated and drop out because they are looking for something meaningful. We are all hunting meaning; trying to track it down.

When we teach we have to make compromises according to the type of institution where we work, but why not supplement the normal evaluation type activities with genuine meaningful activities and questions that sometimes even we do not know the answer to? Why not push the students out on a limb and get them to grapple with meaning in places where even we teachers have not been able to go? We may be surprised by what students come up with. For example, instead of asking a comprehension question where the answer is in the text, why not ask an open-ended question like “What do you think of this guy(a person in one of the dialogs)?” The whole idea is to get beyond the language and interest the student in the material and make the language learning incidental to what is happening.

Life itself is interesting. Everybody has a story and everyone is interested in something. If we can tap into this resource and start to use a second language as a tool to solve problems then the actual language learning will take place automatically and unconsciously as it did when we were children.

Links to More Lessons on More Pages

The Work Page

Routine and Habit – The Routine Page

Verbs in Context in Many Tenses with Audio

Philosophy of Grammar and the Idea of Verbs as Actions

Verbs and Tenses – The Tense Page


Present Participle or Gerund or “ing” Form

Verbal Phrases 1 (with Audio)

Verbal Phrases 2 (with Audio)

Verbal Phrases 3 (with Audio)

Verbal phrases 4 (with Audio)
Verbal Phrases 5 (with Audio)

Verbal Phrases 6 (with Audio)


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    sample cont

  112. saravanan says:

    Solution is fantastic

  113. shahrazad says:

    many thanks to your advice , iam trying and trying to speake english fleuntly but some times i can’t becues i forget some words or the meaning of some words so i stope to talk untile i remember the meaning of the words or the senteses that is helpe me to continue speake english fleuntly and other proplem i faced one dayes that i can’t understand all the questions they ask me , so help me how i can solve this proplem
    sincerly

  114. Mark says:

    Thank you for this simple, clear work. I feel some inspiration after reading it.

    A major consideration to take into account is the tremendous amount of thinking it’s going to take to make language learning unconscious and automatic and cover the 15 Units of grammar structures I have to present over a one month cycle.

    I’ll get started one unit at a time!

  115. Aaron says:

    Dear Raj…

    Thank you for your comments and advice. They were very insightful.

    Our intent is not to teach English online, but rather to simply provide some free audio-based content for learners. We do not, unfortunately, have the time or resources to provide a comprehensive learning system on a graded level.

    As for weblogs, I think WordPress.com has the best free blogs available. However, it’s social networking features are a bit lacking. Vox.com seems to have better social networking features.

    Good luck with your language learning!

    Aaron 🙂

  116. Raj Kundalya says:

    Dear Aaron,

    Thanks a lot for your valuable advice. As suggested by you that I should attempt to conversate others in english language or involve myself with social networks which would enble me to find the people of similar interests. Thats fine and can be done by anyone provided the people living around you are well qualified and posses ample knowledge of english language.

    The place where I live is a quite remote area where educational institutions are very rare. Apart from this, the standard of the education is not up to the mark when it comes to english language. So, in that case the only hope lies in the weblog. In case you suggest me any, I shall be grateful to you.

    My motive in life is to posses as much knowledge of english language as is necessary to be proficient. The people around me don’t posses that much knowledge and hence are unable to help me to attain that level. therefore, speaking with them in english language will not make me well versed. This is not only my case, you will find a host of countries particularly the third world where education standard is not good enough, particularly at remote areas. Therefore, your site must come up with a viable solution to these people who are eager to learn english but due to some reasons or other could not learn it.

    My suggestions in this regard are as follows: –

    1. First of all categorise students/ learners according to their english knowledge or rather english grammar knowledge.
    2. Chalk out a programme which envolves everything viz. grammar, vocabulary, question answers, comments etc.
    3. An article on weekly basis should be published and distributed among the learners according to the category and their comments on the article, how much they have been able to understand it, what is the theme of the article, and their suggestions can be sought on the same.

    I think these activities will certainly be able to infuse vigour into the learners who are really aspiring to learn english language. Apart from this, a common platform can be make for the learners from different countries so that they would be able to interact with each other. This will not only help in their english language but enable them to understand about other’s religion, culture, customs etc.

    Kindly comment on the above.

    With Warm regards,

    Raj Kundalya

  117. Treza says:

    I was really impressed with this article and I agree with the point that teaching the second language in school is only aiming to rank students and put them in orders. i took a lot of English courses besides my study in schools and faculty but my problem is that I can’t speak fleuntly in English. I don’t know what shall I do to speak English fleuntly.

  118. apc33 says:

    Hi Raj…

    Thank you for your well written and insightful comments. I am glad that you have found some of the material on our site of value. It makes happy to know that people all over the world can benefit from the material here.

    As for making your learning more interesting, I think you are doing just the right thing: making an attempt to connect and converse with others in the English language by writing such well composed messages on topics that interest you.

    If I were you, I might try getting involved in some English language social networks (which will put you in touch with people who share similar interests) and I would also consider keeping a weblog (if you don’t already), to give you daily practice at communicating in English with an audience who reads (and listens) to what you have to say. You can start conversations that way and improve your English at the same time.

    Please ask if you have any questions or further comments. I’d be happy to share with you more of my ideas as well.

    Sincerely,

    Aaron

  119. Raj Kundalya says:

    Dear Sir,

    I have gone through your article “On Learning Languages” and find it very very interesting. I have been learning English on my own for the last some years. This is because I don’t have money to pay to expensive English institutions for this purpose. I also never miss a chance to go through the articles on how to learn english, the best way to learn english, etc. suggested in various online english websites and the general ways suggested in these articles are as follows: –

    1. Improve your grammar.
    2. Enhance your vocabulary.
    3. Listen to english music.
    4. Conversate with native english speaker.

    The guidelines provided above, I can follow only first 3 steps. You would be surprised to know that I am a poor guy living in remote area in India. How can I find a native English speaker there?

    As you suggested that untill unless we make our learning interesting it would be difficult for us to remember the things that we actually want to learn. I agree with your views. This is the fact and I have experienced this also.

    Now according to the suggestions given by the various sites, I have tried my level best to follow the instruction accordingly. But I would like to bring to your kind notice that sometime after doing/ following these instructions, I get bored and find myself going nowhere.

    Now, my questions/ requests are “How can I make my learning interesting? As you know, after sometime I get bored while learning. What are the ways that you like to suggest to come out of this situtation?

    Also I would also like to know, how do you find my english while going through this mail?

    I shall be grateful if you could kindly bestow your valuable advice on me to enable me to enlighten my english learning.

    Looking forward to have a positive response from your side.

    With war regards,

    raj kundalya

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