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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