Why Don't We Teach Language How We Learn Language
French verb conjugations (If you took a french class you had these on flashcards at some point).
Under the right conditions, the brain really is amazing at picking up languages. Our minds can absorb them like a sponge. But, you have to be immersed in a language for this brain mechanism to kick. We all go through this with our first language (or languages, for those who grew up in multilingual households).
When we learn the first time as toddlers, we don’t know how to speak but we’re around people who all do so we just listen to them all day, mimicking them and eventually becoming fluent. A few people do this later on in life as well, usually when moving to a new country. While not their first time learning a language, if they are consistently around native speakers they will likely absorb the language much like they did when they were babies, oftentimes without a noticeable accent in the new language.
There’s no strict prescription for “immersion”, either. A Korean friend of mine just watched cartoons all day when his family moved to Japan, and he said this plus school was enough to become 100% fluent without an accent. Other people may have a significant other who only speaks the other language, and this becomes their immersion experience. When I first moved to Spain I only spoke Spanish except for a weekly call home, most of this Spanish conversation taking place in the bar at my University. I forced myself to sink into the language as deeply as possible, though I found an admittedly fun way to do it by just hanging out with the other Linguistics students, drinking coffee eating tortilla and sipping on kalimotxo.
The physiology of language acquisition is hotly debated, but it is widely agreed that the brain has some sort of mechanism that begins acquiring the ability to understand a language when you’re immersed in it. So, why don’t we use this more when we teach language?
Most language classes are from a grammatical standpoint, especially beginner classes. We are taught verb conjugations, pronouns, etc, and yet very little time is spent actually spent simulating immersion. And very few people, if any, become fluent from just a class. When I graduated with a degree in Spanish Linguistics, I walked with a lot of people who had taken years (if not decades) of Spanish class but who spoke it horribly.
I’m not saying grammar is bad to know when learning a language; I think it provides a shortcut in some places, and can be a useful mental model. But part of me thinks that grammar is just the icing on the cake, and to really teach language intuitively we should drastically increase the amount of immersion-like activities we use.
If you took a sixth-grade Spanish class and showed them The Simpsons in Spanish every other day instead of the normal curriculum, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a big uptick in fluency. I personally drastically improved my French by watching science fiction movies (Dark City was a favorite) in the language over and over. First with subtitles in English, then subtitles in French, then no subtitles at all. I would be very curious to find out, because it feels like the current system of teaching a language in the classroom is missing a key component by not using our natural strengths.
- Jack Connor