I’ve already talked several times about different keys to learning a language, but today I want to get them down to the most important two, the ones that will make us understand the process by which languages are actually acquired.
I believe that once we realize the importance of these two keys and make them part of our journey, we’re going to understand how the process really works, what the best ways to learn a language are and what we need to do in order to be able to learn any language.
Like I’ve said many times before, our “friend” the traditional grammar approach makes us believe that these two keys work exactly the other way around, and that’s why we need to change our mindset a little bit. We’re too used to the traditional grammar approach that limits our language experience.
Let’s finally get to the two keys that will help us understand the process by which languages are actually acquired:
1. Comprehensible input is the key to the whole process
The traditional grammar approach tells us that after consciously learning the grammar rules of the language and memorizing vocabulary lists, we need to speak or as we call it “practice” in order to keep improving and make that knowledge “automatic” so we can actually use the language.
However, all of us who have come out to the real world know that this moment never comes and that improvement never seems to really happen.
The problem is that the traditional grammar approach reverses the law of causation. It tells us that our output is the cause of our improvement, but we’ve already seen that’s certainly not the case. Our ability to speak is actually a consequence of the improvement we’ve experienced through getting tons and tons of comprehensible input.
So the process actually works like this: we need to get tons and tons of comprehensible input so we can process the language in our brains and so our ability to speak starts to show up as a consequence of it.
Our output is then a consequence and not the cause of our improvement like we always thought.
I’ve already talked many times about the fact that we don’t experience any direct improvement whatsoever when speaking, since this is just a consequence. Obviously, we do improve indirectly when speaking because talking to someone means you’re going to get a response, and that’s a real source for comprehensible input.
This is the reason why people who go live to the country where their target language is spoken end up acquiring it. We’ve always given output the credit, but it actually happens because of how much input or information that particular person has access to.
It is essential that we understand this concept and put the law of causation back in its place, because that way we’ll be able to focus on what really matters and what we really need in order to keep improving, which is nothing but getting comprehensible input. That is all we need.
It is also essential that we understand this because “thanks” to this wrong concept that the traditional grammar approach has taught us, the #1 cause of frustration in a language student will show up.
Because we believe that output is what we need to keep improving, we keep forcing it all the time, and that’s the point where frustration for not being able to speak the way we’d like to in a given moment kicks in. I constantly witness how language students get frustrated when trying to speak when they’re not ready for it.
The example of kids and their native language shows us once again that they get comprehensible input for quite a while until they’re ready to start speaking. I’m not saying that we have to wait as long as they do to start speaking, I just want you to understand how the process actually works so you don’t get frustrated when you’re not able to speak the way you’d like to. And believe me, that moment is bound to make an appearance. I perfectly understand that we adults want to be able to speak as soon as possible, but the process just doesn’t work like that and we’re going to end up getting frustrated.
So I encourage you to speak as much as you want, but please keep in mind that it’s perfectly okay if you can’t speak the way you’d like to in a given moment. The process simple works like that. Pay attention to the fact that our ability to understand is always well ahead of our ability to speak.
To sum things up, all we need in order to keep improving is get more comprehensible input, and once we understand that, we’re going to be able to focus on what’s really important and forget about ability to speak to some extent, since our output will start to show up as a consequence of it. With that being said, there’s nothing wrong with trying to speak, like I said.
Here you can access my free eBook “The World of Languages”, in which you’ll find ideas, keys and resources to keep improving on your own and get the necessary input through interesting and pleasant activities.
2. The process is subconscious
This is the second of the 2 big keys to learning any language. I already talked in more detail in other article about the fact that the true language acquisition process is actually subconscious, but I’d like to mention it here as well because of its importance to understanding the whole process.
The traditional grammar approach teaches us to learn languages consciously, to use our memory… and, not only does this not work, but it also makes the process tremendously painful and boring, which ultimately leads to many people giving up on languages.
Because we’ve grown accustomed to making grammar exercises and exams in which we have all the time in the world to think about what we want to answer, we believe this is the way to learn languages. However, we’ve already seen that the real world just doesn’t work like that, because that conscious knowledge makes us constantly have to think about everything we want to say during a conversation, and this is just not possible during a real time conversation. That’s why we keep witnessing that sort of hesitant speech with a lot of pauses when someone speaks in a foreign language, because that person is trying to access that conscious knowledge. This process is also tremendously painful, and that’s why we’re so tired after just a few minutes speaking this way.
On the other side, the true language acquisition process is subconscious. That’s why we speak spontaneously and naturally when we use our native language, without having to consciously think about what we want to say. And the idea is to follow the same principles so the same thing happens with foreign languages.
Then, through getting comprehensible input, we’ll be able to process the language in our brain and build a mental representation of it, so our ability to speak eventually shows up. This is nothing but the same process by which we all acquired our native language, and it is subconscious.
We don’t know how we acquired our native language because of our lack of consciousness, and that is why uncertainty plays a certain role in this subconscious process, but I’ve already talked many times about the fact that we’ll be able to challenge this uncertainty when we see that we can understand more and more of the language and when our ability to speak starts to manifest. At the end of the day, we’re following the same principles by which we all acquired our native languages, so the process is going to be successful.
So to wrap things up, we need to forget about both wanting to conscious control every single word, phrase or structure and using our memory, and simply focus on getting comprehensible input. When we understand what is being said to us we’re improving, it is really that simple. You’ll also see that the process is way more pleasant this way.
Thanks for reading this article and I truly hope it helped you understand how the process actually works and see that language acquisition is not that boring, tough, challenging task that we thought it was. And don’t forget that we can ALL acquire ANY language while enjoying the process.