Is there such a thing as THE method to learn a second or foreign language?
I’ve been kindly invited to write a guest post for Mango Languages blog. If you still haven’t visited their blog, I recommend doing so. There are some very nice articles and insightful posts. I’ve decided to republish the post here after a couple of things I’ve observed in a couple of websites and some talks with teachers. I hope you enjoy reading it here if you haven’t read it there when it was published. Here goes…
How do you study languages? Many different methods and approaches have been used, and they all seem to come and go from time to time. Actually, they all seem to come and refuse to leave. If we think about the aged Grammar Translation way of teaching/learning a second or a foreign language and all that came after it, it might be shocking to see it’s still there. In regular schools in Brazil (where I live), for instance, it’s still the mainstream. Why is that? Well, for the very same reason that different approaches and methods have been created. Were we still living in a world in which there were very little chances to travel abroad, we’d probably be happy with such an approach.
But the world has changed (and has been changing). When people started feeling the need to actually speak foreign languages rather than simply being able to read a couple of disconnected sentences, it was clear that Grammar Translation wasn’t going to be of too much help. Hence, other methods came, and new ones kept coming for the past 100 years or so. As our need for collaboration and communication grew, people started taking second language learning more seriously. Some people tried comparing it to learning your first language, some methods advocated for the use of music, yet others claimed that mistakes were to be avoided at all costs. As usual, the many different methods rose and fell in popularity over time. Yet, they’ve all contributed something to the way we see Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and in particular English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).
Nowadays, at least in the Western civilization, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is considered mainstream. If you meet an English teacher and ask him or her about his teaching practices, you’re likely to hear something like, “I teach according to the principles of CLT.” Unfortunately, many of these teachers haven’t got a clue of what CLT means in terms of approach, design and procedures – they’re just doing what they were trained to do: repeating something. But this isn’t really the focus of this post…
In addition to CLT, the “modern” English teacher is likely to mention other methods as TBL (task-based learning), the Lexical Approach, and Dogme, which, by the way, has just turned 10 years old. If you add to these all of the other methods and the myriad language institutes which claim to follow methodology A, B, or C, you may wind up with a very big question mark floating over your head: What is the best methodology for one to learn a foreign language?
Methods (or methodologies) are created – hopefully – based on principles of SLA theories. There isn’t much we know about the way the brain works, but based on current research, we can attempt to take some guesses to answer the question. We’ve got three main views of SLA theories: behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Each one of these views present different perspectives towards language learning and teaching, and none should be discarded. Is there a better way to learn a second or foreign language? The answer can only be, “No, there isn’t.” If our answer is any different, we’re saying that we are sure all people learn the same way. We’re actually stating that we aren’t all unique and that one size does fit all. I’m one who does not share this view – an opinion formed both from personal observation and experience and from readings.
There’s still no magic pill or microchip that will make you speak a language instantly. However, there are things we believe will help you learn a foreign language. For instance, Krashen mentioned the hypothesis of comprehensible input (what is known as i + 1), and Swain mentioned the comprehensible output hypothesis. In terms of learning, any kind of learning, we tend to do better on tasks we learn by doing than the ones we learn by passively observing others. In language learning, we value input, and we know exposure is a necessary condition, yet definitely not the only one. And then comes learning strategies. The more you know about how you learn, the easier it will be for you to learn a foreign language.
To answer the question asked on the title of the post (again), I don’t believe there is such a thing as the method for language learning. There isn’t only one way for us to learn languages. But there are things I believe will always help. Interaction, negotiation of meaning, exposure, and authenticity will never, in my humble opinion, get in the way of your learning. Next time you wonder what method can help you learn a second or foreign language, start thinking about how you learn. This might lead you to the right answer.