I say, ‘On Language Learning’, but more specifically I mean, old and annoying language learning methods which are still prevalent, but that wouldn’t be a catchy and concise title despite its accuracy.

The reason this is important is because I have (although still small) sufficient experience in this matter. It’s been the dream of many to learn a language, any language one might like, it was mine for a long time. I wanted to learn French at one point but gave up almost instantly. Actually, I barely even started because I just didn’t know what to do. And this is where majority of people also give up, because they just don’t know how to even learn any language, let alone the one language in particular they’ve decided on.

You pick a language and you immediately google some phrases or buy a phrasebook, not a bad start. Nowadays, you might just open DuoLingo straight away as your ‘resource’ and then a week later you buy a textbook. Seems logical, right? Suddenly your overwhelmed by lots of information and phrases that you just can’t remember no matter how long you stare at them for. Let’s say you’re a little dedicated and manage to do this for several weeks. Then your motivation starts slacking, its already Friday and you’ve done no studying, so you make up for it with a 3 hour grammar/flashcard session on the weekend. Repeat. Sound familiar?

Of course it does, I’ve been guilty of it myself and I’ve seen others do it too. But why? Why do we all approach language learning this way? It’s hard to pinpoint a specific answer, but my guess is that because the actual research on this matter (second-language acquisition) has still not reached a popular level, certainly not the publishing world or majority of the international teaching community.

Let me paint thee a picture. Normally when you open a generic textbook or phrasebook on the language you’re learning, you’re met with isolated nouns and surprisingly useless phrases. How do you know what is useful and what is not? Sadly, there is no way to know if this is the first second-language you’re learning, but let me tell you for free that what is useless is the following:

  • What is your favourite sport?
  • Where is the toilet?
  • Polar bear.
  • Grey.
  • Cucumber.
  • Ankle.
  • Designer
  • Sink

You may think, how random? But that is actually what you see in these books. When I first started teaching English in Moscow, I would often encounter children who had some beginner or elementary level, but they couldn’t speak or understand anything I said. If I showed them vegetables or pictures of an animal, they could name it, but if I asked them, ‘How was your day at school?’, they’d simply stare at me blankly not understanding anything, and could not give me answers with more than a maximum of two words. I knew a couple of people who had been learning english for 10-15 years, they had a substantial passive vocabulary, but still spoke very hesitantly and constantly made basic grammar mistakes, ‘He was went to shopping’, for example.

How is this possible after so much time?! Because they would learn single words, learn grammar rules and then try to construct sentences. This, so I’m told, is partly why majority of Russian speakers are very unforgiving, despite their best intentions. They’re incessant with grammar corrections because this is how they’ve been taught as the correct way to learn a language: through perfect grammar. Sounds intuitive, but it’s totally wrong.

This is the problem. And it plagues language learning world, Russia is but one example with which I can speak to from experience. That problem: learning shapes, colours, animals and grammar rules, but still can’t actually understand what you hear or have any small conversation beyond, ‘How are you?… I’m fine… where are you from?’.

You don’t need to know every colour, every animal, every shape, every body part, every household object or every profession, you will encounter these words and naturally remember them if they are genuinely useful!

Case in point, when I started learning Russian, in my textbook I saw lists upon lists of isolated words (not so handy when you’re learning a slavic language where the words almost always change their endings). Even in some Russian lessons I took in Moscow, my teacher would insist upon drilling names of fruit and vegetables and ‘restaurant scenarios’. It was just an absolute waste of time. We don’t need to know every single vegetable to get by in a restaurant. Another example, I once made a flashcard deck of about 20 colours. Never remembered them, the colours which I did acquire and know effortlessly are the colours that I kept seeing and hearing, which was about four of them: red, black, white, green. Chestnut-brown or amber was not vital to my having a conversation with native speakers…

I was lucky enough to discover the futility of all this quite soon after I began studying Russian a little under a year ago, because I was intent on knowing how to learn a language properly as much as I was on learning Russian.

So, what’s the solution? I’m not the bearer of all answers, but the answer partly lies in a crucial distinction. Think back to those people I mentioned who had been learning for 10-15 years. You see, that’s the thing, they had been learning English, they hadn’t been acquiring English. Language learning and language acquisition are two very different beasts. Learning is when we study and use the brain to make conscious effort. Acquisition is simply when we ‘pick something up’.

Okay then, how do we acquire a language? Here I must intrude the words of the man who first made this distinction. In a renowned lecture in 1980’s, Prof. Stephen Krashen declared that,

‘The central hypothesis of the theory is that language acquisition occurs in only one way: by understanding messages.’

We do not learn a language through forced memorisation, endless flashcards, wordlists, grammar rules, declension tables, recitation and neither through, as Krashen claims, speaking.

Speaking is the mere activation of your passive vocabulary, the production of what you already know i.e. what you can already understand. You cannot say what you do not understand, and you cannot converse with somebody whom you do not understand.

We can summarise this approach further in to just two words, for which Krashen is most famous for, and it goes as follows:

Comprehensible Input

You need to expose yourself to a lot of input which is authentic (from real native sources), comprehensible (you can understand at least 80% of what is being communicated), enjoyable (material which you actually like, films, series, stories or articles which interest you).

Theoretically speaking, it’s that simple. The rest is up to you.

It perhaps wasn’t a ‘quick’ rant, but I’m a philosopher, 1,147 words is very quick for me.