Learning languages, possible for all

Our blog post comes from Andrew Weiler, who brings us a sneak peak into his book,  Language Learning Unlocked, with a selection of strategies for successful language learning. Andrew has been in the language teaching field for well over 30 years in various capacities, including language (mainly ESL) teacher, language consultant, teacher trainer, Director of Studies, language learning coach, blogger and author. You can read his blog at http://strategiesinlanguagelearning.com.

Learning a language IS as achievable as learning to bake a cake. The trouble is that most people are taught in the wrong way, given the wrong ingredients and strategies and hence their only experience is one of struggle. This is the experience world wide, with success rates for learning another language being VERY low.

This poor state of affairs continues despite the fact that ALL of us proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have the capacity to learn languages successfully. All of us learned our first language! And some of us even earned multiple languages simultaneously! But for some reason once we go to school everything changes. The success rates plummet!

The trouble is that most students are taught with methods that do not take into account the way they learned their first language. Instead they are given a meal of grammar exercises, vocabulary drills, rote memorization of phrases etc. None of these bear any relation to their practices in learning the first language. All of sudden most have trouble learning, and before too long they start thinking.” I am no good at learning XYZ language” This only gets confirmed every time they try taking on a new language course, or class.

When people attempt to learn English, for example, in later years, the results are not appreciably different, as they tend to replicate what they did before PLUS now they believe it is going to be hard. And you know what they say about the power of belief! If you believe it is going to be hard, it usually is!

What compounds the problem is that all manner of reasons are given why infants will learn languages easily and why adults will struggle. Children are wired for learning languages; they have no other problems to contend with, their minds are uncluttered, etc. Whereas adults have other priorities, they are slower, their memory is not as good, and the list goes on. Of course there may be some validity to some of the reasons given, but that is no reason to accept the huge turnaround that starts to occur once we go to school. If one is looking for excuses then they can be easily found, that is for sure.

There are those people who can learn English even under water as it were. These are the ones who figured out what to do and became so good at it that they can take virtually any input and turn it into learning. People compare themselves to them and end up despairing about their own paltry efforts.

So what do we need to do?

Teachers need to ensure that they look for ways of teaching that will engage the learners. Engagement is at the heart of learning that produces success as a language learner. There is a need to question what is regarded as language teaching and understand that we all have what it takes to become successful in speaking another language. The skilled teacher is one who helps the learner to uncover what is already there.

Sure there are complications and issues which will intervene, but if one works from the understandings that I have been expanding on here, then one can find ways around many of the problems that are commonly given as reasons why, “ S/he can’t learn”.

As a teacher, I have consistently used as a benchmark that if a student is not learning with what am I doing, then the fault lies with what I am doing and how I am doing that. I know I can change myself and what I do, but changing what other people do will only happen in a positive way if they want to play “the games” I introduce in the class.

Here are some suggestions as to what could be done:

  1. Ditch some of the practices and materials that you have been using.
  2. Grammar drills and study seldom produce fluency Understand that perception is what drives understanding. So situations which display clear meanings are a far better way to approach the teaching and learning of structures.
  3. “Don’t try to run before you can walk” – ask students to stay with the vocabulary that comfortably fits into what they can say with the language they have.
  4. Translating takes away from the opportunity for students to work on their perceptions and understanding. Instead have the students work towards being able to stay in the language being learned, using whatever means you can find for them to do that.
  5. Work at improving students’ listening and noticing capacities as they are a key without which language learning will not happen.

Listening and noticing is at the heart of learning a language. Infants are great examples of this. However older children and adults to can be encouraged to cultivate these capacities, should they have diminished over time. “Spoon feeding” learners works against the need for them to be attentive or to listen. Rather than provide answers, encourage students to work out the answers from what is provided

1. Start taking on practices that will lead to confidence building Learn to be on the lookout for practices that help build students abilities. Improvements that learners make, and they see they make them helps build confidence. After working on something for a while, the result should be a growth the students’ confidence. If they do not get that happening, something needs to be changed or you need to find another approach.

The critical factor as a teacher is to believe that students CAN learn languages successfully. Our beliefs are conveyed in everything we do. Students will pick up on that at some level, so it is important that we believe what we say. All humans have already proved that they can learn languages. So it is only a matter of finding what is stopping them and finding ways that work.

comment_jpg OVER TO YOU …

*What are your thoughts on Andrew’s strategies for unlocking language learning?
*Do you know any adult learners who have had success in learning a language? What do you think are their ‘secrets’?

 Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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