July 2006 Newsletter
What really matters in language learning?
We are all wonderfully individual in all of our own little ways.
We are not the same size, nor quite the same shape. The colour of our hair, skin and eyes, even the shape of our fingers not to mention our finger prints, and many other small details vary from individual to individual, regardless of national group. We like different clothes and have different personalities.
This shows up when you learn English. Some of you read well but feel you have trouble understanding the spoken language, especially if it is spoken quickly. Some of you understand all right but are not confident in your writing. Some of you have good phrasing but poor pronunciation, or think you do. Some pronounce well but make mistakes when speaking, or think you do.
Are there things that are common to all learners? Are there things that everyone needs to work on? What really matters in language learning?
I am referring only to people who want to achieve fluency in a language, not to those who only want to have a few phrases for their next vacation.
In my view there are a few things that really matter when we learn a new language. First of all, there is vocabulary. We all need to learn words, many words. We get to know new words gradually. Seeing a word once, or studying it on a list, is not enough. We need to become familiar with new words, to know how they are used with other words in phrases. We achieve this by coming across the words we are learning in a variety of contexts. Gradually we start to feel comfortable with the meaning of these words and start putting these new words together in phrases in order to express ourselves.
Next we need to develop a sense for the language, without worrying about the parts of speech or grammar explanations. This can only be achieved through a lot of exposure to the language. A lot of listening and reading will give us a feeling for the rhythm of the new language.
If we know a lot of words, and I mean really know them, and if we have a sense for the rhythm of the language, then we will understand better and better when we listen and when we read. And as we get better we will want to listen and read more, because we enjoy doing so.
If we enjoy the language, and continue listening and reading, we will eventually be able to speak and write. At first we will be hesitant and timid. But our confidence will continue to grow and we will learn to speak and write well.
If we speak well, our pronunciation will be all right. It will be as good as it needs to be. I do not know anyone who speaks a foreign language well for whom pronunciation is a problem. Some people pronounce a foreign language better than others, but mostly it does not matter. Pronunciation is an area where we can all be a little different, just like our personalities and the clothes we wear.