Language Learning

About 15 years ago I planned on going into the field of language learning, but I got sidetracked along the way with flight simulation, computer-based training and the Web. Ken Carroll on Learning is a new blog, with a post this week on language learning, in this case Irish. Since we’ve been running circles around French Immersion in our province, Ken’s perspective may be a welcome change, especially since he’s the founder of the successful ChinesePod language learning service.

Here’s Ken on his own experience:

There is no single reason for the failure of traditional language teaching. It’s more like a constellation of bad pedagogy, irrelevant objectives, a school system that was calcified in another era, etc. Crowning it all was the illusion that you could and should teach a language to children, i.e. that you could/should explain it to them. The teachers’ focus was grammatical, rather than psychological - What are the structures of the language?, rather than How might we induce the language learning process?  It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that if the kids were encouraged to use the language they would pick it up painlessly and quickly. Nothing (and I mean nothing) could have been less relevant than lectures on declensions or the conjugation of prepositions (they do that in Irish) to a bunch of children, but that’s what we got.

3 Responses to “Language Learning”

  1. Karyn Romeis

    Perhaps I’m being naieve and simplistic (what – again?), but I always wonder why we don’t pay more attention to the way in which children gain mastery of their mother tongue.

    It is a case of immersion, yes, but there’s the process of learning labels for things to start with. Then they start stringing words together to make clumsy and faulty sentences to say things that are useful to them. They have no idea what verbs and cases are – they just use them.

    The city I live in is a melting pot of cultures and languages, and I have been toying with the idea of starting a conversational English session at my church. Dealing with real life scenarios: food, shopping, music. Learning by observation the words associated with these things and then applying them.

    Years ago, my (Afrikaans) next door neighbour asked me to help her daughters master conversational English. We did things like bath my baby, work in the garden, bake biscuits, apply for membership of the library, buy ice-creams… all in English.

    Sure, to start with, their sentences were abominably scrambled, but so were my kids’ when they started to speak English… and it was their mother tongue, so why would I expect anything different from a second language learner?

    I confess I’m not a language teacher (my original focus was speech), so I’m probably overlooking something fundamental.

  2. Harold

    There are almost no children who cannot learn their first language, so we know that language acquisition is innate. To me, that means that language learning should start early and doesn’t need a lot of “instruction”.

  3. Ken Carroll


    There are indeed similarites between first and second language acquisition (though they are not the same). Adult learners may need/want instruction by a teacher, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the real learning or ‘acquisition’ happens below the level of conscious activity. This is why immersion can be highly efficient – learners can focus on doing other useful tasks without explicit reference to the target language. It’s a true case of learning by doing.


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