Have you ever wondered why most of the language lessons for adults are based on learning grammar? Couldn’t adults learn (or acquire) a language in a more natural way, like children?
When adults learn a new language, they usually try to find their way through a myriad of grammar rules and patterns because most of them would sign up for traditional language lessons. Some of them drop out of language lessons because it is too conceptional, too time consuming and out of touch with reality.
Children and adults have of course important cognitive and developmental differences, but this does not imply that language should be presented to adults as a rigid set of rules and patterns which are essential to master, preferably to a very high level of fluency before even attempting to speak it… – Adults tend to raise the bar unrealistically high when it comes to learning additional languages…
I know by my own experience, that we can acquire a language in a very child-like way. I acquired Swiss-German and Dutch in my 20ies and late 30ies, the same way I acquired German and Italian as a child: by listening and trying to imitate what was said.
I acquired Dutch alongside my son (who was then 2.5 years old), by repeating short sentences, singing songs with him, talking – and making many mistakes.
Of course, I had patterns and knowledge of other languages’ grammar and rules that made the acquisition process more systematic: for example I would compare the use of adjectives to similar languages I already had in my repertoire. And the ability to read helped me to understand the phonetic rules on another cognitive level than a child that doesn’t read yet. The whole acquisition process took place in a spontaneous way, which means that I would acquire the vocabulary of what I read and spoke about with people. I would copy the way people greet each other, what one says when leaving. I studied the folders at the supermarket and offices, read all the posters, signs and and children books, trying to figure out what the words meant, how they would possibly be pronounced. Swiss-German, is not a written language. One can only find the occasionally written sentence on posters and adverts, but for the rest, if you want to learn Swiss-German, you need to focus on understanding the speech. For both languages, Swiss-German and Dutch, I heavily relied on songs, TV and radio.
There is one aspect that plays a major role in language acquisition “the children’s way”, and that is the comprehensible input. If we can not make sense of what is said, because we don’t understand the context, we can’t acquire the language. Have a look at Prof. Stephen Krashen’s video about this:
Adults can acquire languages like children if they focus on comprehensible input, on contexts they need and are interested in. In addition they have the time and the courage to make mistakes are surely necessary to achieve good results.
For me, personally, a merely grammar based approach to learning a language has proven to be very ineffective and discouraging. Even when learning dead languages like Latin, Old Provencal and Old French, what worked for me was to understand and like (!) the context of the text, and to make sense of the rules that came with learning these languages.
I am a linguist, a philologist to be precise, and I teach languages since more than 30 years, to adults and teenagers. I have never had any problem of making someone speak, utter words, understand words and concepts, because I used the approach Kashen mentions. I teach privately which means that I can choose how and with what tools I teach the languages (German, Italian and French): I only choose tools that are interesting for my students, that they can understand and put in relation with what they know in the other languages they already speak.
Getting through the process of acquiring and learning multiple languages myself, learning about the language acquisition and learning process on a cognitive and neurological level, but also on a phonetic level (how to pronounce certain sounds), makes me focus on the speaking, on the communication first.
My language students choose the topics of our lessons and they discover grammar by reading, talking, writing about topics they like and need to become fluent in.
A way one can acquire a language as an adult is explained in this inspiring video:
At the moment (2020) I am trying to acquire Korean by watching Netflix series and exploring the language education feature on Netflix. I also try to understand the signs with the help of some apps and youtube videos. I have not the opportunity to live in Korea and enjoy full immersion in the language, which certainly would accelerate the language acquisition and learning process, but by merely listening to the language on a regular basis (almost every day approx. 1 hour), I hope to get some results within a year (or two).
– How do you managed to speak all your languages?