During the past two years, I have extensively read about Second Language Learning theories in connection with some university activities.
I started learning English in 5th grade—which means I was about 10. But I wasn’t a good student. In fact, I sucked in foreign languages at school (except Ancient Latin ironically). So after 6 years, I finally gave up English with a failing grade in school.
In short, I hated English. And I’m not even kidding. After my last session I vowed to a friend that I would never ever do anything related to English again.
Ah, the irony.
So what happened, you may ask now?
Actually, Star Trek happened. Not even a year after my vow, I became a huge Star Trek fan, and back then (it was the 1990s) most of the novelizations had not been translated to German. So my only option was to read the English books.
The first 50-100 pages of the first English book I read were hell. I still remember it like it was yesterday: Jeri Taylor’s “Mosaic”. But I really wanted to understand the story. So I sat there, day in day out, with my dictionary next to me, having to look up every third word. (And I mean, it was Star Trek. The technobabble alone nearly killed me.)
But I pulled through, and after the first 50 pages I noticed something peculiar. I had to look up fewer words. Some words I remembered from previously looking them up. Others I could suddenly discern the meaning from understanding the context.
And thus I went on. Reading Star Trek book after Star Trek book. For years.
Since I opted out of English classes at school with failing grades, I have never again picked up a grammar book, or studied words.
When I enrolled at university, I realized after two semesters that archeology and Egyptology simply weren’t for me. So I had to change majors—and found American Studies. The only problem was: the requirement to get in were excellent English skills. In order to prove those, I had to pass an English language entrance exam.
I went to a student counsellor—who immediately smashed my dream: “If you haven’t attended English classes at high school since 10th grade, it’s impossible for you to pass the entrance exam.”
Needless to say, I got out of there and was determined to not even try. Until a friend, who’d been waiting outside asked me what I had to lose, and I realized that he had a point.
Not participating, I would have immediately forfeited my chance without even trying.
So I did participate, and scored 92%. The prof who told me the result was the same one who’d done my counseling, and he informed with astonishment that my score put me in the top 10% of all students, including those who’d received stellar grades in their high school English classes.
So how was that possible, I kept wondering. I didn’t study, I had never learned words or grammar. I had simply gone by gut-instinct when filling out the correct verb forms. I had gone by “what sounds right”. My highest expectation had been to just pass the test somehow.
Almost 12 years later, I now understand completely.
My experiences were absolutely in tune with the prevalent second language learning theories. Intuitively, I learned English in the most ideal way: through exposure to the language by free voluntary reading.
Linguistic research has come a long way during the past 50 years, and many methods still applied in classrooms are outdated.
So let’s debunk a couple of myths and address a few unexpected problems that arise with second language learning.
#1 – School (or the classroom) is the best (and only) place to learn a second language.
Even though some teachers might think that their class will be absolutely vital for your future, in the case of second language learning that is usually false.
There is the theory that there’s a fundamental difference between “learning” a language and “acquiring” a language. Learning is what you do in the classroom. It’s a conscious studying of rules, and words, and sentence patterns, and so on.
Acquiring on the other hand happens subconsciously while you are not focused on the language at all. A toddler, for example, never learns a language. A toddler acquires through trial and error, through listening to people around them speak, and slowly developing an understanding.
Stephen Krashen and other linguists postulated that in order to be able to speak a language on native speaker level, you must have acquired it. Learning will never get you to native speaker level.
Now, keep in mind that this is still a debated claim. Research so far does support his hypothesis, though, showing that people who acquire a language generally reach much higher language levels than people who attended classes focused on learning.
In addition, countless studies have shown, that the classroom experience may even have an adverse effect on learning for some students.
According to linguist Stephen Krashen’s “affective filter” theory, emotional states like fear, dislike of the language (or learning situation) or boredom negatively impact your language learning on a subconscious level.
And who of us hasn’t been there? The fear of making a mistake so the entire class will think you’re dumb. The fear of mispronouncing a new word. Or just dislike of the teacher, or the lack of will to actually learn the language (maybe because it’s an obligatory class you don’t really want to take). All of these things hinder language learning—and you can basically do nothing about them.
So, no. A language class is not the only place for you to learn a language. And it’s most likely not the best either.
#2 – Pop Culture teaches bad language. You should only watch news or read newspapers in order to grasp the target language.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve heard this one countless times in high school. When telling an English teacher that I was watching and reading Star Trek, her reaction was to tell me that I should rather read “Newsweek” or “TIME” magazine, or other newspapers, because normal television shows would teach me “bad” English.
As someone who studied linguistics, that statement retrospectively makes me cringe. Linguistically there is no such thing as “bad” language, or even wrong language. Bad or good are judgmental—and linguists usually don’t apply these kinds of judgments.
What people perceived as “bad” English 50 years ago, is considered largely grammatical today. And what we consider colloquial and ungrammatical today will most likely be grammatical in another 50 years. At least some of it. Language is a living thing. Only dead languages remain fixed in their grammar.
Now, what these pop culture tv shows and books taught me was ACTUAL English, as it’s spoken today in the United States. And, as I learned later at university, that put me at a huge advantage. English taught at schools in Germany differs greatly from English spoken in Britain or the United States.
So for many speakers, as soon as they leave school and start dealing with actual native speakers of the target language, they have a problem: they don’t understand a word.
In actual language use, grammar becomes secondary. Native speakers rarely speak grammatically. As a matter of fact, overly grammatical speech is often identified as sterile, or just outright odd or outdated, because language is in a constant state of flux. Grammar rules aren’t set in stone; they change over time.
But there’s another reason why reading “Newsweek” wouldn’t have the same effect. It didn’t interest me.
Krashen shows, that the best way to acquire a second language and have a chance to speak it with the same fluency as your first language is through free voluntary reading. That is, in essence, finding a book that interests you, and then reading it. The ideal condition for acquiring a language is not focusing on the language at all, but on the meaning. The more passionate you are about the material itself, the faster you’ll acquire the language.
So grab a book—any book as long as it wildly interests you—and start reading. That’ll save you the money for an English class to advance your language skills, and you’ll most likely have much better results.
#3 – Once half-way fluent, you will find yourself using words you didn’t even know you knew.
This is one of the most awkward experiences. It mostly happened to me during the first years that I had started reading and writing in English.
Back then, it would regularly happen to me that I’d be so caught up in a conversation, that a sentence just spilled out. And then I’d stop, and my German language brain would interfere and ask: “Wait, what the hell did you just say? You don’t even know what that word means.”
Yet, upon checking the word in a dictionary, it turned out that I had said exactly what I meant to say—without ever having learned the word through translation.
At first, that really spooked me out. Today I know that this is typical when you’re acquiring a second language independently from your first language (meaning, you don’t learn by translation or studying words, but learn through direct input from the target language—much like a child learns to speak).
But I never realized that could happen, and wish a teacher would have prepared me for that. It might have been less scary. ;)
#4 – The more fluent you become in your second language, the more it’ll have an impact your first language.
I’m not kidding. My German actually became anglicized through my extensive exposure to English. More often than not, I find myself using English grammatical structures rather than German ones when speaking to a German fellow.
It happens subconsciously, and I usually only notice afterwards that instead of a subject-object-verb sub clause (as we form them in German), I created a subject-verb-object pattern, because that’s how you do it in English.
I have heard about this phenomenon from other learners as well. At first I thought it happened because English and German share fundamental similarities in basic grammar patterns—so it’s easier to mix them up when they differ because you’re so attuned to them being alike. But two fellow students, one of them French, the other one Russian, struggled with the exact same problem, and the grammar in their first language would become increasingly adapted to the one in the second language at times.
So that’s the one thing. But there’s another.
What’s even more awkward is, when I wish to say something in German, but I can only think of an English word. That’s something that happens more and more to me these days. And it’s especially problematic if the person I’m talking to doesn’t understand English.
So there I am, having to substitute a word with the English one because I can’t for the life of me think of the German one. And unless my conversational partner has made similar experiences, they won’t understand.
The first assumption they usually make is that I’m just trying to be “fashionable” using English words instead of German ones. Or, worse, that I want to brag with my English skills. When in fact, I’m truly just at a loss for words. And yes, I have often found myself having to look up a word in the dictionary in order to remember the correct German translation. Which is still one of the weirdest things to experience.
I never thought that you could actually “forget” aspects and words of your first language when being exposed to a second language.
#5 – Plan ahead in what language you learn a new topic.
Once you’ve reached a point where your first and second language are at about the same level, and you only rarely have to use dictionaries even for more complex texts, this one becomes vitally important!
Knowledge is tied into language. You can only express your knowledge if you have knowledge of the correct terms pertaining to your knowledge. It would be hard to talk about colors in English if you only knew the color words in German or French or Italian. So you might look like you don’t know anything about colors to an English person—when in fact you have just never learned the words to express yourself in that particular area.
For me that became a major issue after I started studying everything in English: linguistics, literary and cultural sciences, and even the basics of astrophysics and chemistry. I can give you perfect explanations of a lot of things in these areas in English.
But ask me in German, and I’ll stare at you like a deer caught in the headlights. I have the knowledge, but it’s trapped in my brain because I never learned the German words and terms necessary to express myself in that area. So these subjects I can actually only express in English.
I really wasn’t prepared for that, and that’s usually met with complete lack of understanding from the people around. And it poses an additional problem, since I do still live and work in Germany, where knowing something in English often is quite useless unless you can transcend your knowledge into German.