Language Mastery: What the Research Teaches Us

Language Mastery: What the Research Tells Us

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More into our series of 50 Lessons Learned About Languages. Today, I really want to talk about the research. I am so grateful to so many people out there sharing research on second language acquisition, on languages and children, languages and health. The contributions are so valuable, and there’s some great takeaways. And there are so many relevant and practical and interesting articles and research projects out there, but I really want to focus on one particular set of research because I really have felt that this research encapsulates the things that we really need to know on how people can learn more than one language. And that’s the research of Dr. Stephen Krashen.

I also love Dr. Krashen’s research because I think when you understand something really well, you can explain it in a simple, concise, and easy to understand way, and that’s exactly what he’s done. And I want to talk about his five theories of language acquisition.

The very first theory that he talks about is learning acquisition. And I think this is really important because he makes a really important distinction. Learning are those really deliberate activities that we do to learn another language, or even our own language for that matter. Think verbs, parts of speech, vocabulary, grammar exercises, et cetera. Specific focused learning. And there’s acquisition. It’s those things that you… It’s like soaking everything up.

Think about maybe watching a television show and the language is really understandable. Maybe there’s captions, or subtitles, or people are using lots of gestures to understand. Or reading something really interesting where you’re going to soak up all that grammar and all that vocabulary in a really interesting, real context that’s going to really stick with you. And I love those because the power is in learning. And the real application of it, in my opinion, is understanding those two things and then putting them together. It’s absolutely the perfect marriage.

Learning is, as Krashen defines it, more learning about the language. Understanding patterns and verbs, et cetera, parts of speech, different verb tenses, and acquisition is really soaking up real language.

Learning words and phrases in meaningful chunks is how you’re going to learn your grammar. You’re not going to learn about it. You’re going to actually learn it, or acquire it really, to use it.

And that brings me to my next lesson is that these two things are the perfect marriage. They’re the absolute perfect marriage. So I would always recommend focusing on understanding, which we’ll get into with another one of the theories, but really spending twice as much time listening, you have two ears. And reading, you’ve got two eyes. Than speaking or writing, than producing language. Really focus on that acquisition.

But when you mix in focused learning of a language, particularly as an adult, that’s the key to fast progress. Don’t lead with grammar, but don’t be afraid of following up, of doing grammar lessons, of doing tutorials. Don’t be afraid of any of that stuff, but focus your time on communication. And as a learner, I would tell you to focus twice as much on understanding than producing, at first.

So the rest of Krashen’s theories, he’s got five, the next one is the monitor hypothesis. Essentially, monitor is the practical result of whatever language you learned. So this theory talks about how learners monitor what they’ve learned and acquired in that new language. So basically it’s thinking about that balance between being able to communicate, which is really what your goal is, and being able to do it perfectly, really monitoring, really thinking about, okay, is what I’m saying the right thing? Am I using the right verb tense? Do I have the right endings?

So some people over monitor. They’re really too measured in what they do and they don’t communicate. Maybe they’re unsure if something is completely accurate and they’re reticent to speak. And then some people really under monitor. So they’ll just say things and it can be at the expense of accuracy and they don’t refine those things and maybe get fossilized there.

So an optimal learner remains aware enough to monitor their use to allow for continued progress. That you’re always considering am I using this correctly, but it’s not stopping you from being communicative, from communicating with people. Because remember that’s your goal and you don’t have to do it perfectly.

Natural order. So in a given language, some structures, grammatical structures, tend to be acquired early and some are late. So I’d love to use children as an example of this. So think about some of the simple things they say when they’re first learning that could be really choppy and really rough. And then by the time someone graduates from, say, medical school, they’re sophisticated, they’re polished, they’ve got lots of vocabulary and they’re using it really well. This ease of expression and the natural order just seems to be similar among languages. And so that what that means, your takeaway, is that your grammar doesn’t need to be learned in the specific sequence.

So back to that learning and acquisition. I don’t like to lead with grammar. I would lead with understanding, but I would do some grammar mini lessons, because you’ll really understand it after you’ve really seen it in context. And some are just going to be easier than others in different languages.

So languages with gender, for example, that might be something you need to understand early on, but you’re probably not going to polish and master it. There’s a certain phase when we see that in Spanish, when people start to really master the whole. Now an adjective agreement, plurals, things like that, it takes a little while. They understand it, but it takes awhile for that to really be seen and a lot of input.

Which is the next theory. Input. You need comprehensible input. That’s the bottom line, whether it’s in school, teaching languages, learning languages, you need comprehensible input, which means input that you understand. A really well trained and experienced language teacher will know how to do that for their students. They know to give them the right kind of input. So if you’re just beginning, you need more props and visuals and gestures and speaking slower, and when you’re more advanced, you need more exposure to native like speech. This is going to help you keep moving forward. Comprehensible input. Understanding.

And this can also come in the form of a lot of artificial intelligence that we have now. So chatbots and captions, I love Yabla. I love all the captions. I love how you can make it slower. You can play the videos to make them slower or faster, so you can really adjust them to what you need.

Affective filter. So some of this goes down to personality and it goes back to that monitor hypothesis. How willing are you to put yourself out there? Or are you a perfectionist? So I think it’s important to respect that about yourself. So I think the more outgoing you are, the more willing you’re going to be to just get out there and not worry about the mistakes and just get talking to people, which is the ultimate goal, which is great.

But I don’t think we can just snap our fingers and change our personalities. I think we have to respect that. So I am an introvert in some contexts, and I’m also an extrovert in others. So I always like to spend some time getting comfortable with communication in a new language by doing this on my own. So maybe recording myself once a week or talking to myself before I get talking to new people. It makes me feel a lot more confident.

I highly recommend recording yourself and talking to yourself when you’re early on in a language, maybe that’s in your car on your commute. I like to use voice memos and record myself. I just talk. When I’m starting, I use aids, maybe a phrase book or my notebooks, and as I move on, I bullet point out topics, not vocabulary, but topics, and then talk. They’re great exercises in getting through that effective filter. And also respecting that I tend to listen more than I talk. I really believe in listening twice as much as I talk, because I really like to try to hear people. And that’s also a form of communication.

In languages, we have three forms of communication. As [Aquil 00:12:55] defines them, we have our interpersonal, so that’s talking back and forth, presentational, which is what I’m doing now, I’m not talking to anybody else, and interpretive, where we’re understanding things, whether we’re listening or we’re speaking.

So communication does not necessarily just have to be between two people. There’s lots of ways to get communicative language into your life that respects your personality at the same time.

So, and also in the research, my opinion is that Krashen is amazing. I just talked about his five theories. There are so many other great contributions to second language acquisition out there, but I was able to just very quickly and very simply understand those five theories and that there’s a practical takeaway from each one of them. So I am so grateful for the work that he’s done, Dr. Krashen.

In further to Dr. Krashen’s research, I think children are better acquirers of languages. They’re better at not being as shy. They’re better at understanding that language can just be a way to communicate without thinking that it’s this weird new thing that you have to learn. They may a little bit, depending on the context, but they’re naturally willing to get in there and try. They haven’t built up any fear to it yet. They can produce a really good accent. They’re basically, bottom line, a bit more open minded to new languages and as a result can grow up mastering a few in different contexts, whether that’s from their family or in school.

I believe adults are better learners of languages, of being able to focus and pay attention to structures and understanding parts of speech and using what they’ve learned to speak a new language. So I think it’s never too late. We’re never too old to be able to do this. The research also tells us that. And then we’re never too old for the health benefits, as we talk about in another episode.

The only problems that we might have are accents, which appear to be physiological. Being able to understand and mimic sounds. There’s a lot of research on that and it’s very interesting. I love some of the work that Gabriel Wiener put out there. If you’re unfamiliar with him, amazing guy, he studied engineering and is also an opera singer and fell in love with language learning. And all that he knew about sound and singing, he transferred over into his language learning and he has done a lot of work with pronunciation training and sounds super interesting.

I also think it’s really worth noting that some of these things can be trained if you want to put the effort into it. Just as Gabriel’s shown you. It might not be perfect, but he’s got some really great practical exercises on sounds and producing new sounds and learning pronunciation. A lot of the work of accent reduction.

So as a child, I was really surprised to learn that some of the people that I thought were American in some of the shows or movies that I watched were actually from places like South Africa or Australia. And I’m thinking Rick Springfield was the first person that came to mind. Australian guy. And I thought, where is his accent? Where is it? And then I learned all about accent reduction. A lot of roles are really specifically for American actors, so they need to learn how to do that well.

So really paying attention to those sounds, we can be trained out of accent and pronunciation, but I’m here to tell you that they’re not a deal by deal for a deal breaker in communication. When I trained in language proficiency rating, so learning to be able to listen to a sample of speech and understand and rate what level those people were speaking at at that time, was a really interesting lesson in that as well is they put a lot of speakers who are maybe semi native speakers, they’ve had some exposure to the target language and you can hear it in their speech. They sound like they can… The accent is perfect, basically.

But they don’t necessarily have the vocabulary or the grasp of the language as another person who they will give you who speaks vocabulary, grammar, absolutely flawless, but do they have a thick accent? Yes. But who’s the better, or stronger, I don’t want to say better, who’s the stronger communicator at that point? And we learned that language proficiency to be able to rating. We learned that to be able to move people forward, including ourselves. So that was a really important lesson that you can have an accent and be a very highly fluid and proficient and effective speaker in a language. So don’t let that dissuade you or discourage you from your language progress. Until next time.

Thank you for listening to the Five Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.

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