Language learning has to be fun or it will not work

Cian delves into the great debate in language learning - whether you should learn in the traditional way (using grammar, vocabulary lists and verb tables) or by just reading and listening to lots of interesting content that you understand. The research is quite clear that just reading and listening is a much more effective strategy
March 3, 2021
Language learning has to be fun or it will not work - Weeve
The great debate in language learning is whether you should learn in the traditional way (using grammar, vocabulary lists and verb tables) or by just reading and listening to lots of interesting content that you understand. The research is quite clear that just reading and listening is a much more effective strategy. Studies have shown that the amount of reading students do in their spare time predicts their writing ability whereas the amount of writing they do doesn’t. On top of that, very few studies have managed to show significant gains in grammatical ability from teaching grammar. The benefits from teaching grammar fade away quickly and only work when students have time to think slowly such as when writing an essay. The gains from both reading and listening show a different story. Over long periods of time students show significant and robust gains in both vocabulary and grammatical ability. Most importantly, the gains students make from reading and listening result in an ability to use the language without thinking. If we think of someone who is fluent we don’t imagine someone who was constantly trying to conjugate words in their head, recall grammatical structures and speak in a very effortful and deliberate way. Focus on lots of reading and listening results in an effortless use of the language. Learning in this way is called “language acquisition” in the academic literature.

According to Stephen Krashen there are a number of important prerequisites that allow this type of effortless learning to occur. One is that you must understand what you are reading. Language is encoded in our brains naturally when we understand what someone is saying to us. This means if you are confused and can’t understand the TV show you should find something much easier. The second is that you have to enjoy the content that you’re consuming. If the content you are watching is boring then you won’t acquire the language. If you hate the person is talking then you won’t acquire their language. And if you are in any way anxious or upset then you won’t acquire the language. This should be particularly worrying when we think of language learning classrooms. I remember when I was 14 in Spanish class and always being anxious because I never did my homework. I would purposely avoid eye contact with the teacher because I wouldn’t want her to ask me a question. And I always felt the language learning classroom was a place where I was avoiding getting in trouble. If, according to Stephen Krashen, anxiety has to be at zero for language to be acquired then this type of environment just won’t work. Of course, you can say that it’s my fault for being lazy as a teenager (and you’d be right) but the dynamic of the language teacher being the person who can land you in a lot of trouble means that there is always going to be an underlying feeling of anxiety in the classroom.

The same thing goes for content that we don’t enjoy. If you’re reading a book that you hate you’re unlikely to start naturally picking up words and adding them to your vocabulary. The same thing goes for when you hear people talking that you don’t like. You’re not going to start picking up their language. If someone who is right wing starts watching left-wing compilations to make fun of them they won’t accidentally start saying words like “problematic” and vice versa left-wing people wouldn’t start saying “virtue signalling” by accident. But when you are in contact with speech from people that you do admire it is extremely difficult to not pick up their slang, phrases and even accents. This is a great example of natural, subconscious language acquisition. Similarly, when I was in college I hated studying psychotherapy and as a result despite reading hundreds of hours worth of material on the topic none of the common psychotherapy terms slipped into my vocabulary. In contrast, I really enjoyed statistics and when I was studying statistics I had to suppress myself from unnecessarily using words like “standard deviation”, “variance” and “multivariate” in normal conversations. If you enjoy the content that you read then it will be difficult not to acquire the language. Our brains are wired to acquire language you just need to give the machine the right fuel.

The reason why we only pick up language when we like the content that we’re listening to may be due to “Club Membership”. Everybody has some group or club that they are a part of or want to be a part of. The slang that people use is often a way to show membership of their group. It is hypothesised that this is why teenagers speak with so much slang. It’s to differentiate themselves from their parents and grandparents whose language sounds corny and old-fashioned to them. Similarly, teenagers will tell you that the slang people use in the neighbouring town is “cringe”. This means it’s absolutely necessary that when we are trying to acquire language we only choose books, TV shows and materials that are actually fun. Very few people find learning grammar rules to be fun. Almost no one finds reading beginner level stories to be engaging. If you can make a story using only the top 50 most frequent words then that story has to be too simplistic to be interesting. This is the issue all beginner language learners have. You can’t find content that is both interesting and that you can understand. This is the entire reason why Diglot was invented. We needed to solve the issue of needing lots of interesting content that beginners could completely understand. This is why we keep nearly all of the text in English while only changing 2% of the text to your target language. This means you can read books like The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice as a complete beginner but pick up the most useful words in your target language subconsciously. Be sure to pick up one of our books and see for yourself just how easy it is to learn when you’re doing it in the way your brain is designed for.

[Try it out - Diglot book Learn German with The Great Gatsby]

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