Did you know that (alas!) you can't learn English fast?
by Louis Alexander
It's only human nature that once we've made up our minds to commit time, effort and money to learning a language, we want results fast. This desire for quick results is well-known to cheapjacks who offer language packages which make false claims. These range from highly optimistic guarantees that you can learn a language in 24 hours, three and a half weeks, or pessimistic ones that you can learn a language in twelve weeks. The claims are usually accompanied by quotations from the letters of 'satisfied customers' or by pseudo-scientific claims about the way the human brain works (a secret divinely revealed exclusively to advertisers of the package for sale). Don't believe any of it! The fact is we know very little about the human learning process. We know that it can be enhanced or inhibited by high or low motivation. But even the most highly motivated learners (and there are plenty about) cannot learn a language in a very limited time.
Why not? Well, let's say at once that you can learn to say a lot in a fairly short space of time. Even 24 hours of listening and repeating a number of fixed phrases will enable you to produce a fair amount of meaningful language. If you persist in listening and repeating for a period of twelve weeks you can learn to say a great deal. The trouble is that the ability to say something is only a part of the language learning process. We are all familiar with the situation where a traveller produces excellent spoken questions, but then is completely unable to understand the answers. That's precisely why you can't learn a language fast. You can learn to say a lot in quite a short time, but it may take a very long time indeed to be able to understand what other people are saying to you. Where English is concerned, the learner not only has to cope with many different varieties of native English (American, British, etc. all with almost infinite variations) but with worldwide non-native varieties as well. It may require any number of hours of practice in listening before you feel really able to understand a foreign language.
Therefore the key to language mastery is not learning how to say a lot of different things, but learning how to understand what you hear. Understanding involves coping with language spoken at speed, coping with different accents, coping with a broad range of structures, vocabulary and idiom. It takes a long time to build up such skills. Once you begin to make progress in understanding, the ability to speak follows very quickly indeed.
How does Direct English deal with this problem? It deals with it simply by training you to understand English as the highest priority in the course. There are hundreds of situations and texts in the course and all of them are used to train you to understand. The technique that is used is to give you a particular listening objective before you hear the text. Each listening exercise begins with a simple question, for example, 'What kind of food does Kevin like compared to Dean?' You listen to the text for the first time and try to hear the answer. The important thing is not to 'prepare' the text first by learning all the vocabulary and structure, but to listen to it spontaneously and find out how much you can understand. This is difficult at first, but if you persist, you will rapidly build up the skill of understanding new language without preparation and making intelligent guesses about the meanings of words and phrases you're not sure of. The videos, CDs and CD-Roms give you every opportunity to practise understanding through listening to an immense variety of language. Of course, some of you will learn to do this faster than others, but there is not a single learner who will be able to achieve this skill in 24-hours or three weeks. Instant linguists, like instant brain surgeons, simply don't exist. Competence is the product of practice and effort.
© LG & DE Limited 2006
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