The Natural Way

Did you know that, as adults, we can't learn a language the natural way?

by Louis Alexander


What is 'the natural way' of learning a language? It's simply the way we learn language, mainly from our mothers, from the moment we are born. All human beings arrive into the world pre-equipped with an inborn device to learn a language. We don't know what this device is and it may even turn out to be a language gene. Whatever it is, it is certainly there. Babies have an unquenchable thirst for milk and for language, a thirst which is quenched mainly by their mothers. Language learning in babies begins with babbling. Gradually, this babbling begins to sound like the language that is being acquired: Chinese babbling for potential speakers of Chinese, Turkish babbling for potential speakers of Turkish, English babbling for potential speakers of English and so on. After about a year, babies are beginning to produce their first words; after about eighteen months, they are attempting to produce their first sentences, like 'Mummy here', 'Daddy gone'. Progress from that point on is rapid, so by the age of five, children have an amazing command of language. They may have an amazing command of more than one language if they have been given the opportunity, as in multilingual cultures like Switzerland. Mothers (and other adults) speak to babies in a very particular way, the world over. They use a lot of baby talk. They use long, drawn-out vowels and speak very slowly. They use a lot of nonsense-talk with phrases like 'kutchi-kutchi-koo'. Babies need this kind of direct, face-to-face communication in order to learn. They do not learn language (say) by being placed in front of a TV. The language they hear on TV is just noise, as remote to them as raindrops pattering on a window.

Can we use this universally successful method when we are adult? For obvious reasons, we can't. When we are adult, the period for babbling is well and truly behind us and cannot be resurrected. We are already in possession of language and the process which led to its original acquisition cannot be reproduced. Whereas with babies, we can discern a process in action, with adults, we find it impossible to define a learning process. As adults we make our own individual adjustments to learn, so there is no universal method we can follow. We do know that some experiences enhance the learning process and some impede it. For example, a good teacher at school may inspire us in ways that enhance the learning process, while a bad teacher may make learning (not just language learning) difficult if not impossible for us.

This means that 'the natural way' is a complete fiction where adults are concerned. We have to learn 'the hard way'. But even when we are learning the hard way, we share one important characteristic with babies. There is a long silent period before we can produce language. This is as true for babies as it is for adults learning a foreign language. Babies listen for a long time before they produce babbling that sounds like the language they are going to speak and then go on to producing actual language. In the same way, as adults, we need to listen for quite a time (how long varies from one individual to another) before we can produce language: we, too, have 'a silent period'. That's why listening comprehension is so fundamental to acquisition and it is also the reason why listening comprehension is given such enormous prominence in Direct English. However, our experience of listening is not at all confined to a single source. Every source of language on TV, radio, tape or disk enhances our listening experience. Our ability eventually to speak grows out of our increasing confidence in learning how to understand and we have to deploy every means to master understanding. Matching the printed word with what we hear may be an important factor in our own learning process. Only we as adult learners can identify what learning process suits us best. Once we have identified it, we need to pursue it relentlessly in all the ways Direct English makes possible.

 

© LG & DE Limited 2006

 

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