Guest Post by Steve Hirschhorn: How do we learn a language?

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Learning a language is about one of the most amazing and complex things that us humans do – it’s what puts us right up there at the top of the tree of power. It doesn’t mean we use that power wisely but it makes us different from goldfish.

Yep, some days it can be tough.

Yep, some days it can be tough.

You know when you write an email and then you send it but accidentally to the wrong recipient? One of those quick as a flash mistakes? I did that yesterday. My “I love you” email to my daughter was sent by mistake to a language guru who, after, like, hundreds of years in the business, kindly agreed to write an article for our blog explaining how little most of us humans actually know about how us humans learn a language. Granted he’s a really groovy guy who knows his stuff but abject apologies, Steve, it was for Katie.

And, despite the fact that he’s quite witty, he agreed to abide by the important editorial rule of not being funnier than the editor.

Steve is from Birmingham and currently lives in Budapest. Which just goes to show that even if you are from Birmingham you can get pretty good at a language. If you want to know more about what we don’t know about how we learn a language, read on. Thanks, again, Steve.

Over to Steve Hirschhorn….

Steve Hirschhorn, language guru.

Steve Hirschhorn, language guru.

“I have been teaching language (English and Italian) since 1980. I have trained hundreds of teachers from initial teacher-training right through their MAs. I have studied the theory and practice of Second Language Acquisition until the cows came home, went back into the field and were queuing up to be milked again so I think in all modesty (a trait I’m not well-known for) I can say: I know something about how humans learn a language.

And so, apparently, does everyone else on the planet.

I challenge you to go out right now – well, finish reading the challenge first – and, in a loving and polite way, stop the first person you meet and then ask them this question: “What’s the best way to learn a language?” I guarantee, assuming one or two conditions which I’ll iterate in a moment, that you’ll get an answer. Nobody says “I dunno, never thought about it.”

Everybody will give you an answer unless, following the same secret rule that causes new arrivals in a city to ask for directions from an equally new arrival, you ask the only person in the area who doesn’t speak any language known to you, is an applied linguist or is an expert language teacher – those last 2 categories will keep you standing in the cold (or hot) for a very long time indeed as they explain the intricacies of what we currently do and don’t know about how to learn a language.

The ‘ordinary’ folk who answer you with the best will in the world and the firm yet unconscious belief that somehow through a process of remote, osmotic contact with the content of the British Library, along with (even though redundant) the combined wisdom of Ellis, Krashen, Chomsky and Widdowson, will say one of the following (in, as they say on Strictly Come Dancing, no particular order):

1) Oh, you need to go and live in the country.
2) Oh, you need to buy a book on it.
3) Oh, you need to watch the TV and films with subtitles.
4) Oh, you need to watch the TV and films without subtitles.
5) Oh, you need to learn the grammar first.
6) Oh, you need to learn the grammar later.
7) Oh, you need to just let it wash over you.
8) Oh, you need to find a partner from the country.
9) Oh, you need to read newspapers.
10) Oh, you need to learn 100 words.
11) Oh, you need to ask someone who knows what they’re talking about. (said nobody, ever)

That’s the trouble, you see. Everybody knows how we learn or acquire languages. Just in case the difference is not clear, this idea came from Stephen Krashen: learning is kind of conscious but acquisition is kind of not conscious. Clear? Of course it’s clear, ask anyone on the street…

Now while I may be trying to treat this with humour (as far as I’m able and allowed according to the strict ‘No Humour Greater than The Editor’s’ rules) the fact is that there’s a serious side to all of this.

Have you heard of TEFL? I’m sure you have. It’s when you renew your passport and don a large, poorly packed rucksack and fly to Thailand or Slovenia or Bolivia where you spend some time making sure that the locals never really manage to get their heads around the English language. You do that by getting them to learn lists of single words, by having them repeat things from a CD or MP3 player, by making sure they cannot possible understand the grammar (since you don’t), by giving them long, complex and utterly inaccurate explanations in the certainty that what you teach is learned; by slowing down your speech so that when they try to copy you, they sound like 78s played at 45 (I know I’m showing my age – ask a grown up), by changing your pronunciation each time you use a word and by unknowingly convincing them that English is well beyond their reach inasmuch as it’s the language of Shakespeare and Milton and that, in fact, is the style of all native speakers. Oh yes, that’s TEFL; anyone can do it and you can have a few months in the sun or in the snow, if you prefer. Then you can come home and get a proper job forgetting about the chaos and confusion you have left behind for the next TEFLER to sort out.

But that’s ok because everyone knows how we learn a language. Right?

Unfortunately: wrong. Almost nobody knows how we learn a language. We’ve been trying to find out for some time now, arguably for about 60 or so years. Before that, there wasn’t really any concerted research to examine how we learn our first language (now known as L1 as opposed to old-fashioned: Mother Tongue) or indeed an L2. Historically, people just did it – commercial need drove merchants to learn at least enough of the language of their business associates to get by, and some still do this. Aristocrats learned L2s for reasons of State and because they could travel but language learning was definitely for the elite. Around the end of the 18th century the first commercial language learning materials were produced (by a German named Fick) and then about 90 years later, the first commercial language school opened in Rhode Island. This was the first recorded time that groups of language-diverse students required to be taught English together so all the old methods, such as they were, had to be abandoned in favour of something new and different.

Enter: the Direct Method. The first language teaching approach which taught, say: English, through the use of English; no translation was allowed nor possible since there may have been 15 different languages represented by the student group.

The Direct Method is still with us in the sense that it laid the ground rules for multi-lingual classes even if the notion that a teacher shouldn’t use translation has been softened somewhat these days. Nevertheless, when students travel to an English speaking country for a summer course or some other study experience, they will almost certainly be in classes where other languages are spoken and translation is then largely impossible. The skill required to teach a language using that language and to keep students engaged, challenged and interested is not to be diminished – it’s an art/science thingy.

Since the days of the Direct Method, we have trundled through a huge variety of methods and approaches; from Audio-Lingualism which caused students to repeat mindless bits of language without context in the hope of eliminating errors (didn’t really work) through Grammar Translation (created long before the Direct Method but not recognised and named) in which students translated exemplars of the language, mostly written, mostly nonsense, mostly gone but unfortunately still hovering in dark corners, through Silent Way, mostly remarkable but misunderstood, through Suggestopedia (I know, don’t shoot the messenger) mostly interesting but too psychologically weird for most, through TPR, mostly good for kids and beginners, through CLL, mostly ok for a change of activity, through the Communicative Approach, mostly the industry standard since about 1973 or so but devoid of a teaching theory so confusing for some teachers, through the Lexical Approach, mostly brilliant, through Dogme, mostly kinda cool, are you bored now? I apologise for making you read this ridiculous list of language teaching / learning approaches. Who needed that? Nobody because we all know how language are learned.

But wait! If we all know and it’s so easy, why have great minds been trying to find a ‘way’ which ‘works’? Why are universities stuffed to the castellations with big-browed persons in fashionless clothing who burrow, scribbling into research on why it is that children learn their L1s at their own rate and CANNOT be accelerated, and why L2 learners all seem to get roughly the same grammar points at roughly the same time and CANNOT be rushed and why … oh, you know I could go on don’t you? But I won’t.

We have been lead by the current fashions for some years now, what I have called ‘pendulum methodology’. It goes like this: teaching grammar is a Good Thing. Teaching grammar is a Bad Thing. Teaching grammar is a Good Thing. Teaching grammar may be an Ok Thing. And this applies not just to grammar but to other sometime accepted ways to work. Just recently (in the great scheme of things) we’ve had a flurry of interest in Multiple Intelligences, NLP and Learning Strategies – now they are mostly out of fashion and the window (“Oh, look Mummy: zeugma!”)

Suffice to say, ‘we’, that is we who have studied these things and we who have not, do not have any definitive answers to the question: How do humans learn languages? We have some ideas on what can stop them and some notions of what can support them but How Do We Do It? Not so much.

And that of course brings me back to TEFL.

Because everyone knows how we learn languages, it follows that everyone can teach it! If you speak it (and sometime even if you can’t, I kid you not) you can teach it.
No. You can’t.

If you want to be a language teaching professional, do the right thing by yourself and your future students. Take an expensive course to kick start your knowledge and understanding of a highly technical profession. Take a course which meets with the required standards laid down by the British Council. That means a course which comprises a minimum of 120 hours tuition plus a minimum of 6 hours observed and assessed, live teaching practice.

That won’t guarantee that you’ll be a good teacher but it ought to lay the foundations. At least then you’ll begin to understand why it’s funny that everyone thinks they know how we learn languages!”

Mini Bio:

Steve Hirschhorn


Born in the UK 1949

Rubbish at school. Better later. Enough post-nominals.
Knows about teacher training and teacher development.
Competent player of guitar, double bass, gu zheng, bodhran and other stuff.

Advanced motor cyclist.

Language accent specialist.

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