Language Challenge 180: Week 16

by Corey · 3 comments

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Welcome to Week 16 !

If you missed the activities these last few weeks, go to the Weekly Activity Page and click on the activities you missed. (Remember: if you aren’t yet signed up, then do so at the link at the top of this page!)

Did you remember to check in on Friday? If not, go to the check in page to check in and then make sure to go check out our current giveaway!

And don’t forget to keep sharing resources, support and suggestions at the Language Challenge 180 language pages! The more information you can add there, the better!

Are You Learning Languages the Wrong Way?

When it comes to language learning, there are really very few absolutes. I don’t think that there is any “right” or “wrong” ways to learn languages, at least as long as you are enjoying the process. No matter what do you, you are bound to pick up bits and pieces of the language along the way as long as you are consistent and dedicated.

However, there are things that we do which may not have as much bang for the buck as we’d like.

For example, what about the endless grammar drills that we do?

Have you noticed how you can drill yourself to death and often still not seem to retain what you just drilled, especially when it comes time to use the bits of information in full sentences? This isn’t to say that these drills shouldn’t be done at all. It is just important to remember to do them in conjunction  with other kinds of language learning activities. This is because our brains have to work harder to figure out how to anchor information from grammar drills so that we can pull it up later and use in appropriate contexts.

So, what is a better way to go about learning our target languages?

According to many researchers on language acquisition, the answer is:input in context. Lots and lots of it.

What is contextual input, anyway?

It comes to us in a variety of formats: Reading books and magazines, listening to podcasts, watching videos, overhearing other customers in line chatting, sitting with in-laws as they discuss politics… all of these are examples of useful language input (e.g. grammar and vocabulary in context).

Notice a key element with contextual input: You aren’t opening your mouth at all. But you are paying attention to what you are hearing.

In a recent article published in the Washington Post, Stephen Krashen, an expert in the fields of second language acquisition and bilingual education, discusses the importance of input with respect to language learning. He reminds us that we can’t start producing words and sentences until we have received enough comprehensible input:

…we acquire language when we understand what people tell us and what we read, when we get “comprehensible input.” As we get comprehensible input through listening and reading, we acquire (or “absorb”) the grammar and vocabulary of the second language.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of us who are raising children in more than one language. We can observe through our children’s language acquisition that language learning comes from what our children are exposed to. The more language exposure they receive, the more their language output increases.

Yet, for some reason, we forget that this applies to adults as well!

Perhaps this misconception comes from the way adults are normally taught languages: a lot of discussion about the target language as well as a lot of vocabulary and grammar drills.

In the same article mentioned above, Krashen argues that this is the wrong way to learn a language. Sure, we will be picking up bits along the way but we aren’t really giving our brains what they need, which is: comprehensible input (preferably in a variety of forms).

Another mistake we make is how we assess our language learning progress.

Based on what we have learned in language courses over the years, we believe that the only valid assessment is through what we can accurately output. It is very true that the better we know our target language, the better we can produce sentences in it. I would never disagree with this!

However, we should also remember that there is a lot going on behind the scenes. Before we throw in the towel, thinking that we aren’t learning anything, we should remember that our brains are picking up all kinds of bits and pieces simply from the daily input of our target language.

Think of a big iceberg in the sea. We see the tip of it bobbing up and down above the waterline. So lovely as it glints in the sunlight! Yet what we don’t see is the mass of ice under the water which is holding up the lovely bit above.

It is that mass under the water which powers our language output. The way to build that underwater mass is through, what Krashen calles, comprehensible input – a lot of it. We may not see it forming, but it is as long as we are consistently exposing ourselves to the target language.

So before you get discouraged with your (or your children’s) language learning because you (your children) still can’t seem to produce fluid and coherent sentences, remember that you are simply building up that base from which to leap.

Continue to focus on input, input, input in context and don’t worry so much about the output right now. As Krashen says:

Forcing language students to speak before they are ready not only makes them extremely uncomfortable but does nothing for language acquisition. Speaking doesn’t cause language acquisition; rather, the ability to speak is the result of comprehensible input.

Here is a great post from Donovan at the Mezzofanti Guild discussing the role of input during his own language acquisition. He makes some excellent points!

All that having been said, please remember that language output is important and essential to language learning as well. It just isn’t something that you should focus on too much at the beginning. Wait until you have had enough quality language input.

I encourage everyone to speak, speak, speak as much as you can, but mainly so that you can work on your accent and to have fun with the words and intonations of language.

Don’t worry if you can’t engage in a conversation with others in your target language yet. Just keep focusing on the input for now. Repeat what you hear on your podcasts and music CDs! Read out loud! These activities will further strengthen your growing language stores!

This Week’s Activity

  • Individuals: What are your favorite types of input?  Do you like reading? Or maybe you have a favorite daily podcast that you listen to? Have you tried out LingQ? Their program emphasizes both reading and listening. Or maybe you have another program that works for you?
    This week really focus on getting as much input as possible in the target language. Turn on an online radio station in the target language while you are washing the dishes, making dinner or working on the car (check out the Language Challenge 180 language pages for suggestions, or leave a comment there asking for recommendations!). Have CDs in the target language to play in the car while driving from place to place. Watch videos in the target language while folding laundry. And best of all, read a book in the target language before you drift off to sleep. The language just might linger in your mind and appear in your dreams!
  • Parents: What are your children’s favorite types of language input?  Do your children like watching children’s DVDs in the target language? Or maybe they enjoy hearing you read them a story out loud? Can your children read books in the target language themselves? If so, find out what kinds of books they like and see if you can get them in the target language! Help them find radio stations in the target language as well as online websites for children their age(s).
    But most important: If you speak the language yourself, then talk with your children all of the time (even if they don’t respond back in the language)! You are your children’s single, best input source. Don’t keep this gift to yourself and don’t worry about your children not responding back in the target language. As Krashen says above, the input is what counts.

May you have a wonderful week of language input! See if you can surround yourself with as much as possible!

Stay tuned for the Friday check-in email and new giveaway!

1 Andrew June 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm

i love to speak with my friends. they are my main input. the correct me when i make mistakes and always introduce me to new words! sometimes i end a conversation knowing about 30 more words than before.
i also like watching tv and reading anything as well as music!

2 Jane June 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I agree absolutely that seeing/hearing grammar in context is vital to acquiring a real working knowledge of a language. I try to listen to radio or tv every day, read an article, part of a book, as well as looking at the actual grammar books; it’s amazing how you start to recognise the lessons you’ve learned when you see/hear them in action

3 Tracey June 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm

My favourite input is talking to friends, listening to music and reading and if I can find a decent Spanish language video. I hate subtitiles or dubbed as I know when they get ti wrong and then have 2-3 different versions I am listening to or watching. I thrive on conversations. I found this week when I went away to visit friends for a funeral and took only one of my littlies – I was speakign so much spanish with everyone else I barely spoke any english to my littlie. It was great!!

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