By Marvin LeNoue, MA, PhD
“Teacher, what’s the best way to learn English?” I would have a lot bigger yacht if I had a dollar for every time I heard that in my 25 years of teaching English language and literacy skills in classrooms with students of all ages from across the globe.
The fact is, learning a new language is difficult no matter what approach is used. Language acquisition is a process so complicated and mysterious that no one knows how it really works even though some of the world’s best minds have spent decades working on the problem. Yet millions of people manage to do it. What’s the secret?
Here is one secret about learning English that I picked up while doing a Master’s degree at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, one of the world’s leading programs in second language research, teaching, and learning: There is no known intervention that has an absolute, empirically measurable effect on second language acquisition.
Or to put it simply, there is no guaranteed way to learn English or any other second language. If there were, someone would have bottled it and made a mint by now.
A Fight for Survival
No guarantees, but there is one method that is known to be the most effective for the average learner. It actually partially replicates the way we learn our first language as babies. That method involves combining full immersion in the target language environment with a healthy dose of the type of motivation that comes from being required to interact with target language speakers in order to meet survival or at least comfort needs.
For example, put students who cannot speak a single word of English in a building full of people who speak only English. Do not make food, water, or directions to the restroom available unless the students use English to request these things. In many cases, successful learning will occur within a few hours. Back this sort of arrangement up with some sincere formal study efforts, and a learner can get close to the “best” or “fastest” way to pick up a language.
In fact, without the formal study piece, full immersion can have limited benefits or even create problematic situations. Experienced language teachers and linguistic researchers will be familiar with the term “plateau” as used to refer to language learning. To explain by drawing on our example from above, in theory once the students are able to obtain food, water, and the keys to the restroom, nothing stops them from sitting in the corner and failing to learn one more word.
Until the temperature in the building is lowered and English-only access to the blankets is on offer.
Of course, this is a simplified example intended to clarify a concept. But it accurately reflects the reality of plateau effects and motivation in the language acquisition process. The astute language teacher can leverage these factors to advantage by always finding a way to “lower the temperature” via a combination of problem-based learning methodologies and authentic motivation, while pushing students forward by means of strategic control of linguistic input.
Teachers should pose authentic problems that students must solve with the target language in order to “survive”. At the same time, draw on Lev Vygotsky’s ideas about the zone of proximal development to set task difficulty at a level such that the students can only succeed with the help of others. This pushes them to learn more while forcing interaction and opening the way for peer-teaching processes. Add in a touch of Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis by providing language input that is mostly comprehensible but contains aspects and elements that lie just beyond the students’ current level. The objective is to keep students stretching for improvement.
A Beginner-Level PBL Task
- Use the voice recorder app on an iPad or smart phone to record a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
- Supply the students with simple What, Where, and How much request forms plus specialized task-related vocabulary.
- Set the problem: We must have chocolate chip cookies to survive! (It’s actually true in my case.)
- Create an information gap by arranging controlled access to the various ingredients and kitchen tools needed to solve the problem. In other words, make the students ask each other to obtain the flour, the spoon, and so forth.
- Set the students to solving the problem, beginning with listening to and transcribing the recipe.
Of course carefully monitor use of the oven. And include clean up as part of the activity.
- Enjoy the “solution” to the problem.
Even though the language acquisition process is a mystery, an understanding of the basic principles that are known will serve teachers and students well. And one thing is clear about learning English: Mix full immersion with a large portion of formal study. Turn the motivation to high. Then savor a delicious language learning experience.