Is there such a thing as THE method to learn a second or foreign language?

I’ve been kindly invited to write a guest post for Mango Languages blog. If you still haven’t visited their blog, I recommend doing so. There are some very nice articles and insightful posts. I’ve decided to republish the post here after a couple of things I’ve observed in a couple of websites and some talks with teachers. I hope you enjoy reading it here if you haven’t read it there when it was published. Here goes…

How do you study languages? Many different methods and approaches have been used, and they all seem to come and go from time to time. Actually, they all seem to come and refuse to leave. If we think about the aged Grammar Translation way of teaching/learning a second or a foreign language and all that came after it, it might be shocking to see it’s still there. In regular schools in Brazil (where I live), for instance, it’s still the mainstream. Why is that? Well, for the very same reason that different approaches and methods have been created. Were we still living in a world in which there were very little chances to travel abroad, we’d probably be happy with such an approach.

But the world has changed (and has been changing). When people started feeling the need to actually speak foreign languages rather than simply being able to read a couple of disconnected sentences, it was clear that Grammar Translation wasn’t going to be of too much help. Hence, other methods came, and new ones kept coming for the past 100 years or so. As our need for collaboration and communication grew, people started taking second language learning more seriously. Some people tried comparing it to learning your first language, some methods advocated for the use of music, yet others claimed that mistakes were to be avoided at all costs. As usual, the many different methods rose and fell in popularity over time. Yet, they’ve all contributed something to the way we see Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and in particular English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

Nowadays, at least in the Western civilization, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is considered mainstream. If you meet an English teacher and ask him or her about his teaching practices, you’re likely to hear something like, “I teach according to the principles of CLT.” Unfortunately, many of these teachers haven’t got a clue of what CLT means in terms of approach, design and procedures – they’re just doing what they were trained to do: repeating something. But this isn’t really the focus of this post…

In addition to CLT, the “modern” English teacher is likely to mention other methods as TBL (task-based learning), the Lexical Approach, and Dogme, which, by the way, has just turned 10 years old. If you add to these all of the other methods and the myriad language institutes which claim to follow methodology A, B, or C, you may wind up with a very big question mark floating over your head: What is the best methodology for one to learn a foreign language?

Methods (or methodologies) are created – hopefully – based on principles of SLA theories. There isn’t much we know about the way the brain works, but based on current research, we can attempt to take some guesses to answer the question. We’ve got three main views of SLA theories: behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Each one of these views present different perspectives towards language learning and teaching, and none should be discarded. Is there a better way to learn a second or foreign language? The answer can only be, “No, there isn’t.” If our answer is any different, we’re saying that we are sure all people learn the same way. We’re actually stating that we aren’t all unique and that one size does fit all. I’m one who does not share this view – an opinion formed both from personal observation and experience and from readings.

There’s still no magic pill or microchip that will make you speak a language instantly. However, there are things we believe will help you learn a foreign language. For instance, Krashen mentioned the hypothesis of comprehensible input (what is known as i + 1), and Swain mentioned the comprehensible output hypothesis. In terms of learning, any kind of learning, we tend to do better on tasks we learn by doing than the ones we learn by passively observing others. In language learning, we value input, and we know exposure is a necessary condition, yet definitely not the only one. And then comes learning strategies. The more you know about how you learn, the easier it will be for you to learn a foreign language.

To answer the question asked on the title of the post (again), I don’t believe there is such a thing as the method for language learning. There isn’t only one way for us to learn languages. But there are things I believe will always help. Interaction, negotiation of meaning, exposure, and authenticity will never, in my humble opinion, get in the way of your learning. Next time you wonder what method can help you learn a second or foreign language, start thinking about how you learn. This might lead you to the right answer.

11 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as THE method to learn a second or foreign language?

  1. That’s it. Thousands of methods and a question:”Which one is the best?”. I completely agree with you there is no THE METHOD. Everything depends on the learner. A good method is the one, that in particular case has a great result.

    1. And we keep coming back to the fact that learning languages is about communication and the need to pay attention to the learner and make him or her play an active part in the whole process. 🙂

  2. I certainly agree with much of what you say Henrick. I think the reason that Grammar/Translation is maintained is that it has a ‘correct’ answer which is easily assessable, and therefore cheap to implement. Any system which relies only on this method is treating English as an academic subject, rather than as a living language and medium of communication. It would probably be just as useful (if not more so) for those countries to teach their students Sanskrit, Latin or Ancient Greek, where Grammar/Translation is more applicable and leads to an understanding of where many modern European languages have their roots…

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Colin. I guess they only take into account the practicality of assessment when they use GT. Hopefully there’s a new generation of teachers coming who understand that language is meant to be used in communication, and not merely in grammar/reading comprehension tests.
      When you mention the fact that it’s cheap to implement I can’t help but think about businessmen who open a language institute but know squat about it. It’s all about the money, so the cheaper, the better. If we add to that the fact that most people haven’t got a clue of what works and what doesn’t, then tend to go for the ‘most beautiful’ advert, or something like that. Would you agree with that?

      1. I think in countries where English is not the primary language, the marketing of language schools is probably going to be different from that in the UK, US, NZ, Australia, Canada, etc. It may be that business people can set up language schools and ‘get away with’ knowing nothing about language teaching, but the “cheap and cheerful” approach is not always going to work – people need to be reminded what happened to Nova in Japan.

        Here is just one report on that

        My hope is that word will get out about those schools which do provide effective and realistic language teaching… Maybe I’m just dreaming though!

      2. If that’s a dream, you’re not dreaming it alone. Not only are they wasting their money, but they’re also wasting their time and risking creating a ‘block’ towards language learning. 😦

        If only language schools were seriously regulated by the Ministry of Education or any serious board… In an EFL context this is not the case, unfortunately.

  3. One thing seems certain: with every new insight into how people actually learn, we understand more clearly that the brain is not a computer, it’s a sponge. So we can’t “program” the mind of the learner with “code,” in the sense of rules, structures and do/don’t signposts. We must, instead, gradually build up exposure, input, lexis, functional language chunks, and pattern recognition; and then reinforce these elements with repetition and meaningful use. The sad thing is that so much ELT is still stuck in 19th-century formulae, whereas our learners are surrounded by 21st-century learning possibilities.

    Perhaps what is missing is what they label in business schools as a BHAG: a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. In all probability, America would not have landed a man on the moon so quickly had President Kennedy not emodied that ambition in 1962 by his vow to do so by the end of the decade.

    So what could be ELT’s BHAG? I would suggest that we set an objective of having a learner be functional in conversational English not more than two years after starting instruction, whether in a national school system, private education, or language institute. I am convinced that with all the online learning resources we have today, the pedagogical insights, and the advances in teacher training, it is possible. It just has to be out there, as a goal, as a benchmark, so that teachers still teaching kids English after 3, 4, or 5 years should really start to rebel at the methods and approaches they are sometimes being forced to use.

    If we can land a man on the moon using 1960’s-era technology, surely we can use both technology and pedagogy to accelerate language learning a half-century later!

    1. Hi Paul,

      Interesting comment – me likes it! 🙂

      Yes, I agree with you that much of ELT is still stuck in the past, if not the 19th century, perhaps the mid-20th century (audiolingualism, for instance). I like the concept of BHAG, but I’d have to ask you what exactly do you mean by a functional learner. Would you consider a B1 learner (according to the CEF) a functional learner? And then again, how many hours of instructions would we be talking about?

      While I understand that for adulthood the knowledge of a foreign language is actually more important than the knowledge of chemistry, for example, I still believe that there are many educational systems around the globe who are test-oriented and where a good mark in chemistry is far more relevant than a good mark in languages. I’m not saying here that chemistry and other subjects aren’t important, but I suppose most jobs you might consider in your adult life would require you to be fluent in other languages and couldn’t care less about your knowledge of chemistry. But schools are not exactly preparing students for life these days, right? Which means that even if you want to take a career and become a scientist, the many hours of chemistry instruction won’t be particularly useful – you learn because you need to score well in a university entrance examination.

      This means that most students, especially teenagers, tend to leave language studies aside in favour of other subjects. And, oh boy, when they check the competition, they just freak out and try to learn how to play the game that the system has imposed upon them.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite all technological advance, students may not have the time to take advantage of them if they weigh the importance of language learning against the learning of mathematics and physics, so to speak.

      And finally, in spite of all my questions, I do agree with you when you say that students would most certainly be capable of becoming functional (I’d say something between B1 and B2 levels) within 2 years IF they were given proper guidance and IF they really committed to their studies. We can surely accelerate language learning with the current technology and pedagogical findings, but I’m afraid it’ll take a bit more than that. Something else has got to change, would you agree?

      Best! 🙂

      PS: Will I see you in São Paulo next week, at the Braz-TESOL?

      1. “surely we can use both technology and pedagogy to accelerate language learning a half-century later!”

        It seems that we can. When I was training as a mathematics teacher, a long-term study in to Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education had just finished, and another using Mathematics Education was in progress. One of the unexpected findings was that intervention in science education of 11/12 year olds, not only boosted grades in Science exams at age 16, but also in Mathematics (not a surprise), in whichever Modern Foreign Language was being studied and in Music…

        The technology is the child’s brain, that is what needs to be properly applied…

      2. Thanks for both links! I’ve just quickly read the main page. Has it got to do with Vygotsky’s ZPD? That’s my impression. I think many teachers are afraid of not being popular among students if they push them to their limits. But then… Ha! Teaching is not a popularity contest.

        The main technology is the child’s brain, for sure. I hope people don’t lose sight of this and understand that technology such as the computer and the Internet are mere tools, but they should never take centre stage in the classroom. The most important relationship in the classroom has always got to be between the teacher and the learners. Everything else is just extra resource which may be useful if used appropriately.

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