In the first essay I wrote that there are two ways to know a language. One way is to acquire a language by experiencing it naturally, by reading and listening. The other way is to learn a language by studying hard and learning rules. I also wrote that most of our fluency (language ability) comes from acquired language, not learned language.
Is it helpful to try to learn language?
If most of our language ability is acquired, is it ever helpful to try to learn language? Yes, it is. Let me explain.
Occasionally, when I buy new clothes, I find a small piece of paper in one of the pockets. On that piece of paper, I will see something like this: “Inspected by #38”.
Quality control is the process of checking goods (clothes and other things that are produced or manufactured) to make sure they are good enough to sell. When I find that little piece of paper, I know that someone – Inspector #38 – inspected (examined, or looked at) my clothes to make sure they were good enough to sell.
We could also call the inspector a monitor. A monitor is someone who watches an activity or situation to make sure everything is the way it is supposed to be. For example, an election monitor is someone who watches during an election to make sure it is fair and everyone has an equal opportunity to vote.
When is it helpful?
Is the language we learn helpful? Yes, it is, but only at certain times. It doesn’t help our fluency very much, but it does help us monitor our acquired language when we use it. It helps us to be more accurate, especially when we write.
Why is this true? Scientific research tells us that there are three requirements for using learned language.
- We have to know the rule. And that is difficult to do because language is very complex (complicated) and there are hundreds of rules.
- We have to be focused (pay careful attention to) on form (the way something looks or sounds).
- We have to have time to think about the rule.
Usually the only time we can satisfy all three of these requirements is when we are taking a grammar test or editing something we have written.
Interestingly, none of the good writers that I know think about rules when they write. Mostly they know their writing is good by the way it feels or sounds. Recently I saw an interesting statement by a very successful writer. Here’s what he said:
“You may find it amusing to know that I…have never learned the formal rules of grammar. I learned to write by reading obsessively (enthusiastically) at an early age, but when it came time to learn the “rules,” I tuned out (didn’t listen or study). If you show me an incorrect sentence, I can fix it, but if I need to know the technical reason why it was wrong in the first place, I go ask my wife.”
How did he develop his writing ability? By reading. How can you develop more English ability? The same way: by reading and listening. There is no substitute for (nothing is as good as) reading and listening to help us acquire language.