1 – Two ways to know a language

10.06.2009

in The Basics

How do we come to know a language?

Language specialists tell us that there are two ways to know a language. We can acquire a language, and we can learn a language. Language that we acquire is very different from language that we learn. And if you want to improve your English, you should understand the difference.

Acquiring a language is a natural process. It is the way we all develop our first language ability. It is automatic and subconscious (we don’t notice it). And it is the result of natural experience with language. When we read or hear language that we understand, we acquire (absorb or pick up) more of that language.

When we learn a language, we study and memorize vocabulary and rules about the language. It is a conscious process (we are aware of it, or notice, it). And it requires a lot of work.

Why is this difference important? It’s important because scientific research tells us that most of our fluency (language ability) comes from acquired language, not from learned language.

I recently read an article by a well-known professor and researcher who has looked at hundreds of research studies on language acquisition and learning. In the title of the article, he says that subconscious language acquisition is “alive and well (healthy)”. In the article, he makes it very clear that we do not have to consciously learn vocabulary or grammar. He says that we acquire language as a natural result of reading or listening for pleasure (enjoyment).

Let me tell you a story that will illustrate (show) what I am talking about. Mr. M is a retired Japanese high school English teacher. About three years ago, he came to my ESL class in southern California. He knew a lot of English vocabulary. He could identify subjunctive verbs. He had learned a lot about English. But it was very hard for him to use the English he had learned to read, converse (talk with someone), or write in English.

I never ask my students to memorize vocabulary or grammar rules. I only teach grammar occasionally, when it helps my students understand something better. We spend as much time as possible reading and listening to understandable English. Mr. M’s English began to improve. When he wasn’t in class, he looked for opportunities to talk to people who spoke English. Today his ability to converse and write is much better than it was when he came.

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Mr. M. In it he wrote a very simple message: “Thank you for teaching me a better way.”

Learn from Mr. M. Try a better way. Look for as much natural experience with English as possible. Read. Listen. Have conversations with English speakers. If you do, I think you will be surprised at how much English you acquire.

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