2 – What comes first?


in The Basics

In the first article – Two ways to know a language – I wrote that most of our fluency (ability) comes from language that we acquire subconsciously, not from language that we learn, or consciously study. If you haven’t read the first essay, I encourage you to read it now, before you read this one.

The natural order

The second thing that an English student should know is that some parts of a language are acquired before other parts. There is a natural order (one thing after another), with some parts acquired early and other parts late. Let me give you two examples:

  • The progressive – he is reading – is acquired early in the acquisition process.
  • The third-person singular – he eats – is acquired very late in the acquisition process.

There’s one other fact: we cannot change this natural order by studying. We will acquire each part of the language when the time is right.

Why is it helpful to know this?

First, it is helpful because it might help you understand why you get frustrated when you continue to have trouble with the same part of the English language, like the third-person singular. Maybe it is to early for you to acquire that part of the language. Maybe you need to wait.

What should an English student do? I think you should use the same approach (method of doing something) you do when you eat! We all know that our bodies need certain vitamins and other nutrients (specific foods we need to live and grow). But we don’t eat only Vitamin A for one week, then Vitamin B the next week, do we? No, we feed our bodies a healthy diet that contains all the nutrients, and trust our bodies to acquire (absorb) the nutrients they need. We should treat ourselves to a good, healthy diet of understandable English and trust our minds to acquire the parts of the English language that it needs when it is ready for them.

Don’t worry about mistakes!

There is a second reason why it is helpful to know about the natural order. Many English students worry too much about their mistakes. For example, I recently received an e-mail from a student who apologized (said he was sorry) for his English. He wrote, “…from this e-mail you may know that I use ‘broken’ English.” What he meant is that he thought there a lot of mistakes in his e-mail. The truth is that he was easy to understand even if his English wasn’t perfect!

While we are acquiring a new language, we develop an “in-between” language. Language teachers call this inter-language. Inter-language includes three things:

  • new language we have already acquired, the parts of the language we are confident about and comfortable with
  • guesses about our new language: “I think this is how I should say this!”
  • influences (effects) from our first language, for example, my Spanish students often put adjectives after nouns, just like they do in Spanish.

Our inter-language constantly changes while we are acquiring the new language. It’s a little different every day. If you continue to read and listen to easy-to-understand English, your inter-language will continue to become more and more like the English you want to speak and write.

It’s not broken!

Inter-language. It isn’t broken! It’s just different. It shows that you are somewhere in between where you started and where you are going. And it will continue to change as you move closer and closer to your destination (the place you are going): fluent English.

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