Several months ago, I told the story of Adrian, a frustrated Brazilian English-learner who dropped out of his English class. Shortly after that, he discovered that we acquire language in one way – by reading and listening. In a short time – a little more than two years – Adrian became very fluent in English. Later, he used the same method to acquire Spanish. I recently received an e-mail from Adrian that continues the story of his language journey – a story every language learner should read. Here is Adrian’s e-mail:
(Note: I have made few changes, mostly punctuation, to Adrian’s e-mail; I wanted you to see his story the way he tells it. I have marked words I added by putting them in brackets, [like this].)
Months ago I wrote to you to tell about the beginning of my journey studying English. I decided to write to update and reflect a little bit more about my journey.
As you can remember, my English studies began with classes at a prestigious [school] in Brazil. My grades were high – I never got less than 9.0 – but I used to speak with difficulty, limited [fluency], and fear. I remember memorizing dialogues and devoting hours to study for tests. I remember my huge problem, too: I only [correctly applied] the rule for the third person singular a few times although I knew the grammar rule I should use at that time. As you know, I was frustrated and left the course despite having passed the tests.
… even if I had given up the English course, I had not given up my objective to learn English. I used Google, and after some time I found quotes from the writings of [Dr. Stephen] Krashen [in Portuguese] on a site about language. Insisting on [reading] the research, I found the actual site of Krashen. After that, I found the ESL Podcast, VOA, and finally, your web page….
How I learn
Today, I can see some problems that blocked my learning. But the biggest one, I believe, was the way they were trying to teach me how to learn English [by memorizing rules]. I also think that the answer to my difficulty was obvious. As a grandson of Italians, I learned Italian with my family. [As the] son of Brazilians, I learned Portuguese with my family. That is, I learned Portuguese and Italian in a natural way, by living them. Why should learning a third language be different? But it was. Learning English for me … was a marathon of drills and exercises that sometimes I could not understand the purpose.
The point is that I did not learn Portuguese or Italian studying grammar, yet I speak both languages very well and have well-structured writing. In fact, when I want I simply speak Portuguese or Italian. How is this possible? The answer is that I learned both without treating [them] as something strange: they are part of me and of my culture. I think when you start studying a language through grammar what happens is that the language becomes an object, like a can I pick up on the supermarket shelf. The language is no longer part of me; it becomes something strange to me, something artificial.
… I am not saying that studying grammar is not something you should do…. Studying grammar is important, but for everything there is an appropriate time. I have not learned to speak Portuguese or Italian with my parents repeating grammatical rules, but I studied grammar to write well and polish aspects of my speech years later, after I know how to speak.
The same learning process that made me a “native” in Portuguese and Italian [acquiring language by listening and reading] is what, as you know, I have been following to learn English. Today, I simply speak English. When I want, I change from Portuguese to English or Italian to English and without thinking, naturally.
In the first letter I wrote to you, I mentioned that, for a while, I only used to listen to the ESL Podcast, VOA, and read, read widely in English. …I did not speak English for nearly 10 months. In my opinion, this silent period was important for me to reduce my anxiety when entering an English-speaking environment as well as to have time to put together the pieces of the English language….
And now, Spanish
For professional reasons I am teaching in a foreign language – I teach law in Spanish. Today I teach at a prestigious University in Spain as a visiting professor. I began my studies in Spanish more or less a year-and-a-half ago. The method I used is the same that [helped] me learn English. I tried to [extensively] expose myself to the Spanish language, firstly reading the easiest things and listening to slow narratives. Almost two years later, I read well and I am able to teach three classes, each one with 52 to 60 students, without disruption….
In his e-mail, Adrian also describes how he tried to improve his Spanish by doing a lot of speaking when he first moved to Spain. Unfortunately, speaking Spanish didn’t help very much. So what did he do? He says he spent “weekends with my silent reading and listening more than talking.” He tells me that his Spanish speaking began to improve very quickly after that.
Adrian’s story may seem exceptional, and in many ways it is. But it doesn’t have to be an unusual story. Anyone can do what Adrian did. How?
- Get as much comprehensible input as possible – interesting, understandable English – by reading and listening. Adrian often spends 2-4 hours reading and listening every day. He carries his iPod, iPad, or a book everywhere he goes and takes advantage of short periods of free time.
- Be enthusiastic about your English journey. Treat English as your language, not something alien; let it become part of your life. Think of yourself as becoming a member of the “English-users Club” – that large group of people around the world who use English frequently and use it well.
Related reading (the beginning of Adrian’s story):