A language teacher acquires a new language


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques

Alex teaches English at an American university. He’s also the director of the university’s TESL program, where students learn how to teach English as a second language. When he wanted to learn Spanish, he began as many English learners do. And failed. He experienced success, though, when he applied a simple principle and found some creative ways to make it work.

Alex’s story

When talking about his early experience with Spanish, Alex describes himself as an “eager yet unsuccessful language learner.” He studied Spanish intensely for two years – learning grammar rules, memorizing vocabulary, being corrected by his teachers. But, as he writes, this kind of study leads to “knowledge about the language rather than the ability to appropriately use it.”

Alex says that this kind of instruction had a disastrous effect on his early attempts to learn Spanish. After all his work, he was unable to use Spanish and became very anxious about his lack of Spanish ability.

Alex’s efforts to acquire, or pick up, Spanish turned in a new direction when he learned that you acquire new language when you understand messages being communicated in the new language, not when you focus on rules.

He also concluded that his frustration with Spanish came from his anxiety, not from his lack of ability or failure to study. He came to understand that stressful teaching methods and learning conditions can make language acquisition difficult. And that anxiety can decrease your confidence and your desire to keep studying the language.

For Alex, success came when he began to apply this simple principle:

You acquire a language when you are exposed to input, or language, that you can understand. This input should consist mostly of language you already know. That way you can pick up new language from the context. If the language you read and listen to is too difficult, it increases your anxiety and makes it harder to acquire new language.

What Alex did

Since Alex loves to read the newspaper, he began the habit of reading an English newspaper in the morning so he could become familiar with the news of the day. Later in the day he read the news in a Spanish newspaper. Since he was already familiar with most of the stories from reading them in English, they were easier to understand when he read them in Spanish. You could do the same thing by first reading or listening to news stories in your language, then reading or listening to them in English.

Alex found most of his Spanish input in English books – books that he had already read – that had been translated into Spanish. He also read graphic novel versions of the same books. Since he had read the books in English – and seen all the movies many times – he was able to understand the Spanish versions of the books.

With everything he reads or listens to, Alex has a simple rule: if it’s not interesting, or understandable, stop! Find something that is.

Alex received oral – spoken – input from his mother-in-law, a native speaker of Spanish. He asked her about familiar topics, such as food, her childhood, politics, and the family farm. She was patient and willing to repeat herself and answer questions. Since she couldn’t speak English, all the input Alex received was in Spanish, the language he wanted to acquire.

What you can do

At the end of Alex’s story, he writes: “I have a life in Spanish that is almost as rich as my life in English. Although I have received little formal instruction, I have managed to acquire quite a bit of Spanish on my own … and I have enjoyed myself in the process. My hope is that … foreign language teachers and students will realize that second language acquisition can simultaneously be enjoyable and fruitful.”

Everything Alex did to acquire Spanish can help you acquire English. Even if you don’t have an English-speaking mother-in-law, you might be able to find someone who’s native language is English – a student or business person. Make a weekly appointment with them. Offer to buy them coffee or lunch and ask them the kinds of questions Alex asked his wife’s mother.

Warren Ediger

Related Reading: Frustration to success; Better English at Sweet Valley High

Reference: Poole (2011) The Monitor Model and Me: A story of successful adult foreign language acquisition. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 7.1.

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David Monteiro December 8, 2011

Hi there, dear Warren!

Alex’s story reminds me of all the time I isolatedly studied English in the backward, traditional way. The only difference between me and Alex is that I did it for almost 4 years. As a crazy and perfectionist guy, I used to barricade myself in my room and not to get out until I learned everything (the content in the textbooks and Grammar rules). I thought I could get fluency by doing so. When I found I was ready to go to the streets, find an English-speaking person, and start my English adventure, I was totally unable to do it. When I did, it was totally unnatural, robotic, and much too formal. I was very, very frustrated and had the feeling of failure. I thought: “How could such a thing happen after so much effort and dedication? I learned many of those rules by heart, memorized lots of vocabulary words, etc.” Just imagine how much disappointed I became! But after all those unfortunate events, I let the friendly voice speak aloud in my head; the one that always says: “NEVER EVER give up, David! There’s always an alternative route.” So I changed my way of learning English. And from that moment on, my English abilities have skyrocketed!

To conclude, I repeat: Thank God I found out about you and your powerful, successful suggestions and advice! Today, I can’t say how much I am proud! All I know is that I’m very, very satisfied with my English studies. Thanks a lot! God bless you!

David Monteiro Reis (Bahia – Brazil)

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