In our previous mini-article entitled Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning we mentioned an important distinction in the way in which children acquire their mother tongue naturally, by means of meaningful interactions with their parents in which the focus of every single exchange is communicative in nature.
Adults, in contrast, when trying to learn a second language, are usually presented with a myriad of grammar rules and patterns to master from the very first class.
It is said by advocates of these procedures, that their cognitive development cannot be equalled to that of a child and that statement is very true indeed. However, the fact that there are important cognitive and developmental differences between children and adults does not by any means imply that language should be presented devoid of any meaning as a rigid set of rules and patterns which are essential to master. Advocates of this school have the perception that every single piece of the puzzle they teach (i.e. a certain pattern, rule, tense, etc) is going to be inserted into the big picture one day and the puzzle will be perfectly complete for the student to see and use. In reality, students simply receive piece after piece after piece of a big something that they are never able to tell what it is or when they will be able to see it, if ever.
Have you ever tried to make a really big puzzle without an overall picture of what it would look like when finished? If you have, you will have noticed that it may be a very frustrating and draining activity, with no clear goals and objectives. Every effort you make seems to be meaningless and you usually feel like drifting around aimlessly and purposelessly. Isn’t it part and parcel of the Second language teaching profession to find thousands of adult learners who could recite a grammar book by heart but nevertheless are unable to communicate basic ideas naturally and fluently if it is that they can communicate them at all?
This, of course, does not have any resemblance to the way in which a first language is acquired. Nor does it mean that children and adults acquire a first and a second language in precisely the same way. There are obvious differences among children and adults learning a second language.
What was highlighted in our previous article is the need for language to be meaningful at all times, and this is common ground for both children and adults alike. Language without meaningful communication is as useless as Valentine’s Day without lovers or Children’s day without any kids (I apologize for using the same analogy as in my previous article).
However, a quick look at present-day language courses clearly shows that this is not the case at all. You will see from the very first lesson, that the students have laundry lists of words to master and memorize, grammar, vocabulary, grammar and more vocabulary to make them feel they can even “touch” the language, those pretty “tangible” patterns they learn lesson after lesson that make them feel so secure and confident. The truth is, in the vast majority of cases, that whenever presented with a REAL situation in which they have to use the language, more often than not they dry up and are unable to utter two coherent phrases altogether. Are they to blame for their “failure?” Of course not. If what you are trained to do exclusively is grammar, repetitions and drills, you cannot be expected to produce something different, something communicative. The magic “click” that is supposed to take place in the students’ brains after constant hammering and repetition apparently never takes place or if it does, in the best of cases, it is in less than 2 per cent of the learners.
What does this show? Clearly it is an indicator that must make us reflect on the importance of our teaching practices. Just because we as teachers learned things in a certain way does NOT mean that it is THE way. Pragmatic results clearly show that a grammar based approach to teaching a language is highly ineffective since language per definition entails communication. Until we come to understand this simple fact, we will keep seeing students dropping out of their language studies because “they are too hard for them, they are not cut out to learn a second language” and statements like these. And they may be true… They do NOT need to learn a second language. Then need to acquire it in all the senses of the word.