A Better Way to Learn a Second Language

A few days ago, I input "Language Schools" in the Google search bar, and it showed an incredible 95 million hits. Talk about being blown away! As soon as I recovered my senses, I started just how many public and charter schools, colleges, and universities are offering second language training in the United States. Undoubtedly, that number must also be completely mind-boggling.

These numbers beg the question: why. Given all of the available courses and institutions to learn another language, why are so few Americans bilingual? Studies and surveys seem to indicate that only about a tenth of all Americans have actual bilingual skills. This is a lower number, given all of the public and private schools providing second language instruction. One should also keep in mind the opportunities that exist in foreign countries that are currently offering Americans the opportunity to "become fluent" in another language.

This low number also puts America and its economy at a disadvantage. For while Americans have a bilingualism rate of about 10%, Europeans, with their polyglot of languages, have a bilingualism rate of over 50%. Why are we crippling ourselves and our future prosperity in this way?

The traditional method used to teach (or self-teach) a new language is to study the grammar. Proper grammar is pounded into your head -- verb conjugations, subject-verb agreements, and the genders of things. You can spend months trying to learn it all well enough to construct a sentence flawlessly. With it, you might be able to translate a road sign, or simple directions, or read a menu in another language, but it won't help you communicate fluently.

Instead of learning language skills, i.e. using the tried-and-true methods, we should "acquire" the familiarity of the second language. In other words, learn some of the nouns, descriptors and verbs and jump right in. Learn enough of the basics to be able to recognize most of the words, then learn the rest the natural way. The way we learnt how to communicate as toddlers.

The method that parents taught their kids how to communicate, regardless our country of origin, is the way we must use for second language acquisition. Please notice that I said "acquire" and not "learn" a new language. There is a difference and that difference should play an important role in developing a study plan where you will end up acquiring a high degree of spoken fluency before learning the grammar and its rules.

If acquisition and immersion in learning how to communicate when we were still in diapers didn't work well, why is it the method that all parents (and early-age primary instructors) use? Trying to learn all of the rules, and a large subset of the vocabulary, will never allow you to become fluently bilingual.

Acquiring the language skills enables you to better learn the rules of grammar at a later date. The obsession with making yourself speak in a grammatically correct manner will cripple your ability to communicate naturally and easily. Acquiring the second language in this way won't enable you to understand complex or advanced topics like the sciences. But that is something that you can grow into, once you switch from the acquisition stage to the learning stage. In the meantime, you'll be able to talk about common everyday things like street directions, making purchases and other simple common interactions. The rest will come, through a combination of book learning and osmosis.

In the beginning, you'll speak the second language like a native-born child would. That's sufficient to begin with. Your language skills will naturally develop and become more like an adult's, exactly the same way it did when you learnt your first language. If you learn the traditional way, you'll always be hung up on proper grammar and verb conjugations. You'll never be able to achieve true fluency in your chosen second language.

So, put language acquisition first, then work on language (and grammar) learning.

Seek and Learn

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