Can You Learn a Foreign Language Without a Teacher?
It probably won’t surprise you that a child easily absorbs a language, acquiring it and using it naturally by simply being exposed to the language.
And many studies show that children who grow up in rich linguistic environments develop greater proficiency in the language.
But what about adults?
Most of us think that unless we’re able to find a great tutor or “live” the target language by immersing ourselves in it with native speakers, we’re going to struggle.
So, we seek out some kind of formal tutoring in the belief that it’s the best way to learn a foreign language effectively.
Is that true?
And, if not, what is the best way to learn?
Teaching is not necessary to learn a language
Studies suggest that adults are well capable of learning a foreign language without the need for direct instruction.
In one study, the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was used to see how well a group of students learnt a dialect called Nadsat. This is a blend of Russian, Romany and rhyming slang that very few people would have any knowledge of before reading the book.
A total of 241 Nadsat words are used in the book, each repeated an average of 15 times.
Study participants were asked to read the book without a glossary (so there was no way of finding out the meaning of words) and then tested at the end to see what they’d been able to absorb and recall.
In many cases, the simple act of reading the Nadsat words in context was sufficient for students to infer their meaning. The average correct score in a test that included 90 of the Nadsat words was a very healthy 76 percent. This indicated that the students had acquired the language simply by reading the book.
Other studies have shown that second language learners can acquire grammar rules that they have never been taught. All this suggests that language acquisition can happen without instruction.
This brings us to Stephen Krashen’s theories, whereby people learn languages best when they receive large amounts of comprehensible input in low-anxiety environments — even without teaching or direct instruction.
So, instead of class drilling, flashcards, tests and speaking exercises in class, the best environment for language learning could simply be one where a student can read, listen and/or watch compelling content without facing the normal stresses associated with being put on the spot.
What is compelling content?
Stephen Krashen says something interesting about the nature of the best type of content to learn languages from:
“To make sure that language acquirers pay attention to the input, it should be interesting. But interest may be not enough for optimal language acquisition. It may be the case that input needs to be not just interesting but compelling.”
He goes on to suggest that compelling input is so interesting that you forget it’s in another language. The learner pays attention to the content and, in doing so, increases their level of language acquisition.
In support of his theory, Krashen cites the cases of students who find reading material (like story books) in the target language and, consequently, develop a greater interest — often with amazing results.
Often, the purpose of reading a particular story or watching a particular video is NOT to learn the language but to explore a topic — language acquisition happens naturally because of it.
This all suggests that the nature of the content is as important to the process of learning as the motivation to learn.
It’s fair to say that. Sometimes, in classroom situations, the motivation to learn is simply so that we don’t appear to be stupid in class!
Krashen and his examples suggest that a healthier and more effective approach to language learning is to find content in the target language that we’re interested in and to acquire the language as best we can from that.
There are many cases of people learning languages not because they were specifically trying to learn the language but because they were interested in movies in the target language, for instance. The input was comprehensible and compelling. The same might go for documentaries, video games, magazine articles, comic books — whatever content deals with topics of interest.
Krashen suggests that this may be “the only way we truly acquire language.”
So, while the teacher-student method has traditionally seemed like the gold standard of language learning, is it really so?
Do we even need a tutor when we have so much available and compelling content in the target language?
Do you need a tutor to practice speaking with?
Often, in classroom situations, foreign language learners are encouraged to speak and write, rather than read or listen.
How important is this type of output when learning a language? Should you be hunting down a language tutor to take you to the next level of your language learning — or can you save the money and look elsewhere?
Krashen says the following:
“Given the consistent evidence for comprehensible input, and the failure of other means of developing language competence, providing more comprehensible input seems to be a more reasonable strategy than increasing output.”
He notes that language learners are far more likely to practice reading and listening (input) than speaking and writing (output).
He also cites examples where people achieve great strides in their language learning without much output — almost subconsciously acquiring it when compelled to read or listen.
Find your own compelling content
Everybody can learn a foreign language on their own without a teacher. For students with a basic knowledge of the language who want to take a huge step up and aspire to a native-speaker level, the options are almost endless.
You just need to find compelling content in the target language to read or listen to/watch.
This could be any of the following types of content:
- Newspapers and magazines: are you a news buff or do you have a special interest covered by articles frequently published in magazines?
- Podcasts: listening to topics of interest is a surefire way to acquire language as long as the language is at the right level for you.
- Music: getting your favorite songs translated and listening to them over and over is a great way to absorb language.
- Online videos or TV: your favorite TV shows, Netflix series or YouTube videos are fair game — and can now be subtitled or translated automatically using AI (more about this below).
- Books: if you’re a literature bug, reading stories in the target language can accelerate your language acquisition. If you’re just beginning, children’s books may be the way to go.
- Comics or manga: if you love the simplicity of the language and images in comic-book stories, it can be an effective way to acquire language.
- Video games: a love of video games in your target language can be a powerful learning tool.
- Radio: keeping the radio on in your target language — around the house, when driving, or elsewhere — can help you pick up the language subconsciously (if you’re interested in the topics and/or music).
- Reading blogs: finding blogs in the target language on topics that you’re interested in and starting to read them will help.
Start learning now with YouTube videos
If you’ve been learning a language for a while and have hit a roadblock — where you just cannot get to the next level — isn’t it time to try something else?
Thinking more about exposure to language rather than language instruction can be the spur you need to take your linguistic development higher.
To do this, a simple Chrome extension may be all you need. It combines the benefits of AI and human-based learning to translate material that engages the learner and encourages a deeper immersion into the target language.
If you’re targeting near-native proficiency, you’ll find our app will help you acquire language more readily. Download it here to get started.