Why You Should Stop Learning a Second Language (TIP: “Acquire” It Instead)

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People who want to master a foreign language should stop trying to learn it. 

Yep, that’s right, put the books away, stop practicing in front of a mirror, and stop mouthing sentences in the car on the way to work.

What you’ve studied and learnt to this point is all well and good, but if you’re finding that your language proficiency has leveled out and you’re struggling to move up to the next notch, consider acquiring the language instead of learning it.

But what does that mean?

Well, it’s an inspiring time to be learning a foreign language because the grammar books of old can be replaced by a far more effective way of gaining language skills.

Here we’ll take a look at:

  • Why you need to learn a foreign language like a child
  • Why the key to learning a language is  understanding messages (comprehensible input) in a low-anxiety environment
  • How today’s language learning tools shape up
  • Why TV and video can accelerate your learning
  • How new tools like our Chrome extension can help boost proficiency by combining video learning with AI technology

A short story about learning acquisition 

Linguistic expert Stephen Krashen (from the University of Southern California) famously recounts a story from the 1980s when he was living next to a Japanese couple in New York. The couple’s young daughter, Hitomi, spoke no English for five months. 

This was despite his best attempts to cajole a few simple words out of her. As the head of the language department, his professional pride took a huge beating. But just as he was giving up on the girl, she suddenly started speaking a few words. From there, Hitomi began to catch up very quickly to the native speakers and was soon a capable English speaker in her own right.

So, what happened?

You may argue that “kids’ brains are like sponges” and that they absorb everything at that age — a distinct advantage over you, the reader. But that’s not the point.

Krashen realized from this example that language acquisition was more effective than language learning.

He concluded that Hitomi was not speaking English for five years but during that time she was listening. She had been “acquiring” the language for months before actually speaking it, picking up comprehensible input from all the English conversations going on around her in the playground, in the streets, on public transport, etc.

Hitomi listening for comprehensible input and then repeating it back later (generally in the right context) had been far more effective than his lame attempts to cajole a few English words out of her.

Krashen went on to develop his well-accepted language acquisition theories. He proposed that we all acquire language the same way: by understanding messages (comprehensible input). And that these messages are best delivered in a low-anxiety environment.

He argued that, previously, he’d placed Hitomi on the spot, asking her to speak some words in English. This had caused the girl to clam up because he’d created precisely the type of high-anxiety situation where nobody learns effectively.

Let’s consider a couple of direct quotes from Krashen to illustrate these points further:

“Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules and does not require tedious drill.

Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”

“The best methods are therefore, those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready’, recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.”

How do these theories tally with today’s language-learning tools?

Krashen developed his theories 40 years ago, and a good indication of their tremendous strength is that they’re not only still relevant today — they still inspire language teachers, language-learning courses, and technologies.

It’s fair to say that there’s an incredible abundance of language-learning tools out there for people wanting to master a second language.

But how many of them support Krashen’s well-accepted theories about how we learn languages most effectively?

Are they helping to deliver comprehensible input in a low-anxiety environment?

AI tools like ChatGPT can certainly help with many aspects of learning a second language but it doesn’t currently allow you to interact meaningfully or naturally in the target language. It won’t replicate the positive outcomes of being “immersed “ in the language — as young Hitomi was at school.

There are listening tools, vocabulary-building tools, reading tools, writing tools, pronunciation tools, translation tools, and even tools that help you learn more about cultures and connect with native speakers.

All may be useful to a point. But it’s not quite like having a permanent native-speaking teacher to guide you — and who you can pop into your back pocket and pull out and interact with meaningfully as and when you need to.

Alas, few people can afford a private teacher 24/7, and that tool is yet to be invented. 

Immersive language acquisition through TV and video

The closest thing we have to a 24/7 native-speaking teacher are apps that we can carry everywhere on our smartphones. For instance, this simple Chrome extension combines the best aspect of AI and humans to create interactive, engaging content for language acquisition. 

Krashen refers to the value to language learners of conversations that get so interesting that you temporarily forget that you’re using another language.

Where can we find conversations in Spanish that are this interesting to us — without actually traveling to a Spanish-speaking country or hiring a permanent teacher?

How can we create experiences with Spanish native speakers so immersive that learners start to forget that they’re learning a foreign language?

Videos and TV shows expose learners to authentic language use while combining different input modes (images and audio). This can stimulate various aspects of second language learning (Perez and Rodgers, 2018).

Findings also suggest that viewing TV may have a positive effect on learners’ listening and reading proficiency (Lindgren and Muñoz, 2013) and their vocabulary knowledge (Peters, 2018).

Take this next story, for instance: two Israeli sisters became so proficient in Spanish that they started speaking it at home to keep secrets from their parents — simply by watching an Argentine TV program with Hebrew subtitles every day after school.

Overlooking the legitimate “screen time” concerns that some people have about modern life, the fact is that TV shows, movies, and videos are great for learning a foreign language.

Melissa Baese-Berk, associate professor of linguistics and director of the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program at the University of Oregon, points out that “These stories are hugely common”. 

She goes on to say that TV shows that are engaging and have subtitles, as well as ideally having a repetitive storyline, are best for learning.

Acquire a second language through video

Almost everyone watches (and is absorbed by) YouTube videos, Netflix series, Amazon Prime series/events and so on.

It makes perfect sense to take a popular, engaging format and use it to boost our language learning experience.

In other words, we can use video to help deliver comprehensible input in a format that engages us in an anxiety-free environment

Through video, you can acquire language naturally by learning new words and phrases in context.

In the absence of a permanent teacher, then, learning from video subtitles is a worthy (not to mention more affordable) option to go about language acquisition. You can give your language learning a boost with a simple Chrome extension that helps you acquire language through video using YouTube subtitles and ChatGPT. Download it here to get started.

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