Second Language Learning

Acquisition of a native language is swift and painless during childhood. Children pick up a new language quickly while in a foreign land. Parents may be much slower to learn the new language. Eric Lenneberg of Cornell pointed out in the 1960s that language learning in childhood is biologically "prepared" until about the age of 11. Then the gate closes. The adolescent or adult finds it much harder to learn a second language.

What did Lenneberg argue? What finding with Cuban refugees supports these ideas?

Studies of refugees who came from Cuba to the United States are consistent with Lenneberg's theory. Those who came to the United States before adolescence learned to speak without an accent. Those who came as adults never lost their accents, even after decades in the United States.

The implications are clear. To help children speak fluently in multiple languages, children should be exposed to several languages while they are still young. Then they have a better chance of becoming a polyglot : somebody who speaks several languages fluently.

How do you make a child into a polyglot? What is a "peculiarly American" phenomenon according to Asher?

Asher (1981) did research on language learning in adulthood. He noted that American students at the time were very reluctant to study foreign languages. Asher called this a "peculiarly American" phenomenon. Educated people in other parts of the world are more likely to be multilingual. Asher found many United States students tried to learn foreign languages but did poorly. He noted that "traditional teaching methods...are highly stressful for all but the most linguistically gifted." Traditional teaching methods involved repetitive drills based on commands from the instructor. For example:

"Listen and repeat after me."

"Memorize this dialogue."

"Pronounce these words."

How does the Total Physical Response method differ from traditional language learning methods?

According to Asher, "All are excellent procedures for advanced students but traumatize most beginners so thoroughly that roughly 98% do not go beyond the first two years of study." Asher recommended an alternative that he calls the Total Physical Response method. The idea was to imitate the learning experiences of babyhood, connecting language with concrete action. Using Japanese as an example, Asher described a typical learning session:

The instructor says tate and stands up, as do the students; then the instructor says suware, and everyone sits down. Next, tate again, and everyone stands. Likewise, with the instructor as a model, the students walk, stop, turn, and run. Afterward, each student has a chance to perform in response to directions uttered in Japanese (p.54).

After 20 hours of such training, students reverse roles and issue commands to the teacher or to other students. Pronunciation is clumsy at first but improves with time. Students learn words for abstract concepts only after learning words for concrete objects and actions.

What is the best way to learn a language?

Another "total" approach to language learning is total immersion in the language and the culture. If you want to learn Japanese, enroll in a special program that requires you to eat, think, and breath Japanese, or visit Japan. It is commonly observed that the best way to learn a language is to spend some time in the country where it is spoken. To maximize the opportunity for language learning, exchange students are encouraged to spend most of their time with native speakers and not spend all their time with other exchange students who speak the same language.

Some colleges and universities offer intensive courses that meet twice as often as usual and offer twice the usual number of academic credits. They are aimed at providing intense exposure to a language. Such "immersion" works well for some students, resulting in rapid, effective language learning.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

Read about language learning overseas on these pages: "Communication at your fingertips" (—languagetrainers.com) and "Summer Studies" ( —www.esl-schools.org).



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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey