How Human Brains Analyze and Learn Languages

When you are born, first you do not speak to anyone. You spend a year or so just uttering separate sounds and words in imitation of the adults around. And then at some point, boom, you are communicating in sentences! Surprisingly enough, the sentences are relevant to the situation.

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You start using good grammar, like past tenses or passives, however complicated they might be in your mother tongue. People occasionally correct you but you are doing miraculously well. Your vocabulary grows with each passing day, too. Your pronunciation and intonation, meanwhile, were right on spot from day one. Are you a genius for that? If so, then most of us are.

As an adult learner of languages, you are picky about methods of teaching. You talk about your learning preferences and your memory type. You look for the best book and the best course. If you study in a group, you might feel you are different from the rest because you would rather do some types of activities but not others and you perceive their usefulness unequally. If you study one-to-one with a tutor, you may switch them and criticize their methods or demand they adapt some to their new unique learner, you. But as kids, we all learned our first language in one and the same way—listening and repeating.

You are going to tell me that kids are different, and I’ll grant you that. Their brains are more flexible; their survival depends a lot on learning to communicate with people around them; they have nothing else to do all day but listen and interpret what they hear. You are an adult with taxes to file, food to cook and relationship problems to be managed.

You probably have an option of living your whole life decently well just speaking one single language. Your brain is exhausted a lot of the time and is fed so much information daily that it is a good thing you remember anything new at all. And yes, teachers and language courses should definitely allow for all that.

However, you cannot argue against the fact that once your brain performed an impressive feat of analyzing a whole bunch of sounds, words and structures to figure out how to use them. And … started using them correctly in record time!

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Surely it did not happen because you read some grammar rules before bed or had your early mistakes pointed out to you on a whiteboard along with other examples? Did you do any grammar drills? Did you make lists of the new vocabulary you encountered? Did you study new vocabulary by topic? Did anybody give you tests and exams to make you revise what you learned?

You know very well that none of that happened to you when you were learning your L1 (Language 1). Yet all those methods and more are what you would expect to find (and you would be surprised not to find) in the classroom where your L2 is taught. And maybe you think it is because people in education know better and organize classes that way for a good reason.

But hey, try being as critical of established language teaching methods as you are of your local authorities or your managers at work. Is everything always done the way it is because that is more efficient? Or is it a lot about profit for a few interested parties (while never for the end client), about traditions and centuries-old ideas, as well as potential difficulties that we would face if we were to change anything?

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Like we have agreed earlier, you spent the first year of your life just listening to others before you said anything at all. Traditional learning of L2 is not even remotely similar, while a myriad of linguists argue that without sufficient high quality input in your second language (a few 2 minute audio tracks are not sufficient) you can’t be expected to produce high quality output.

And isn’t it just obvious, after all? How are a few isolated examples supposed to give you a good idea of a word's meaning or a complex grammar rule? Isn’t this rule better off introduced to you once your brain has stored within itself a sizable bunch of natural situations and context where that construction is used?

Look up Stephen Krashen (American linguist), and once you start reading up on him, you will find many others voicing ideas and showing research that actually, come to think of it, makes perfect sense. You need to observe and absorb a lot of the language before you are asked to produce your own speech of the same level.

Your brain is more than capable of analyzing multiple similar examples to feel its way towards using the same pattern correctly—our brains love patterns, as any neuroscientist will confirm. And if it sounds experimental and you still need your crutch in the form of a book with a rule or a table of irregular verbs, just remember that not all existing systems are worth keeping as they are. No other school subject is such an industry as foreign languages, is it, with tutors, courses and academies hunting for you everywhere—and why is that, do you think?

We want control of your learning, you know. We want to be able to point to a page or a graph or a list and say: “This is what we have learned today”. And next time we want to check it. And if you still do not remember or do not understand it, that is okay because you can buy one more class with us. And we can discipline you with a mark.

We can compare people against each other. We can make you want a mark or a certificate more than you want actual knowledge. We need you to keep making mistakes so that we can keep correcting you and feel needed. We will not give you a lot of reading and listening as homework because you do not pay us for homework. We just need more hours with you. This is our business and our salary, you know.

Think about what you have read and book a free 30 minute conversation with the author, an English teacher who wants you to consume tons of content of increasing difficulty in English (that she will duly provide) to let your brain learn the way it wants to and knows how to, once you allow it. Say bye to inefficiency and say, Hi Kate! I want to be the last English teacher you will ever need and I will do my best to help you learn as fast as possible.

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