The process of acquiring an additional language is similar, if not exactly the same, as the process of acquiring our first language. So why we do not take that into account when teaching an additional language? We must rethink our beliefs and change our mindsets for educational paradigms shift much faster now as new research and scientific discoveries make us see the world around us continuously different.
All we need to do is look at the way babies and kids acquire their first language. There’s no need of deep studies or research to realize they acquire by being exposed to the natural language. They are bombarded with information, with language, with commands and expressions and start gradually to make sense, to relate the input received with what’s around them. When there’s enough confidence, and enough conscious linguistic knowledge, they get ready to start trying to communicate. Initially they will try to use language to fulfill their basic needs: water, food, a toy they want, the pacifier, the baby bottle… they will do so making many mistakes, but they want to make themselves intelligible. That’s their primary goal. What do usually parents do when this happens? They praise their children, give them a compliment, emphasize their effort to communicate and, of course, should repeat what their kids said in the correct form, so they can listen to it and again be exposed to the right structure, even though they made themselves understood. As time goes by, kids start correcting themselves when they compare what they said with what the parents repeated. They become more and more aware of the patterns of language, and start monitoring their own speech, without having to be systematically corrected by someone else. Seems easy, doesn’t it? But we seem to forget this when we teach kids an additional language.
Now let’s remember the way it usually happens. Books usually organize their curricula based on a sequence of grammar topics, arbitrarily chosen. Teachers then teach based on those topics and turn language into an artificial set of rules, decontextualized. Kids are not exposed to real language; yet they are exposed to limited input, limited vocabulary, and are systematically trained to memorize and produce language using those. Maybe there is faster initial production, because the training is intense. But there is little originality, little spontaneity, little autonomous production. This, in the future, might lead to the “intermediate plateau” syndrome: students reach a respectable level of knowledge of the language, but they simply cannot produce freely, autonomously, because they lack deep understanding of the structures and patterns of the language.
There is a tendency to focus on error correction rather than on intelligibility. This harms fluency and ultimately leads students to fear producing anything: they simply do not want to be corrected, to make a fool of themselves, they become insecure and do not speak anymore. Truth is, this way of teaching simply does not match the way we learn a language.
So why do we keep doing it? Simply because we do not reflect on our teaching and on our learning. It’s time we start thinking more empathically towards our students, learn from recent and even not so recent research, and redesign our classes to the needs of the 21stcentury learners. Students deserve that, and the dream of turning our country bilingual depends on our ability and willingness to make this change.