The open secret of language learning


Input. Output. That’s language acquisition in a nutshell. It may not seem an extensive theory, but doesn’t language always develop in basically the same way for each and every one of us? Information comes in, we process it, and something new comes out. That may lead naturally into communication. If no information is put in, very little will come out.
    Learning a first language is a piece of cake. There’s usually lots of input, friendly encouragement and practice with or without teachers ensuring a chance to test our skills. Fortunately, we’re normally very well prepared for them by that stage. We already have an extensive vocabulary and by some magic we are able to use our words in a mostly correct grammatical style. Teachers then help to refine and polish – under a good set of conditions.
    Second languages cause more problems. There’s generally a lot less input and something called interference – when the first language hinders or distorts the learning of a second language. In addition, we seem to be encouraged to run before we can walk, with the result that we tend to fall over a lot.
    The learning process might typically go something like this: A little vocabulary learning combined with lots of early grammatical input and exercises. The results of such early testing are usually far from perfect. Some questions may be answered correctly but a lot of errors are usually made as well. But do we really learn from these mistakes or do they just serve to create a confusion that can develop into bad habits? What does this process do to confidence, enjoyment levels, motivation and performance? Is it so necessary to rush through a lot of grammar topics very early on in the learning curve or could it be a major cause of fossilization? By this I mean non-standard language becomes ingrained and very hard to remove. It is, of course, easier to ask such questions than to find a more efficient and enjoyable language learning process.


Most people are aware of the fossilization problem, but its roots are hard to define and there’s no quick cure. Bad grammar and pronunciation habits can be increasingly hard to break over time. They occur once learners have developed a reasonable understanding of the language, but in the wrong order. With such an early emphasis on testing, it is also not surprising that students become disheartened at continually making lots of mistakes. Teachers feel forced to repeat and revise grammar, the process becomes increasingly tiring and some students may even switch off totally. Frustration may be responsible for a negative attitude towards grammar and students may even give up on it a little and let their problems deepen. So, fossilization – or just learners get totally bored?
    Meanwhile, their understanding is steadily improving through learning more vocabulary. This process often only involves remembering lists of translations, rather than using new words in an active manner. Such a learning strategy, combined with an early, shallow introduction to grammar topics, can also be counter-productive - a recipe for bad habits. Fossilization occurs with both teachers and students accepting it as an almost inevitable part of second language acquisition. First language interference and lack of exposure to the second language is usually blamed.

To prevent fossilization the following two important steps can be taken:                

u      Important new words should be investigated, practised, organised and checked in a more logical fashion. This process could take place in a well-organized vocabulary notebook which moves away from complete reliance on translations as quickly as possible.

u      Greater emphasis on grammar should be placed at a later stage when students are far more capable of dealing with this vitally important topic.                                       

The ideas above encourage more learning by doing. Vocabulary is seen as the starting point of the process, with individual words being the foundations on which to start building - after investigating how those words are correctly used. Reliance on translation and early testing should be minimised, reducing exposure to the sort of errors that may later become big, bad fossilized habits.

                                    Will McCulloch




Read carefully the following statements and decide whether they are true or false according to the article.



1    Plentiful input roughly equals with sufficient output in language learning.

2    First language interference usually has good effect on one’s learning a second language.

3    The saying ‘Learn to walk before you can run’ applies to toddlers only. Language learners can freely adapt this to their individual needs.

4    Most of us learn vocabulary and grammar in the wrong order which may lead into a loss of interest in learning a foreign language.

5   Grammar and pronunciation errors that haven’t been dealt with over a certain time are responsible for a major problem the author calls ‘fossilization’.

6    According to the author it would be better to leave out grammar rules completely until the learner is able to benefit from tests on grammar.

7    Fossilization can be reduced if there is less first language interference and more opportunity to listen to native speakers and to read authentic materials.

8    Will McCulloch suggests that translating words should be ignored in favour of organizing an active vocabulary and carefully checking how those words and phrases are correctly used.