April 4, 2024

Learning and Teaching Second Languages

by Mateusz Wiącek

Since the early days of studying how people learn second languages, there’s been a focus on how this knowledge can improve teaching. In 1976, Krashen came up with the monitor model. It talks about two ways people pick up a new language: acquisition, which is like how kids naturally learn their first language without thinking about it, and learning, which involves consciously understanding rules and grammar. Krashen’s model sparked a big debate about how we should teach second languages.

According to Clahsen, learning a language depends on two things: everyone can learn a language at any age, and there are common paths most learners follow. For example, Pienemann showed that in German, the order in which people learn sentence structures stays the same no matter how you teach them. This suggests that what you can teach depends on how people naturally learn.

At first, research based on Krashen’s ideas made people doubt whether we should explicitly teach grammar rules. Doughty and others argued that teaching a second language involves a mix of implicit methods (like focusing on meaning) and explicit ones (like teaching grammar rules). They believed that research on how people acquire languages could help learners improve their skills, especially by thinking about language rules.

The idea that what we can teach depends on how people learn is important, but it’s not the whole story. Different aspects of language, like vocabulary or grammar, might need different teaching methods. Also, we need to consider how much attention and awareness learners need during the learning process.

Hulstijn pointed out that while some learning happens without us realizing it (implicit learning), deliberate learning (explicit learning) also plays a role. Ellis explained that implicit learning is more about intuition and automatic skills, while explicit learning is more about conscious understanding and rules. Implicit learning seems to happen more easily, especially before puberty, while explicit learning can happen at any age.

But not everyone agrees. Some argue for explicit grammar teaching, saying it helps learners understand language better. Others say that even though there aren’t many studies yet, teaching grammar explicitly can be helpful.

When it comes to teaching second languages, there are two main approaches: one is based on general language learning methods drawn from research, and the other focuses on changing how language is taught in classrooms. The debate often centers around whether teachers should focus on grammar explicitly or implicitly. Some experiments show that learners pay more attention to language forms when they’re pointed out directly. Others suggest that alternating between focusing on language forms and on the subject being taught can help learners notice and understand language better.

In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Teaching second languages is a mix of different methods, and finding the right balance between them is key to helping learners improve.

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