7 Language Learning Theories by the Masters of Thought

By OptiLingo

Language is a construct people use every day to express a wide range of emotions, ideas, concepts, and actions. Yet, people seem to have an incredibly difficult time trying to learn a second language. It seems odd because we didn’t really have to work to learn the one we know now.

This is a common thought. And it’s entirely wrong…

You worked incredibly hard to learn what the people around you were saying. It didn’t happen overnight, so you should not expect to learn another language to be any easier. In fact, if it takes you less than a few years to be comfortable using a new language, it was easier than learning your first language.

Remember, you are still studying your first language in high school, so you aren’t quite as adept at it as you may think you are.

How to Learn a Language Faster

learn languages quickly

To learn your next language faster, you’re probably looking for the right language theory. It can help you move faster through the learning process. However, it is not the only thing you need. In fact, it’ll mostly only be effective at the start. Still, knowing it will give you a boost that most people lack.

There is no one better to talk about language theory than the men known for thinking in terms of theory. They break down the thinking process in a way that helps you to understand how and why you think in a certain way. In the end, this will help you keep your thought process where it needs to be to get the most out of the language learning experiences.

Plato – One of the Biggest Names in Western Philosophy

While he is best known for philosophy, Plato did a good bit of thinking about language. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the fact that the use of language was how he got his point across about philosophy.

Plato believed that knowledge was something that humans simply had. It was innate. His idea is called Plato’s Problem. In this, he asked how humans were able to accomplish so much with so little time in life. He believed that language was an innate human element. That’s the reason why most people start talking well before they are 10 years old.

When you consider that language is part of your thinking process, it will be a lot less intimidating to simply learn another way to think about the thoughts you already have.

Descartes and Cartesian Linguistics

Descartes subscribed to Plato’s idea that language is simply something people do naturally. Descartes based his belief on the fact that people are mostly largely rational creatures who use language to interact.

The Cartesian movement started based on his beliefs. It argued that people use language creatively. Yet, there are many similarities between languages (especially similar ones). This is heartening because it means that you just need to find the similarities between English and your target language to start understanding how that language works.

Locke and Tabula Rasa

blank slate tabula rasa

You have probably heard of the blank slate concept put forth by Locke. It shows that he did not subscribe to the idea that anything was innately known. Instead, he believed that everyone began with a blank slate that they had to fill, and that included language. To Locke, we learned everything from our senses.

This can be comforting if for no other reason than you probably feel that is where you are right now with your target language.

These three philosophers largely discussed language in passing, not postulating many specifics. The next four theories are much more language-specific.

Skinner and the Theory of Behaviorism

Skinner agreed with Locke and he spent a lot of time developing the Theory of Behaviorism from it. His theory says that all behavior is in response to the stimuli around us. He applied this to language learning through operant conditioning, which used reinforcement and punishment to teach.

One of the most common examples of this is parents who refuse to acknowledge a child’s request until the child says “please.” The child get their reward when they finally receive what they request. And the reward reinforces their need to say “please”. Theory of Behaviorism says we need feedback to be successful, even in learning a language.

Chomsky and Universal Grammar

universal grammar LAD

Noam Chomsky was developing his own ideas while Skinner was working on his Theory of Behaviorism. Chomsky developed the theory of Universal Grammar. It was pretty much the antithesis of Skinner’s theory. Chomsky believed in at least some innate ability in humans for language. His proof was the fact that there are some universal elements in all languages.

While it goes farther to explain learning a first language than Skinner’s theory, it doesn’t apply to second language learning. It simply reinforces that there are similar elements. However, it does nothing to help identify how to learn everything that is completely dissimilar.

Schumann and the Acculturation Model

John Schumann looked specifically at how immigrants learn a new language once they relocate. His theory is called the Acculturation Model. It addresses language learning in much deeper detail than the other theories so far.

Instead of thinking of language learning in terms of learning for pleasure, he examined it when it was a necessity. Specifically, he focused on how immigrants learned a new language through pressure from social and psychological influences. For them, language learning either meant either success or failure with integrating into their new communities.

His findings were fascinating. If an immigrant’s language was roughly equal socially to the language of their new home, they were more likely to learn the language. The same was true if the cultures were similar. This points out that there are many psychological and social reasons for learning a language – ideas that were not examined by any of the earlier philosophers.

Krashen and the Monitor Model

relax and learn a language

Stephen Krashen compiled several theories about language. We often use these theories today to describe learning a second language. The following are the main ideas to take away from his theories:

  • Acquiring a language is largely subconscious because it stems from natural and informal conversations.
  • Learning a language is very much a conscious effort and relies heavily on correction, which is more formal.
  • People learn grammar in a predictable series and order.
  • Acquiring a language occurs when it is provided through comprehensible input, such as talking or reading.
  • A monitor can be anyone or anything that corrects your language errors and pressures you to improve.

The primary take away from the theory is that acquiring and learning a language are different. However, they can have similar elements as well. Error correction is essential for both acquisition and learning. Just not to the point where it stops you from progressing and gets you anxious about speaking in your target language.

Can Language Learning Theories Help You Reach Fluency?

While none of these theories may do much to help you actually learn a language, it can make you feel better to know that even the knowledge of learning a language is up for debate. You may feel one or two of them more closely works for the way you think. And in the end, that can help you better understand how to use that theory to your advantage.

What matters most is that you’re consistent, have the right motivations, and realize that language learning is less of a sprint and more of a marathon. However, understanding how we interact with and learn can help you get a better handle on what language learning programs may work best for you.