While there are plenty of programs out there to help someone learn a foreign language, there are also a great deal of theories centered on how we learn language. These theories have been expanded on over time, some aspects disproven, others fleshed out. The having the best language learning program will take these theories into account when guiding students through learning acquisition.
If you’re trying to discover how to study Spanish or any other foreign language, then you’ll want a program that plays off the most accurate theories in language acquisition. The reason for this is that the best theories will map out how the mind acquires language and then best programs will focus on designing a platform that uses those strategies But what is the best theory we have that illustrates how people learn a foreign language?
If you’re looking at how to become fluent in Spanish, then you’ll run into a lot of myths about there about language learning along the way. These range from kids being the only ones who can gain language fluency to immersion being the only way to learn a language.
Each platform has their angle for language acquisition. You’ll see that phone apps prioritize drilling and repetition; classrooms focus on linguistics and grammar; night courses focus on aspects of speaking. Out of all these methods, which is the most effective? Well, for a method to be successful, it needs to prioritize something called “Comprehensive Input.” And to learn more about “Comprehensive Input,” we first need to look into the “Input Hypothesis.”
Stephen Krashen, the founder of the Input Hypothesis, created it after years of research and experience with English language learners. Put forth in 1977, it is one of five hypotheses that set out to explain how we learn language as a species. His studies illustrated that no matter who you are or where you’re from, every person learns language in the same way. And this is through something called comprehensive input. In short, comprehensive input is input in our target language that is interesting and accessible.
If you were to pick up a novel written in your target language and attempted to read through it and understand the language with nothing but that content, you would not learn your target language. The material is simply too out of reach. And if the information is too easy, we get bored with it and tend to not stay interested in the topic for very long. The goal with comprehensive input is to have material that is just challenging enough to keep us interested and approachable enough to learn.
How do we go about learning a language? Krashen puts forth that our methods tend to be ineffective, going against the way in which our bodies are programmed to acquire language. Traditionally, schools tend to focus on grammar and repeated drilling for successful language acquisition. However, it’s not very effective as seen by the countless people who spend years studying a foreign language, only to remember very little of it.
As an alternative, rapid exposure to material that’s within our ability to understand in a more casual environment is a better option. This is similar to how children learn a foreign language. And if you’re someone who despises foreign language learning because of its connections to morphology, and other tedious tasks, then you’ll prefer this school of thought.
Inside every person, there’s a hypercritical analyst that wants our actions to be perfect. If you know words in your target language, but not enough to form a complete sentence, your “monitor” will tell you to refrain from using those words because it would be “wrong.” Stating for “food. Eat. Food.” Instead of asking, “Can we grab dinner?” in your target language seems unacceptable our internal monitor. This poses a problem when using the words, we know and making mistakes is part of how we all learn language.
The internal monitor does serve a purpose. It’s important to avoid making errors when you can while learning to speak in a foreign language. Grammatical rules exist for a reason, and you have to adhere to them to be understood. However, you don’t want the conversation stopping while you’re trying to figure out how to properly phrase a sentence. People make errors, and unless you’re a professional working a field where your language needs to be perfect or you’re writing, you’re can afford to make mistakes.
The idea behind this hypothesis is that we learn language in layers. We start out learning simple words, then phrase, then increasingly complex sentences. To gain fluency, you need to allow this gradual process to happen, focusing too heavily on detailed grammar will only slow you down and create more problems that interfere with your language learning.
It’s probably fairly easy to think back to your high school language learning classes and find a moment when you felt nervous, scared, our downright terrified. Speaking in front of people is challenging, speaking a second language is challenging, doing both at the same time as a teacher is bound to create some unfavorable memories. Krashen argues that in these moments, your active filter interferes with your language learning. The active filter is made up of:
The best language learning environment is one that stimulates interest while promoting success through positive interactions that cultivate self-esteem. The more interested you are and the less anxious you are, the more likely you’ll be to learn your target language.
A focus too heavy on linguistics will create problems for you on your path to achieving foreign language learning. Linguistics is not the same as fluency, Krashen would note. If you are studying a language to speak it fluently, then you need to focus on using it in a supportive environment. A heavy focus on grammar and syntax is only useful if you’re interested in linguistics.
Breaking down how we learn language allows us to refocus our efforts as we attempt to achieve fluency in our target foreign language. And knowing what works and doesn’t work further promotes success.