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The natural approach to learning a second language.

A recent exchange gave me the idea to write this article for our blog. The person was explaining to me the benefits of translation, especially for learning as a beginner. He was saying that having translations of words from the native to the targeted language would help build vocabulary and thus learn the language faster.

This is certainly an option to learning a second language. As with many things, all roads lead to Rome, but not all of them have the same duration or the same elevation. Using translation may build vocabulary faster, but the price to pay will come later when the learner will have to change their way of thinking. With this technique, students learn vocabulary and grammar rules by drawing a parallel between the target language and their mother tongue. Once at a more advanced level, this reflex is engrained and slows down the spontaneity of the learner because he will first think in his mother tongue and then translate in his head. Besides, most idioms cannot be translated into the target language. All of this will give unnatural exchanges. There will therefore be a lot of corrective work to be done.

In contrast, being immersed from the beginning in the target language will slow down the initial progression (the silent phase in the natural approach), while the thought pattern is established (building vocabulary, sentences, verb tenses, forms, etc.). It will then accelerate because the learners now think in the new language and exchanges are much more natural in the intermediate and advanced levels.

At Langage d'ici, our teaching is inspired by the natural approach to language acquisition. But what is the natural approach? It is inspired by the way children learn their mother tongue. It was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Drs Stephen Krashen of USC and Tracy Terrell of the University of California at San Diego.

How do children learn? At the very beginning, the child cannot express himself, in part because he is not physiologically ready to do so; he is in the development phase. Also, at the cognitive level, he is accumulating information about his language; vocabulary, expression, body language, intonation. His learning comes from his immediate environment: his mother, his father, and his siblings. The goal is also interesting: the child wants to be understood by those around him. He does not want to master the nuances of the language. At first, he wants to express basic needs: I am hungry, I am in pain, I am afraid, I want to play, I am tired, etc. Nuance is not important here. We are talking about all-or-nothing events. The child is not yet at the stage of expressing: I would like to eat the same ravioli as last week, but with a pesto sauce accompanied by a rosé wine! He wants to make himself understood: I need to feed myself. To do so, he will use sounds, his eyes, his hands, and facial expression to convey what he wants, his approval, his refusal, and his happiness or his displeasure. Errors in pronunciation, in the use of verb tenses, in intonation are not important here. The child wants to satisfy a need as quickly and with as little effort as possible. The reward, of course, would be eating, which is our positive feedback (or negative if we do not give the right food). Also, the parent will repeat the correct way of saying what needs to be said: "eat" or "apple", etc. This is how our learning loop will take place. Once this basic level is reached, more detailed precision will be inserted. And so on until the child has mastered his mother tongue.

If we relate this approach to second language conversational learning for adults, there are many parallels to be drawn. At Langage d'ici, from the first class, the learner is immersed in the target language. The teacher speaks strictly in the language to be learned and presents themes that the student will integrate as they go along. He prepares conversational activities by presenting the subjects that will be used: a simple verb tense, numbers, first and last names, places, etc. We are not talking about a theoretical lecture. We are talking about short explanation sessions needed to build a conversation.

From the start, conversational activities make up a significant portion of the course, even if learners have few, or no tools to participate. The activities are simple, and they are guided. The goals are varied. Since language acquisition is best-achieved by understanding information in a stress-free environment, by letting learners speak freely, information flows and is absorbed by learners. Corrections are made by the teacher so that the acquisition is of good information and not errors. If there is a blockage, the teacher will intervene to mimic, draw, or show the subject or the word that is causing the problem. The teacher will offer positive reinforcement when students are making effort and using good structure. Teachers take note of any trends of errors and these are taught in a separate lesson later. This way no one is embarrassed, and it takes into consideration rates of learning within that group.

Everyone is encouraged to participate, but no one is forced. Also important: the number of learners in each group is reduced, thus enabling participation and reducing the stress level of each of the learners. The conversation topics must be based on the needs of the learners, but also their interests. This part is important in the communicative approach, which we also use. There is no point in building a class on the new personal tax exemptions if no one is passionate about the subject. Not many concepts would be remembered from this class. But if the group is in the marketing department and the lesson is on online advertising, then the new vocabulary will be well understood and integrated, as it has a practical application for the learner. This approach is more difficult to use in a large group unless it is split into subgroups supervised by several teachers.

Following this concept then, a class where the focus is on simple introduction structures might include a conversational activity such as this:

  • My name is Stéphane.

  • I am 38 years old.

  • I live in Montreal.

  • I have two children.

  • And you?

Each student tries to answer the questions and asks them, in turn, of the other learners. With this simple exercise, the student can learn several things: verb tenses, nouns, numbers, possession, place, etc. As with the child who learns to navigate his environment, our learners learn the basics of expressing themselves in their workplace.

So far, this is the best approach to language acquisition in terms of speed and efficiency. It is excellent for beginner levels. After which, an approach with a little more grammar and language precision is added for intermediate and advanced levels. At these levels, the objectives change. The learner no longer seeks to convey a simple thought, but rather to share complex ideas which have important nuances. And the level of the language must reflect this reality. But the focus remains on the conversation.

In most of our classes, the learners come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, which makes using this approach even more appropriate. Thanks to this approach, communication takes place naturally, using only the target language, centered on real-life situations (role-playing) shared by all (the work). When classes are face-to-face, it can also be supplemented with the action-oriented approach which uses concrete situations experienced by the students, such as going to the bakery to order bread.

The idea behind the natural approach is to mimic the techniques of first language acquisition as much as possible. At Langage d'ici, we adapt this approach to adult learning realities, either in companies or as professionals.