Learning a language in a formal environment

The second part of our language learning series is about learning a new language in a formal setting. Last week, we talked about immersion, that is learning “on-the-go” by letting all the nuances of the language flow into you almost unconsciously. But there are limits to how efficient this way of learning is without being backed up by formal learning techniques.

Let me draw the scene: a blackboard, tables in a semi-circle around the teacher (preferably a native speaker), textbooks and exercise books. A lot of reading aloud, grammar exercises, writing and speaking prompts that are directed at preparing you to an exam… This form of teaching is far from being communicative-based, and some say it is outdated. I beg to differ, as I believe that learning methodically will help ground the informal experience that is so often incomplete by exploring all the little cogs of how a form of communication functions.

Learning how the language functions
There are numerous benefits to learning a language formally, particularly as an adult, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how it works. For example, understanding grammar, morphology and syntax will allow you to make perfect sentences from the get-go and identify that you may have been making mistakes or using slang or child speech. For example, in Norwegian, many young people would say, “Jeg har snakket med han” (/I have talked to he/) instead of saying, “Jeg har snakket med ham” (I have talked to him). Using this type of slang may be okay (after all, languages evolve), yet it would be useful to know what is right and make the difference between a subject and an object pronoun.

The exhaustive approach of explicit grammar
For those who attend classes, having a teacher explain rules and exceptions will prove beneficial and may answer questions that have been baffling you. Are you thinking back about your time in school, copying rules from a book? Don’t worry, adults will grasp explicit grammar better than children and will be more focused. What they have picked up implicitly from their immersion experience will be validated, corrected or explained. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Memory tricks
Learning in a formal environment will also provide tricks. There are some techniques to learn vocabulary, that your teacher or your book will communicate to you. For example, you can make comparisons with your language and learning first words that are similar. Another technique is to learn by roots, adding affixes. It’s a great way to learn as it forces you to think of how to make an adverb, an adjective, etc, from a substantive. For the verbs, it is knowing how to recognize the root and which ending to add.

In that regard, the influence of Greek and Latin on European languages is also important and being aware of which words are inherited from those two languages will help you identify them and learn them. On the other side of the world, learning what Japanese Kanji represented helped me pick up the meaning of some Chinese ideograms, as they share a common history.

Learning by rote
For some languages with conjugations of verbs or declensions, there is no escaping learning lists by heart. Not doing it will hinder your progression. Think about Latin languages and their numerous verbal forms. Or the Eastern European languages and their numerous cases. My Spanish teacher in junior high had a technique for the most difficult examples: print a list of irregular verbs and tape them somewhere where you can see them several times a day. And that’s how the back of our bathroom door showcased the irregular Spanish verbs in the preterito for several months.

Of course, due to their personal circumstances, some people will learn without a teacher, at their own pace, and it’s perfectly okay. As long as they have the right tools, their self-directed approach will pay off.

This discipline will teach you how to learn a language, which will open doors for your multilingualism.

So, as a conclusion, which of the two approaches that we have covered is the most beneficial? I would say that both are necessary to master a language, but that a good formal approach from the get-go will lay a solid base to whatever learning comes afterwards, be it only formal or in immersion.

Categories: Language skills

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