The power of necessity when learning languages

By Gary Throup
In Translation
May 15th, 2017

The power of necessity when learning languages


Of all the approaches to language learning, there is nothing more effective than being surrounded by the language itself, right? Surely by being exposed to the language for every waking hour, a learner can’t fail to absorb the language effortlessly.

Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a myth. I have known people to live in a country for 10 years and still know only a few basic words, and have zero grammatical knowledge. How can this happen? These people can’t escape from the language! True, they can’t escape from it, but they can, and do, ignore it. But how can they ignore the language of the country where they live, they need it to survive!

Wrong. If they needed to speak the language to survive, believe me, they would speak it. It is precisely because they don’t need it to survive that they are able to ignore it. After rather shamefully admitting that they know little or nothing of the language they spent years ignoring, these very same people will often tell you they are “just bad at languages”. This is an excuse that is heard all too often.

I once had a conversation with an Eastern European who had been living in the UK for 6 months, and spoke fantastic English, despite having not studied the language since school. How did this happen? Simple, he needed to speak to survive. Like a child, who needs food or attention from an adult, forms his or her first imperfect words out of necessity, this man used his language to get what he wanted.  Similarly, children have no “safety net” language to fall into when they need to communicate. They cannot ignore the language that they are surrounded by! And there is some good news for the adult learner – adults have the advantage of being able to read. They can check vocabulary and grammatical rules in seconds, whereas a child takes years to perfect their speech. Failure to learn a language while living in the target language country is, to my mind, the result of two factors: absence of necessity, and incorrect use of resources.

I am a great proponent of efficient acquisition, learning the language from itself rather than from a description written by someone else. Grammar books are often misused. In the days when every household had a telephone directory, when we needed a number, we looked it up. Simple. We didn’t try to memorize the entire book because we knew that one day we would need another number from it. We used it for reference.

Learners who are living in a country where their target language is spoken have a huge advantage over those who are not, but only if they approach the situation effectively. Try spending a day using only your target language, make it a necessity. Take away your own safety net. Your progress at the end of that day will both astound and motivate you.

Use your grammar book, of course, but only as a means of answering questions (ah, so that’s why she used that particular verb form!) not learning rules. The same with a teacher, a valuable reference, but your real “lessons” are all around you.  And the language they are using is as real as it gets. You might make errors like a child, but you will soon learn that these errors are not painful. Far from it, you need them! Make the errors, listen to everything you hear, and check your books afterwards. I guarantee, it will make a lot more sense.

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About "" Has 4 Posts

Gary is a writer. He writes songs, poetry and articles for TranslatorThoughts, of course! He has a passion for languages and has studied (at various times and to various levels) Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and a few bits of other languages such as Hebrew and Persian. He lives in Spain and teaches English for a living.

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