Making the Most out of Your Second Language Acquisition Program

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By Julio Foppoli

Thousands of eager language students are lured every day by very catchy ads in which total mastery of a language is promised in 10 to 30 days. Is this really possible?

Although it may sound absolutely attractive, every single language teacher will agree that it is utterly impossible to achieve this. However, more and more of these “miraculous solutions” appear day after day. Just Google it and you will understand what I mean.

Even though I am not planning to deal with the length of time it may take a student to learn or acquire a language, as this is very subjective and may depend on many variables, I would like to share part of my experience as an international language teacher. In the last 22 years I have lived and worked in South America as well as in the US, and also I’ve been teaching students from Canada, Europe and Australia. I believe this is not a local but a worldwide issue to be considered by all language learners alike.

More important than “how long” a course may last, I feel students should focus on “what materials and methodologies” are used throughout the course. This is not usually considered by he majority of studens while buying a language course or taking classes with a teacher. However, it is probably the most crucial factor in your second language experience.

It goes without saying that the teaching methodology behind every course and every single class is essential to achieve the desired results. As I discussed in many previous mini-articles, unfortunately, the tendency in most teachers is to overteach grammar in detriment of real communication. This results in students who cannot produce two sentences together, who are afraid of making mistakes for fear of being corrected_ and over-corrected, and courses that systematically fail, producing a great deal of frustration in the students.

The dropout rate of language learners at their initial stages is huge, mostly because they are made believe they are to blame for their inability to acquire the language. The truth is, in most cases, the static and structured teaching methodologies are outdated and are unrealistic. They just prepare students to repeat, not to create with the language. Interaction is nothing but a dream that will never come true_ at least during the language course.

There is a huge gap between classwork and real life.

As many of my readers may know, I am a firm advocate of real language all the time. Not simplified language but real, just as you can find it in movies, news reports, articles, magazines, etc. Also, the use students make of the language must be natural. Just giving my students an article taken from a newspaper and telling them to turn each sentence into the different tenses will not help them communicate much.

Language per definition entails communication. So whatever you do, apart from being REAL language, it needs to have a communicative purpose in mind. If you need to learn how to drive, you need a couple of instructions, and then practice practice and more practice_ but real practice, on the road, not just sitting with a teacher explaining each and every single possible situation you may encounter. Why not? Well, for starters, you will never be able to predict what may happen in the street. Of course you need some instruction to know the traffic signs and rules, how to start a car, engage the gears and so on. But that’s all about it! Then it is just using what you know. This is exactly how a language should be presented to the student.

If you need to learn how to drive, just learn some instructions and practice. You do NOT need to study by heart and recite your car’s manual with detailed info on every single part of the vehicle. Well, ridiculous as it may sound, the vast majority of language instructors teach, reteach and overteach just the manual to the students, with the hope that one day all that info will become relevant to them. The truth is, you can study your car manual to the letter, but even so, that does not mean you can drive in the real world. You may know every single word in the manual, and when you have to face the real world you may feel at a complete loss, as if you had never had any experience with cars. Most likely, you will realize whatever you did was not practical or useful for the real world.

Again, this is precisely what is happening with language courses right now. They teach a lot, but they simply describe how patterns and phrases are formed. They make students repeat a lot, but they never enable students to use what they were taught, that is, apart from the unreal drillings and situations that they are forced to do. So next time you need to take up a language course, rather than focusing exclusively on how long it may last, please consider what materials are used and how they are presented to the students. As the saying goes, “a stitch in time, saves nine.”

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