I’ve come to the conclusion that most people learn a foreign language the wrong way. If the purpose of learning another language is to be able to effectively communicate with people of another culture, the most important thing you can learn is correct pronunciation. Don’t get me wrong, grammar is important, but if you can’t pronounce “baño” no one is ever going to be able to direct you to the bathroom, even if you conjugate correctly.
Think about this: when you learn your native language (English for me) you learn by listening to people speak that language. Your parents don’t sit you down as an infant and make you learn how to conjugate verbs. As a child you learn language by observing those around you. You learn words by repeating things you hear. When babies start to speak, the emphasis is on vocabulary and pronunciation. Parents know that their child will not be understood unless they can correctly pronounce the words they are learning, and to this end most parents spend countless hours working with their children on their pronunciation as they begin to speak. There are even speech therapy classes for children who can’t properly form the sounds of their language. When you learn your native language, grammar isn’t taught until you have built your vocabulary and can correctly pronounce the words.
So why do we learn our second language so differently than we learn our first? So many language teachers focus so much of their attention on grammar, and students rarely get the opportunity to practice conversing with native speakers of the language they are learning. I believe there are a few reasons for this. First, schools and standardized tests put so much value on grammar, and teachers have no choice but to teach to the expectations of the administration and standardized testing. Second, most foreign language teachers are not teaching their native language. Let’s face it- very few Spanish teachers in the USA are native Spanish speakers, just as very few English teachers abroad are native English speakers. The foreign language teachers themselves speak the language they are teaching with a definite accent, making it difficult to help their student with correct pronunciation. Don’t get me wrong; there are some incredible foreign language teachers out there doing an excellent job of teaching a language that is not their first. I had a fantastic Japanese teacher in high school who put so much emphasis on listening and conversation, and I credit my success as an exchange student in Japan to her exposing me to native speakers through movies, music and conversation with the Japanese exchange student at our high school.
The problem with learning grammar only comes when you go to a foreign country and attempt to speak the language you have been learning. I have worked with so many exchange students who arrive in America with excellent grammar, but who can’t speak English. They have learned how to read and write nearly perfect English and can correct the grammar of American students, but they can’t carry on a conversation because they have never learned to pronounce the words they can read and write. Because they have never heard English spoken by a native speaker, they don’t understand the words we are saying, even if they do know the vocabulary. They can read and understand the words written down, but they can’t understand the same words when spoken by a native speaker because they are not used to the correct pronunciation.
Years ago, Berlitz Language had a great commercial illustrating the importance of listening to native speakers when learning a language. Even if you’ve seen it before, watch this short video- it cracks me up every time! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yR0lWICH3rY
So what can language teachers do to help their students achieve maximum proficiency in a language? In my opinion, the best thing to do is replicate the conditions under which you learned your native language. Full and complete immersion in a foreign language is the best way to learn. Teachers, find ways to expose your students to native speakers. Watch movies, listen to music, bring guests into the class to speak to your students in that language. Even if your students don’t understand the majority of the words in the movies, they are being exposed to native speakers and learning the cadence and sound of the language. Never underestimate the power this has on language acquisition. Take your students on field trips to the International District, or visit a Hispanic or Asian grocery store and require them to speak with native speakers. Utilize the foreign exchange students in your high school, or the parents and grandparents of your students who have immigrated here and are native speakers of the language you are teaching.
Again, I’m not saying to scrap grammar completely, but students should feel comfortable conversing in the language they are learning (even more comfortable than they are conjugating)! Because isn’t the purpose of learning another language the ability to effectively communicate in that language?
Foreign language teachers: I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas. What do you do in your classroom to expose your students to the correct pronunciation of the language they are learning? Students: do you have a foreign language teacher that stands out? What did they do to help you learn to communicate in the foreign language?