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Learning vs. Acquisition - How Limited the Classroom Actually Is


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As the very title says, learning one language is not the same as acquiring it. Children have that innate ability of ''picking up'' the language merely by being exposed to it, which doesn't work that way with adults or older children. This makes the process of learning the language more difficult and a conscious effort. Whereas acquisition is an unconscious process and happens naturally, learning requires your full participation and effort.

The trend is to try to imitate the background and circumstances of the acquisition in the classroom, but the question is - how successful is that really? Can we create an atmosphere which would replicate that of home? How successfully and in what degree can we teach children by using the acquisition methods? This certainly doesn't work with adults as they mostly learn through ''prior experience'' and are more disciplined and focused - but does that serve as an advantage or the very opposite of it?

I'm interested in your opinions. Please, feel free to share them.

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  • 2 weeks later...

As you say, it would be rather challenging to set up a classroom in which a language is to be acquired. You would need a lot of realia and real life situations, and I think that it wouldn't fit into the budget of most schools. In the institute where I work, we have a group of very young children, aged between 4 and 7, and they learn English by playing games and other creative activities. I think that if we introduced similar strategies to our adult learners, they might feel as if they are wasting their money.

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Oh, definitely. You can work creatively with children and they will always be looking forward to new things - it's sort of a must. Their attention span is very short - about ten minutes or so - so if you wish to keep them engaged, you must have a lot of different things and activities for them. That's of course, not the case with adults. They depend on their experiences and can be very critical - especially if you're using a method they didn't like when they were children.

I must admit that I myself don't like the communicative approach and the newer attempts at improvisation. I like grammar-translation, and I am very aware of its limitations (I also study Latin, so it would be appropriate to this language, but not English, definitely). I am worried this may affect my teaching in future (I am still in college). How do you separate your personal preferences from what's being demanded at school?

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I agree. I learned Chinese at school and I can't remember the lessons or speak half as well as my friends who have families who speak to at home. My family unfortunately always just spoke to me in English at home so the lessons never stuck. Also I guess it's mostly due to the fact that what we were learning at school was a completely different dialect of what was being spoken at home but the upside is that I get a basic knowledge of both, at least.

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This can be very confusing to a child - having been exposed to two completely different languages and syntactic rules...

Children are very intelligent, true, but with a lot of different pieces of information, and at times very similar can often be confusing which will in the end have the contrary effect from the desired one. I bet that it would have been easier for you to acquire language had you been spoken to in Chinese also at home. Naturally, English should be used, but there must be some kind of a balance. Anyway, this is just my assumption. I may as well be wrong.

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As the very title says, learning one language is not the same as acquiring it. Children have that innate ability of ''picking up'' the language merely by being exposed to it, which doesn't work that way with adults or older children. This makes the process of learning the language more difficult and a conscious effort. Whereas acquisition is an unconscious process and happens naturally, learning requires your full participation and effort.

The trend is to try to imitate the background and circumstances of the acquisition in the classroom, but the question is - how successful is that really? Can we create an atmosphere which would replicate that of home? How successfully and in what degree can we teach children by using the acquisition methods? This certainly doesn't work with adults as they mostly learn through ''prior experience'' and are more disciplined and focused - but does that serve as an advantage or the very opposite of it?

I'm interested in your opinions. Please, feel free to share them.

I am not sure if there is an atmosphere of acquisition in what I'm going to share but the method my eldest daughter's French teacher taught their class in Year 9 (she was 13 then) was effective for her. I'm not sure though with her other classmates. Anyway, they were given several practical exercises like some students drew maps with French roads/street names. Then some used the maps to give directions while others followed then vice versa. She was able to use this know how when we went to France for a few days. She was our guide in reading street names, following directions and even talking to an old French lady in French. Our travel was fairly successful. We got to our desired locations without getting lost. My husband helped but she was the one who successfully read the street names and translated to us what some notices or instructions were saying.

So at her age, the immersion or practical methods, if it can be classified as such, were advantageous for her. I guess that will also apply to me as I tend to learn more by getting shown the practicality of things and its applications to real-life situations. I think we can refer to that as natural day-to-day events in life that we can learn from, am I right?

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This is an excellent point. I really liked what you'd written. So what your daughter had learnt in school she was able to implement in real life. I believe that's because of the practical aspect of the task she'd had in school. This is called ''Task-Based Learning'' and it is very effective with children. They focus on the task (in this case, the making of the map) that they learn the language subconsciously, more or less. They also walk about the class and ask their classmates (Total Physical Response) about certain streets.

She must have had an excellent teacher! And she must have been an exceptional student.

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This is an excellent point. I really liked what you'd written. So what your daughter had learnt in school she was able to implement in real life. I believe that's because of the practical aspect of the task she'd had in school. This is called ''Task-Based Learning'' and it is very effective with children. They focus on the task (in this case, the making of the map) that they learn the language subconsciously, more or less. They also walk about the class and ask their classmates (Total Physical Response) about certain streets.

She must have had an excellent teacher! And she must have been an exceptional student.

Oh so that's what it's called, Task-Based Learning. They were introduced to several of that, like ordering in restaurants, some actual life simulations that can really be applied. Apart from that, my daughter said her teacher was patient with the class. That is one trait that I think any teacher should have. So her teacher was really excellent. And my daughter is also hardworking and pays great attention to what's being said. She got the academic award for French that school year. In IGCSE French early this year, she got an A. :-)

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The trend is to try to imitate the background and circumstances of the acquisition in the classroom, but the question is - how successful is that really? Can we create an atmosphere which would replicate that of home? How successfully and in what degree can we teach children by using the acquisition methods? This certainly doesn't work with adults as they mostly learn through ''prior experience'' and are more disciplined and focused - but does that serve as an advantage or the very opposite of it?

Hey Aureliae and all.

Let me address your different questions.

First of all, the idea of imitating "background and circumstances of acquisition in the classroom" is a touchy subject, as the verdict is still not in on exactly what the background and circumstances of acquisition are. Of course, there are a lot of theories out there-- go read up on Krashen's "Natural Method" for example, but it's a tricky thing to pin down. When does actual acquisition begin-- in the womb as the mother speaks to those around her for the first nine months of life? After birth, when the child is exposed to what will become the native language through people talking to him/her, constantly repeating? Or later on, when the child needs to communicate more specifically in order to satisfy wants and needs? Any of these three would be very difficult to implement in a classroom setting (well, the "wants/needs" idea could be easier, as the map exercise example illustrates).

Your question of replicating the "home" environment, maybe I've answered that above. I personally don't think it can be replicated. A classroom won't have a sofa, a television, a sister picking on you all the time, a loving mom and dad, a bed time, a dinner time. There's just not enough time or even atmosphere in a language classroom to be using valuable minutes trying to imitate or replicate the "home" environment that might be found in the L2 experience.

You mention children in your third question. Up until the age at which they've begun to learn the construct (call it grammar or structure) of their own language, useful words such as "noun" or "verb" or "adjective" in adult classes have little or no meaning to kids. In addition, children "structure" the world around them in more primitive (where "primitive" means "closest to the origin") ways as they are still learning, through observation and practice, just how the world is structured. Simply exposing kids to the new language through L2-only classes can lead to frustration as well. I'm not sure what you understand as the "acquisition method"; however, with kids I'd have to advise that general early-childhood pedagogy has to be employed, even in second language classes. The advantage kids may have is that they usually want to learn and don't consider one subject harder or easier than another if it is interesting and motivating to them.

As far as adults being more disciplined and focused, I'd differ a bit on that point of view. Though adults may have clearer ideas of their personal motivations for learning a second (or third!) language (and they should be asked from the outset-- why are you learning Chinese, for work, to talk to your girlfriend's parents, to better understand a particular culture?), they are much more easily distracted by their day-to-day lives than kids are. Adults have to go to work, feed the kids, clean the house, pay the bills. Most haven't done homework for decades and have lost the habit of habitual study. Many will only pay attention to the second language in class, not lifting a finger (or move their tongue) once they've gotten home. And while some believe that adults learn from prior experience, it is often that prior experience that becomes a crippling interference when trying to learn a second language.

Naturally, you can't play with Barbie dolls with a group of adults and expect them to be happy with the class; however, focused, communicative, task-based exercise as well as clear instruction as to how to study outside of class will be useful to both adults and children. The classroom is a place for sharing information, practicing a bit so the teacher can evaluate, but most importantly, a place for giving useful, active homework to be done so that in the next class the teacher can see and reward the students for their part of the work (which is 90% of the work in learning to speak a new language).

peace,

revel.

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First of all, the idea of imitating "background and circumstances of acquisition in the classroom" is a touchy subject, as the verdict is still not in on exactly what the background and circumstances of acquisition are. Of course, there are a lot of theories out there-- go read up on Krashen's "Natural Method" for example, but it's a tricky thing to pin down. When does actual acquisition begin-- in the womb as the mother speaks to those around her for the first nine months of life? After birth, when the child is exposed to what will become the native language through people talking to him/her, constantly repeating? Or later on, when the child needs to communicate more specifically in order to satisfy wants and needs? Any of these three would be very difficult to implement in a classroom setting (well, the "wants/needs" idea could be easier, as the map exercise example illustrates).

I’m glad you’ve mentioned Krashen. I’d never really read his works, but he’s constantly mentioned. I’ve just taken Methodology of Teaching this year, but I’ve found that the subject has so many valid points that need to be explored: basically, I’m doing the introduction to methodology this year. Krashen comes in two semesters’ time. I am studying English language and literature and I’ll probably choose Teaching as my second course orientation, so I’ll most definitely be reading some of his works.

It is difficult to determine when exactly does the acquisition start, but most of the learning is done at home. I don’t really believe it can be replicated either, especially because your family is where you feel at home, not the school and being with other children... well, young children only want to talk about themselves. The teacher is limited. Someone could always be feeling left out, especially if you have large classrooms (there were 31 students in class when I was 6 years old, for example, but my teacher made everyone feel special).

So, the true acquisition happens at home. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate it.

You mention children in your third question. Up until the age at which they've begun to learn the construct (call it grammar or structure) of their own language, useful words such as "noun" or "verb" or "adjective" in adult classes have little or no meaning to kids. In addition, children "structure" the world around them in more primitive (where "primitive" means "closest to the origin") ways as they are still learning, through observation and practice, just how the world is structured. Simply exposing kids to the new language through L2-only classes can lead to frustration as well

I’ve not mentioned grammar, but I do understand your point (teaching grammar is my... let’s call it favourite). Words like nouns and adjectives have little meaning to children, which is why they don’t bother with abstractions - one of the reasons why we don’t teach physics and chemistry to young children. If you want to work with children, you have to make the classes feel personal to them and you have to make them revolve about things they like and are familiar with. You want to teach adjectives and nouns? Bring four stuffed animals, one white, one black, one yellow, one red and name them White Rabbit, Black Bear, Yellow Lion, Red Parrot and you’ll see how easily they can learn colours.

How about some TBL as well?

As far as adults being more disciplined and focused, I'd differ a bit on that point of view. Though adults may have clearer ideas of their personal motivations for learning a second (or third!) language (and they should be asked from the outset-- why are you learning Chinese, for work, to talk to your girlfriend's parents, to better understand a particular culture?), they are much more easily distracted by their day-to-day lives than kids are. Adults have to go to work, feed the kids, clean the house, pay the bills. Most haven't done homework for decades and have lost the habit of habitual study. Many will only pay attention to the second language in class, not lifting a finger (or move their tongue) once they've gotten home. And while some believe that adults learn from prior experience, it is often that prior experience that becomes a crippling interference when trying to learn a second language.

Oh, yes, yes, yes, your point is so valid! Adults have many responsibilities and they consider learning a language as one as well. They end up learning only in class and definitely not at home. I’ve been a part of a language course where I’d seen this way too often - sometimes it’s impossible to make them do their homework and the excuses such as “I’ve had some problems in the office” or “My boy had a parent meeting” are not only accepted, but very common. Their attitude is sometimes very critical as well. “I’m paying, you teach” - but how can you if you have classes twice a week and in the meantime they don’t even go through the material you’d given them? And then they want new lessons every single time. How do you explain to a stubborn adult that practice is just as important as hearing about new things, especially if you keep postponing them (namely, the learning) for some later day and you never do them at home? What also happens is that they can get easily discouraged if they don’t understand something, but they can also be very determined. One of our students can be so focused on one thing that it becomes almost impossible to move the class forward. She just keeps interrupting the teacher, even though she’d explained everything several times - and interrupting at the same thing, too.

Naturally, you can't play with Barbie dolls with a group of adults and expect them to be happy with the class; however, focused, communicative, task-based exercise as well as clear instruction as to how to study outside of class will be useful to both adults and children. The classroom is a place for sharing information, practicing a bit so the teacher can evaluate, but most importantly, a place for giving useful, active homework to be done so that in the next class the teacher can see and reward the students for their part of the work (which is 90% of the work in learning to speak a new language).

I think there might a motivation problem here - most teachers “punish” children for not doing their homework, but very few reward them for completing it... I would like to hear your opinion on this. You are very passionate about the subject, I’m glad. I am very passionate about literature, so I understand.

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Hey Aureliae and all.

Well, as to homework, I had to do a lot of homework as a child and did not suffer any kind of childhood trauma from it (of course, in my childhood, there were fewer distractions.... wasn't allowed TV until the homework was done, but also wasn't allowed to do the homework until the washing up had been done, ha!)

Kids are used to homework (although, nowadays there always seems to be some debate or other about if they get too much homework-- poppycock! There's no such thing as too much homework-- just bad homework assignments!) so, giving them exercises to practice at home just seemed run-of-the-mill to them. Of course, since my classes were pronunciation-based, the homework was usually the practice of some drill we had learned in class. They all had little homework counter books (we called them Passports) where they had to write the exercise name and then put a little mark for each time they repeated a particular exercise. So, the homework would be something like "repeat exercise 24 ten times before the next class, not all in one sitting, over the next couple of days".

What I was trying to teach to the kids was that doing a little bit of the work every day and keeping a record of it would help them to evaluate their own progress, at least on the practice side. I then could evaluate their work in the next class (and it was not difficult to spot a kid who just put in the marks but hadn't opened his mouth once).

Adults had different kinds of homework. One of my favorites was sending all of the adults on scavenger hunts. So, they had to pull from a hat three different shops (this was in New York City, so there were literally thousands of shops to put in the hat!) and try to buy something mundane, like a battery for a Timex watch. Didn't matter what the shop was (and I included Fifth Avenue shops as well as corner stores), they had to go into each of those three shops (they usually had a weekend to do this exercise), ask for the mundane thing and then in the next class report to us what their experience was. Imagine going into a posh jewelry shop on fifth avenue and asking for a Timex watch battery.

Once I moved out of the States, it was more difficult to place my adult students into real-life English situations (of course, where I am everyone speaks Spanish!). So I taught them how to use video to study. This was a very complex process, too long to describe in detail here, but it was very well structured for them and they found it enjoyable and useful. Mind you, it was not the simple "watch this movie and come back and tell us about it" kind of exercise at all. It was a very active exercise that, once mastered in class, became basic practice material for most of my adult learners.

Just think, there are 168 hours in a week. Say your students sleep eight hours a day, that just leaves us with 112 hours in the week. Of those 112, most of my students spent 2 hours a week with me in class. That means that about 1.7% of their waking hours were spent with me and the other 98.3% were spent outside the classroom. There just isn't enough time in that 1.7 to practice in depth, we've only time to inform, explain, practice superficially and evaluate.

All of this is based on the traditional singing/voice lesson. Those types of lessons are often around 30 minutes in length. The student is expected to have warmed up before entering the class. The teacher will listen to the student sing, give some pointers and evaluation, then send the student home to improve based upon those points. The actual work is done in rehearsal rooms, not in the classroom. That's mainly where I'm coming from in terms of my homework attitudes.

peace,

revel.

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I feel like it is very easy for me to acquire new vocabulary, but retention and learning what the words means will go out of the window in a day or so. The only way I can really learn is with repetition. Repetition is the key to learning for me.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I acquired english when I was 16-17 :D  I'm now studying my third language, and let me tell you that I can no longer acquire it!  I'm making a tough conscious effort to learn this language now!  It's so hard, with english everything seemed so natural, despite the fact english is so different form my own language, but this new language is different from english as well!

I try to find the logic behind certain odd rules and things I have noticed in this language, but no luck! No luck at all!  I honestly hope that in the next months I can get the hold of it!

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I agree. I learned Chinese at school and I can't remember the lessons or speak half as well as my friends who have families who speak to at home. My family unfortunately always just spoke to me in English at home so the lessons never stuck. Also I guess it's mostly due to the fact that what we were learning at school was a completely different dialect of what was being spoken at home but the upside is that I get a basic knowledge of both, at least.

I agree with the points you make,the classroom is very limiting especially since there is a pattern used in teaching certain languages. In comparison with learning a language from say speaking it at home or hanging around native speakers classroom learning restricts the intuitive way of picking up certain dialects within a particular language.

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I remember one of my teachers saying that the classroom provides only 10% of the necessary elements to acquire and master a language. The 90% is in the learner himself. Having said that, he told us that If we really want to master a language, we should IMMERSE ourselves with it; you have to LIVE the language. Embedding the language to your daily activities such as daily normal conversation, telephone conversation, watching films, reading books and articles - all of these add up and in some time you'll be able to acquire the language.

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I agree that learning a new language shouldn't be confined/limited to classroom lessons only. I believe that for us to be able to acquire the knowledge much better, we have got to immerse ourselves in the language experience itself. We have got to go out there and make ourselves familiar with their language, society, and culture.

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Learning a new language is difficult but doable but if you intend to acquire it then the classroom type of teaching is not enough. It is very frustrating that you spent a couple of months or years in the classroom but you still doubt yourself if you can carry a good conversation. You have to live the language and embrace it to the point that your mind is conceiving ideas using that new language.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Also, but not just that.
Typing in English on forums doesn't help me acquiring Japanese or Spanish neither, but there are nearly no Japanese forums to write on (and when they are, they're dead).
Spanish forums on the other hand are more likely to exist, but I don't know where to look for them.

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