Should we learn a foreign language as children do?
There are some language teaching methods that are based on the idea that when adults begin a foreign language, they should try to learn it as children do during the first years of their lives. In such books, often no explanations are given in English; everything is explained - albeit in a simplified fashion - in the target language. Grammar usually isn't stressed much. Instead, there are a lot of pictures with accompanying texts, conversations, etc. The teacher who uses such an approach speaks exclusively in the target language. Naturally, concrete situations which can be easily recognized by the students are used as settings for these conversations, for if more abstract areas were dealt with, it would be extremely difficult for the students to follow what is going on.
The rationale behind this type of method is that children learn their native tongue without recourse to grammar, or even reading and writing. Rather, they learn by listening and repeating. If it works for them, why shouldn't it work for adults?
I personally don't like this approach for two reasons:
1) Adults' brains don't work exactly like those of children. When you consider all that a child learns in the first four or five years of life, it becomes obvious that a child's brain is decidedly more "absorbent" than that of an adult. I'm certainly not qualified to explain the scientific reasons why this is so, but my own observations make it plain to me that children are almost always more open than adults. Their minds are much more receptive for all they encounter. Also, they are relatively unfettered by inhibitions. Many adults, for example, are afraid of trying to speak in a foreign language, for fear of sounding ridiculous. Children, on the other hand, are seldom so inhibited: they simply speak out, and if it's not quite right, they probably don't even realize it, and don't care much anyway!
2) The advantage the adult has over the child is the fact that he/she has developed a superior capacity to reason, as well as to analyze. When we try to learn a language the way children do - by simply seeing, hearing, and repeating, with no attempt to analyze why things are said in certain ways - we rob ourselves of the chance to use one of our main strengths, that is, to logically sort out how the language is structured, how the rules of grammar are applied, the precise differences between the target language and our native one, and so on.
If you know the verb tenses in Spanish, for example, it's much easier to learn them in French, Italian, or even in German, since you have a better idea of what you're looking for. If you wish to say, for instance, "I will have dinner in the city tomorrow", you know you need to use the future tense, and if you have taken care to learn the verb tenses well in your new language, this information will be readily retrievable.
This is not to say that I don't approve at all of "total immersion" methods. On the contrary, I feel that "submerging" yourself completely in a language (preferably by living in a foreign country for a while) is almost a necessity if you really want to advance quickly, and to eventually master your new language. However, I feel that in the beginning (if possible, before taking a trip to another country), you should learn the language's basic grammar, using a book that explains everything in your own tongue. This way, you will grasp the fundamentals of grammar much more quickly.
Even when you are in another country, and are (hopefully) spending a lot of time conversing with the natives, you will want to have a good grammar book back in your room, so that you can study different grammatical constructions you heard during the day, and compare them to English (should that be your own mother tongue). After all, there will be many times in the beginning of your stay in the other country when you will think something in English, and will want to then transform it into your target language, so doing comparative
studies of the two languages will make it easier for you to convert what you wish to express from one language to the other.
When you are living in a "total immersion" setting, you will have many opportunities to pick up new words and expressions the way children do, and this is fine. Just don't deprive yourself of all the help your adult, rational, logical mind can give you in your quest towards acquiring a new language: after all, you have spent all of your life developing these
facets of your mind, so it would be a shame if you didn't put them to good use!
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