How to Learn languages. A number of studies initiated in the 1970’s carried out on new speakers of non-native languages were based on two opposing ideas.
We know that when people are exposed to a language (by reading and/or listening to it) they learn that language, but how the mechanics of the process really work is unknown. Theorists have attempted to explain the phenomenon, especially because we do not understand why different people achieve different results when they learn languages. The various theories put forward can be grouped into two opposing notions.
Language learning is unconscious and therefore cannot be learned through study.
Language learning without instruction (study) produces speakers with poor language skills.
Those that support the first theory believe that a language is acquired by listening, reading, speaking, and writing it, but not by studying it. In other words, they think that studying a foreign language as a school subject for example is a waste of time because languages can only be learned by placing oneself in contact with them, ideally spending time in a place where it is spoken. Supporters of formal instruction however, argue that to learn how to speak a language correctly, one must study it. These supporters often defend their argument by pointing out that there are numerous examples of people who have moved to countries where their target language is spoken, and they never master that language.
A number of studies initiated in the 1970’s carried out on new speakers of non-native languages were based on these two opposing ideas. Conclusions made from the results of the study inspired the creation of different hypotheses attempting to explain how non-native languages are learned (keeping in mind that although hypotheses are made from scientific data, they do not fully describe a phenomenon or process as they have not been proven as fact). These hypotheses have given way to a number of learning methods: immersion, audio-lingual, grammatical, oral, the direct method, and the eclectic method. These methods are all very different, however they do have something in common –none of them are true representations of either one of the two theories. Experience proves that the most effective method is a mix of both: the definitive formula is: effectiveness= learning + practice.
We must also look beyond the methods and consider the individual circumstances of the person hoping to learn a language. Students usually cannot afford a five year vacation abroad to pick up a native language at an age considered ideal to do so (broadly speaking, between 6 and 20 years old). That is why the school systems of all countries include required study of at least one foreign language.
Class study can provide a solid language-learning base, but we all know that it is not enough. That is why the topic of language immersion is being talked about more and more. Immersion students fully immerse themselves in their target language (at a summer camp, at school, or at a job in a country where the language is spoken). Studies on the effectiveness of immersion programs have been carried out in Spain with conclusive results: the best way to learn a language is by having to use the language to get by in everyday life.
That alone however is not enough. To reach levels of correct grammar usage, societal awareness, and written and oral expression comparable to that of a native Spanish speaker, you will need formal instruction, just as you needed it in your own language when you went to grade school and high school to learn how to read complex texts, and write and express yourself clearly.
In conclusion, the ideal method involves language immersion in a country where the target language is spoken, but without forsaking guided instruction (formal written and spoken resources), because we have all seen cases of people that have learned, quite poorly, a language by working in a country. There’s no need to give names, TV gives us some pretty clear examples.
So it is important to combine both learning approaches (immersion and instruction), and as we often do not have an unlimited amount of time, an intensive course is an excellent option for consolidating immersion with classroom study, which offers the following advantages:
- Increases fluency, correct speech, and confidence, all of which builds self-esteem.
- Increases spoken communication efficiency.
- Students build cultural skills by gaining first-hand insight into their host country’s everyday culture. They will not only come to have a deep understanding of everyday situations, but also become more successful communicators and even become a new member of a Spanish speaking family if they choose a home-stay option.
- Students build multi-cultural skills, as they often live with students from other countries. They will expand their cultural awareness of their host country and that of their roommates. Students at our schools come from 65 different countries.
- Personal development: an intensive immersion course not only builds self esteem, but also personal independence (a quality that is especially valuable when it comes to teenagers).
- Intellectual development: Students develop their memory and cognitive flexibility, resulting in the increased ability of neurons to transfer information.