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Language is a Cycle

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When you open a traditional language course book it usually starts with lesson 1 and goes down to lesson 10 or whatever the final lesson in the book might be. Naturally you follow this logical structure and when you have completed the first lesson you move on to the next. At least that's what the authors of the book recommend you to do. And it all makes perfect sense, doesn't it? A language course must have a beginning and an end. Now, let's think about this again. Is this really so? What happens if you skip the first five lessons and start with lesson No 6 and then you move on to lesson No 3 after which you jump to lesson No 8. Have you tried this already? No? Then that suggests you like rules and structure.

However, in most real life situations you will find that they don't have the same sequence as the course in your exercise book. Even the grammar rules don't seem to appear in the same order as you have learned them. Language cannot be pressed into the pages of a course book. Language shouldn't be regarded as a course that starts at one point and goes on to another because language is a cycle that you can complete as often as you want and on every round you will discover something new. Traditional language teaching assumes that a person has to start at a certain level and then move on to the next stage. But when you learn a second language you already know all the grammatical concepts of your mother tongue. Take the Conditionals. In most language course books you will find them in the more advanced sections. Yet, when you use English to communicate with another person you might very well encounter a situation that requires one of the conditionals. In the world of conventional teaching there are learners with various skill levels.

Do you speak your mother tongue fluently? Of course you do so you have proved that you can learn any other language as well. Our psychology is programmed in such a way that we assume it must be hard work to learn a second language, it must take a long time and a lot of self-discipline but that's not the case. Do you know that a child aged 6 - 7 years already uses most of the grammatical constructions of their native language? (including any form of the conditional)

So, when you learn a second or third language you don't have to start from scratch - you already know the concepts of the tenses, the passive and active voice, modal verbs and so on. All you really have to do is change your habits and get used to expressing the same concept with different constructions and phrases. That's what it comes down to:

Changing your habits. If you grew up in an English speaking country you usually say "I'm cold." when you feel cold. If your mother tongue is Russian you usually say "Мне холодно." and if you are German you are likely to say: "Ich friere." You see, in all three cases the concept is the same. What's different is the way to express this concept. The older you get the more you get used to your language but the more you are also aware that life is a series of changes you have to adapt to or even bring about yourself. So, when you want to learn a new language you don't have to start with "lesson 1" or even "lesson 0". You can pick any point out of the cycle and start there because sooner or later you will come across the point that is marked "lesson 1" in your language course book. There are advantages and disadvantages in learning a second language as an adult as opposed to acquiring your mother tongue as a child. The main disadvantages clearly are:

  • you have less time
  • you are aware that you must achieve a result and that puts you under pressure
  • your mother tongue will interfere with the new language (especially when you try to translate separate words out of context)
So, knowing these drawbacks you can adjust to them and even turn them into advantages:

  • you already know concepts a child has yet to learn such as abstract terms, rhetorical questions and subliminal processes
  • you can choose from a variety of resources and learning techniques
  • you can monitor and control your learning progress
  • you can compare grammatical structures of the new language and your mother tongue
  • your active vocabulary in your mother tongue is bigger than a child's so you have more words you can link new vocabulary to
This of course is only one part of the aspects to learning languages and the more ideas and concepts you try out the sooner you will find what works best for you. If you haven't achieved the results you want to yet it is not because you are not good at languages it is simply that you haven't found your own special way of dealing with them yet.
Author: Torsten Daerr