In my newly released book, YOU CAN LEARN SPANISH or Any Language No Matter Your Age or Disposition, I discuss how most, if not all, second language courses in the Free World are taught: Grammar First. Not only is this method frighteningly boring, but I also explain why it will notindeed cannotgive you what you want: A high degree of spoken fluency. I recall all too well walking into my first Spanish course at the University of Kansas. I was handed a huge textbook, a workbook, and was told I had to login so many hours each week in the language lab. Now, instead of a language lab, you just get some CD’s or tapes.
The reason this approach cannot teach you a high degree of spoken fluency is simple. It is so simple that all of you who raised children already know it. This approach is not the way humans acquire spoken fluency in any language, including their native one. The same way in which you, the parent, coached your child to say words, phrases, and sentences, is the way in which a second language is learned. The mechanisms your child used to learn his native tongue are the same ones you need to acquire a second language. It does not matter at what age you begin to develop a high degree of spoken fluency in a second language.
Does this mean someone who wants to become bilingual should ignore grammar? Absolutely not! What this does mean is that one comes before the other. The horse pulls the cart. It is not the other way around. The horse is spoken fluency and the cart is the study of formal grammar. The logic of what I am saying should not escape anyone.
In my book, I reviewed and suggested two commercially available products that closely simulate the process in which you learned your native language. In the book, I explain the science behind second-language acquisition. Without rewriting the book in this article, let me mention the natural process of acquiring language is to engage in intensive input first.
This means a period of time in which the learner just listens to meaningful input in the target language. This is what children do. It is called, “the period of silence.” Before children begin to speak, they listen intensely to what is being said to them and especially to things that interest them.
From his stroller in the park, the child sees a dog. For the first time, he thrusts out his hands at what he sees and makes all manner of grunts, groans, screeches, and spewing saliva. The caregiver instinctively says something like, “That’s a doggie. Do you see the doggie? Can you say doggie?” And until the child begins to use that word, the caregiver goes through the same routine each time the child sees a dog.
The child is listening. The child sees the object in front of him. The object provides the mighty stimulation. The child makes an association between what he hears and sees. When he sees a picture of a dog in a picture book as the caregiver tells a story, the process begins again.
Very simply, this is how language, or I should say spoken fluency, is acquired. You did not enroll your child in an English course with books and tapes so he could learn his native language. He developed a degree of spoken fluency long before a formal study of his native language began. And, hundreds of thousands of people who have tried using the grammar-first approach would kill for that level of fluency.
Grammar first will give you the skills to exegete written text and that is about all. Is that what you want?
Input, input, input is what you want first and foremost. Total Immersion means meaningful input before output is attempted. The process of need, picture, sound, and association is taking place in meaningful input. The child shows you by his slobbery enthusiasm that he needs to know what the animal in the picture is. You sound out the word dog and the child makes the association. You go through this repeatedly until the child is able to make the sound himself.
One day, the magic of language occurs and the child begins to speak.
The two commercially available products I mention in the book are The Learnables and The Pimsleur Language System. The Learnables provide the meaningful input, and lots of it, before you attempt any output. The Pimsleur products provide a channel to begin your outputbeginning to speak.