Learning and Teaching English

Children in general acquire a foreign language almost without any conscious effort. There are children who start by speaking more then one language. It is easy to notice that a young child can pick up a new language rapidly if he/ she moves to a school abroad.
Researchers came to the conclusion that a child is able to quickly acquire new language up to around the age of six. Children are not capable only of learning languages, but also of forgetting them. They replace the forgotten language structures with new language as if they were changing their articles of clothing. But this process of unconscious learning is at its best before the child reaches puberty. After children have reached puberty, it becomes more and more difficult for them to learn a new language very fast.

The word „acquisition” indicates here that people learn languages without being aware of the vocabulary and grammar of those languages. When two-year-old children begin to speak a language, they first utter one-word structures, then two-word structures until phrases become more and more complex as they grow up.

Acquisition can take place if some conditions are met. Children must be exposed to that language; this means that they need to hear it. Then parents should simplify the language according to thier children’s age and situation. When talking to a little child, we as parents avoid using technical or complex vocabulary.

We understand that acquisition is vital for young children in their process of learning a language. But what about older children and adults? Adults and even older children generally want to study the language; for them, exposure to the language is not enough. They need chances to activate their knowledge and they want to see how the language works. In this case, the teacher has to help them both acquire and learn the language. The idea here is that learning should be a guided, conscious effort. The comprehensible input (language exposure a bit above students’ level) needs to be doubled by the methods which help learners both acquire and learn. In simple words, both learning and acquisition play an important role in students’ getting the language. Learning a foreign language in the classroom is more than acquiring the native tongue from your loving parents. Teenagers and adults have got the power to consciously think of the way in which language works.

It is important for students to learn effectively using both their spontaneous capacities and study capacities.

Over the years, there appeared methods such as the „Lexical Approach”, the „Silent Way” or „Community Language Learning”. The Lexical Approach suggested that teachers should structure their curricula around language chinks (two or more words as units of meaning). The Silent Way method suggests that teachers need to talk less and students are the centre of attention while receiving tasks and talking. In the case of Community Language Learning, bilingual teachers urge students to translate what they wish to say from the mother tongue into the target language (the language they learn). These methods are no longer used but certain techniques were taken from them and then included into the modern language teaching.

One of the methods is called the Grammar-translation method. It was named like this in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Students are given grammar rules and lists of words and are asked to do translation exercises using the rules and the words given. This method is not used nowadays in the same way, but it helps students compare the native language structures with the foreign ones. The problem with this method is that learners find out about a language but cannot use it effectively in everyday communication.

Another method is named audio-lingualism. This method suggests that learning a foreign language is nothing but the result of the formation of habits; the habit is formed when the learner receives a reward after responding correctly to a stimulus; this process is called conditioning. In simple words, students repeat the English grammatical patterns and learn them in cue-response drills. They repeat these patterns until their responses become automatic. The method can be beneficial for low-level students but its weak point is that it does not offer learners the chance to combine words in an original way and to be creative.

A method which is somehow connected to audio-lingualism is PPP which stands for Presentation, Practice and Production. In the presentation stage, the teacher presents the language situation and context (describing somebody’s summer holiday) and explains the form and meaning of the language (the form and usage of past tense simple). In the practice stage, students form sentences with past simple tense; this is controlled practice and can involve drilling. In the production stage, learners speak more about their own summer holiday using past tense. This procedure may also be used for teaching functions (to politely refuse people), teaching vocabulary or pronunciation. The weak point of this method is that it does not encourage acquisition abilities too much.

Acquisition of language is very much developed by „Communicative Language Teaching”. This method implies language functions (inviting). These functions are performed by students when using language exponents („What about coming to the theatre?”/”How about a play?”). It is very important for learners to make the difference between formal and informal language. In order to put the language exponents into practice, students need to be exposed to the language, to be given opportunities for using this language and to be motivated. In other words, learners must be involved in communicative activities and in creating real messages. For example, pupils can role-play a situation in which they invite their friends to the cinema or theatre. In this way, they use language exponents which means that they see how language works; they do not only know about the language and its grammar rules.

There is also a method which derives from Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Its name is Task-Based Learning (TBL). Unlike CLT, Task-Based Learning focuses on the task rather than on the language. There is a pre-task in which the topic is introduced to the students who are told the task. The pre-task stage is followed by the task cycle where the task is planned by the students, language and information are gathered and then the writing or oral performance is produced. The final stage is language focus; in this stage, learners analyze, improve or practise the language they used. An example of task can be that of gathering information about train timetables or making a certain presentation on a topic. In this case, the language study does not lead to the task, but the task leads to the language study.  The TBL procedure is opposite to the PPP procedure.

In conclusion, all these methods can be useful, especially if, at a certain time, we combine them. But it is not enough to master them; we as teachers need to take into consideration „the student”. First of all, the student should be emotionally engaged in our lessons; his or her mind and heart must be there. Secondly, the learner must be encouraged to study both about the language and about the way in which English is used. And finally, any teacher needs to activate students, to make them use the language freely and creatively when they talk and write about themselves or about the ones they know.

1. Hadfield, J., Intermediate vocabulary games, Harlow, Essex, Longman, 1999.
2. Krashen, S., Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.
3. Rodgers, T., Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2001.

prof. Bogdan-Mihai Măimăscu

Liceul Tehnologic Grigore Antipa, Bacău (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/bogdan.maimascu

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