What Does Language-Learning ‘Look’ Like?

I discuss languages and language learning with people a lot — I am a language teacher after all. Recently, one of the themes I’ve been paying more and more attention to in these conversations is peoples’ notions and assumptions about what language-learning is and how/where it takes place. For example, one of the most common things I hear is some variation of ‘yeah, I speak pretty well, but I need to study more grammar.’ I’ve even heard people say — quite expressively in the language they’re learning, I should add — that they would like to start from the beginning, something like grammar 101. It seems that learners in this category view language learning more or less like this:

Classic Sage on the Stage

Translating this into words, they assume language learning is similar to any other subject (sociology, accounting, etc.) — that is, you take a large body of knowledge, split it into digestible pieces in some principled way, and then organize a curriculum around these pieces. Unfortunately, language is not subject matter in the same way that accounting is, and, as far as I know, there is no principled way to break up and sequence grammatical structures.

On the other extreme of this spectrum, I often hear something like this: “you can’t learn another language in this country; you need to go there to learn”— in other words, immersion in the host country is the only way. It’s almost as if people in this category have an image in their heads of people dropped in a foreign context, forced to sink or swim in their new language context, kind of like this guy (caution: naughty language):

Russian Immersion

While this is definitely closer to what my own views of language learning are, I definitely don’t agree that immersion is the only way. So, what does language learning look like?

Most modern views of language learning are based on the assumption that second language acquisition is similar to first language acquisition — that is, it looks nothing like the classroom pictured above. Therefore, to understand how people learn second languages, it’s instructive to think first about how children learn their first language. Does a mother give her child daily grammar lessons? Hardly. Yes, some parents correct their children’s developing grammar, but in no sort of systematic way. There must be something else going on. And there is. Children acquire language through a subconscious process which is driven by meaningful comprehensible input — i.e., input that is at or just above their current level of comprehension. They get lots of this comprehensible input from their environment throughout their childhood, and it subconsciously shapes their internal linguistic system.

With this in mind, revisiting our central question — what does language learning look like? — we can conclude that, anytime we are interpreting comprehensible input in any of its forms, language learning is happening, our target-language linguistic system is growing. Thus, yes, immersion is one accurate ‘look’ of language learning, but there are many other possibilities. Reading an article or two from your favorite target-language newspaper each morning also looks like language learning, as does watching a target language movie or t.v. show. The possibilities are infinite and revolve around one key ingredient: comprehensible input.

So, if you’re looking for language-learning opportunities, find some engaging, level-appropriate (i.e., comprehensible) podcasts, videos, articles, etc. and voila! Or…you could join a target-language mafia, as Bert Kreischer did.