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Diverse Theories on Acquiring Language

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

"How can you learn a foreign language?" This question is answered by a number of diverse theories on acquiring language. Some of the more popular theories on acquiring language are briefly introduced and discussed in this article.

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    There are an increasing number of diverse theories on acquiring language. Here we will have a brief look at a few of the most enduring theories on acquiring language. Of those to be considered are the Multiple Intelligences, the Communicative Approach, TPR or Total Physical Response, the Grammar Translation Method, the European Direct Method, the Natural Approach, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

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    The Multiple Intelligences

    Developed in the 1980s by Harvard University’s Dr. Howard Gardner, this language-learning theory states that each of us individually is “smart" in different ways in nine categories. These nine categories or areas of intelligence are currently defined as:

    1. Verbal – Linguistic (using words as a means of linguistic expression)
    2. Visual – Spatial (emerges when people strongly identify colors and shapes as with architects, designers and engineers)
    3. Logical – Mathematical (indicated when strong computer, programming, calculating and data manipulation skills are evident)
    4. Musical – Rhythmic (Remember Michael Jackson? He was a strong Musical – Rhythmic type along with Bodily – Kinesthetic)
    5. Bodily – Kinesthetic (These intelligence types like to move it – in sports, dance, acrobatics and other physical means)
    6. Inter-personal (Think of diplomats and social types who function best through interaction with other people)
    7. Intra-personal (Often these intelligence types are loners like writers or other serious thinkers who tend not to interact heavily with other people)
    8. Naturalist (These are your nature and environmentalists who thrive on being outdoors.) Remember when you – or someone else, came home with a wriggling slimy, creepy crawly thing in your hands or pocket to proudly “show it off" to Mom and Dad or your siblings?
    9. Spiritual – Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but “godliness" itself is a manifestation of a strong spiritual intelligence.

    Gardner theorized that we all have intelligence in each of these areas although developed to different degrees in each person, making us all the more unique.

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    Communicative Approach

    At present a commonly used language learning theory, the Communicative Approach is favored by many institutions and language learners because it focuses on the communicative skills of language --reading, writing, listening and speaking-- almost exclusively. Grammar and language structure are taught and learned “in context" by using the language and not by memorization of tables, conjugations and grammar rules. Language learners using this approach watch videos, listen to audio via CDs, cassettes or other audio devices, write opinions, reports, compositions, telephone messages and even grocery lists as output for communicative expression. The communicative method features extensive use of dialogue practice, speech and substitution drills and a variety of listening comprehension activities.

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    Total Physical Response

    Although not used to the exclusion of other methods in a foreign language learning environment, TPR or Total Physical response is often incorporated in classes with young learners. Why? This method, developed by Dr. James J. Asher in the 1970s, is based on linking physical movement with language acquisition from responding to a parent's voice to following directions for physical movement. Just think of playing a game of “Simon Says" and you will begin to get the idea. Gestures, movement and physical expression are keyed to vocabulary learning, expressions and simple commands as a basis for acquiring language.

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    Grammar Translation Method

    Dating back to the early 20th century when linguists such as Franz Boas and Otto Jesperson began deciphering the “code" of language to enable a logical method to teach and learn the structure of a foreign language, this method is still in use. Nowadays, institutions in many parts of Asia, Europe and North America apply this model of acquiring foreign languages. Using a book, short story, article or selected reading passage, key grammar and lexis are defined using footnotes or a listing of grammar points and definitions at the bottom of the reading page. Language learners are prompted to memorize grammar rules, vocabulary lists and verb conjugations in order to “decipher" a written text or passage. This method has some effectiveness but is tedious, repetitive and boring for most foreign language learners.

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    European Direct Method

    Most popular during the late 1980s to early 1990s, the European Direct method stresses delivery of specialized “lesson types" including: reading, writing, grammar and function, listening comprehension, pronunciation and video to deliver linguistic aspect of a foreign language. Its lesson model typically follows the mantra of PPP, or Presentation, Practice and Production in which the sequence is:

    • Presentation – introduce the topic via an example, image, story or personal experience
    • Practice – learners practice short vocabulary lists of key words to be used in the lesson, and then have guided practice in using the lexis among themselves in the classroom.
    • Production – In this final phase, the foreign language learners practice without being “guided" or restricted in any way in their use of the language elements they have just been taught.

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    The Natural Approach

    Developed in the late 1980s by linguistic researcher Stephen D. Krashen and Spanish language teacher Tracy Terrell, this theory on acquiring language stresses the natural manner in which most of us learned our first language. We didn’t study textbooks, memorize lists, conjugate verbs or imbibe grammar rules when we were in the process of acquiring language as children. In the Natural Approach, emphasis is placed more on imitation of methods used to acquire our first language through use of the language in context and in a variety of different situations.

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    Neuro-Linguistic Programming

    NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which was initiated in the 1970s, utilizes a series of structured stages to trigger repeated responses in acquiring language. Positive, successful behaviors are psychologically linked to language acquisition. You perform an action or activity once, twice, three, then 10 times until it starts becoming an automatic sequence inculcating language as a result. Each of these “programmed" sequences builds on previous ones to form a complex, inter-woven series of linguistic responses in which language is consistently used.

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    Diverse Theories on Acquiring Language

    We have briefly touched on the theory of Multiple Intelligences, the Natural Method, Total Physical Response, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the European Direct method, the Grammar - Translation method, and the Communicative approach. These represent but a fraction of the diverse theories on acquiring language which are or have been in active use. Using any of these methods or a combination of them can be highly effective in acquiring language depending on the needs and background of your foreign language learners.