Some Hard Truths about Language Learning
How and why do people learn a second language? Children, that is, pre-pubescent people, have a distinct advantage for learning a language other than their first language and in some ways it may be said of them that any and all languages that they learn prior to puberty, regardless of which came first in the strictest chronological sense, is nonetheless a first language.
After puberty, things get complicated. Analysis comes into play. The brain itself seems to demand reasons and justifications for this, that and everything. This is conventional wisdom and demonstrable, experienced by all people and beyond question, with or without "scientific" research.
Enter the language teacher or a language school, purporting to be able to teach you a language just like you learned your native language. Do you hear the snake-oil salesman? No one is able to learn a second language after puberty the way he or she learned their native language (or even languages) before puberty.
There are good, better and even best methods for learning a second or third language after puberty but there is no magic bullet that depends on method. It depends on… motivation, motivation, motivation. This motivation is fueled by necessity and its consequence, determination.
The successful language learner is not passive — and too many "methods," pushed by second-language acquisition experts over the past decades have tried to convince buyers — including whole school systems from K-college — that it is possible to return in some artificial or simulated way to the cradle and, after sufficient input and a minimal amount of models of proper grammar (without any conscious attention to grammatical detail) teach a person to speak, read, write and understand a new language.
It just isn't so. It takes blood, sweat and tears to learn a second language after a certain age. The devil is in the details of grammar, vocabulary, phonology, culture… and so on. It can be done but it takes serious and analytically driven effort on the part of the student, not provided by a program, text or a teacher, not mere input.
Yes, there are talented people who catch on faster, just as there are people who are musically gifted. However, let's stop deluding ourselves and running our educational system as though everyone is equally gifted and capable of success if only he or she had the right method or the right teacher.
The proof of what I am saying — by telling you that the emperor has nothing on — may be found after contemplating this thought: after all the labor of the so-called experts in second-language acquisition, is that no greater percentage of students are succeeding — becoming orally proficient –than before these precious experts came on the scene.
In fact, it could be said that they have made things worse by holding out false notions about what is required to succeed. I have watched and hoped for a difference for more than two decades and if anything, I have seen the bar lowered more and more. I still see star pupils, but they are usually (and predictably) those who have been exposed to a language from a young age and whose parents continued to provide opportunities for them to retain and improve their abilities into high school and beyond.
- Based on the author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish