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The Hard Unnatural Way to Learn a Language

Grab a textbook, read new combinations of letters, learn the typed-out words by heart, memorise how to order the words in a sentence, fill in exercises (maybe get points for guessing correct word meanings and sentence endings), do more and more of this kind of drill, (perhaps get more points…).

When adults want to learn a new language, they often do exactly that. Have you ever done that kind of language learning, perhaps already at school in French or Spanish? You may still remember and are able to recite the grammar rules for masculine and feminine nouns in French, or the verb endings in Spanish. But can you actually speak the language after going through that type of learning? Do you feel comfortable communicating in that language? Can you understand others speaking the language in daily life?

Learning new words, by seeing them written in a textbook, and perhaps also reading and playing them out loud on a website, or in an app, is a very popular method to try to learn a new language. But it hardly makes you a fluent speaker of that language. The number of words that adults are able to memorise in a foreign language can even exceed the number of words that they know in their native language – but this still doesn't help them speak and understand the foreign language as effortlessly and comfortably as they speak the native language.

The textbook-based, word-reading methods have long been used, in various adaptations, in language classrooms, by language teachers, as well as by individuals trying to learn on their own. These methods have a long tradition, they are based on excellent work by early linguists who described the language in every detail possible, and they have been the only possible methods when books and written materials were the only primary source of information. Listening and speaking exercises complement the reading and writing part but the conscious learning, analysing and memorising of how the language works still stands central to the process.


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