By: P. Lahiri
Language can be defined as a human system of communication that uses arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, and/ or written symbols. From this definition of language it is clear that the term language does not exclude symbols, gestures or motions, as excluding these would mean denying the language of the deaf community. Human beings use language to express their inner thoughts and emotions, to comprehend complex and abstract thought, to learn to communicate with others, to fulfil human wants and needs as well as to establish social rules and maintain culture. “Language is an extremely important way of interacting with the people around us. We use language to let others know how we feel, what we need, and to ask questions. Language is the light of the mind” – said John Stuart Mill. Human beings have this unique capability of expressing infinite ideas (sentences) with a limited set of symbols (speech, sounds and words). No other species known to date is capable of this art though limited vocalisations by the chimpanzee or some birds are a kind meaningful communication within their species. In fact, language is a cognition that truly makes us humans.
Language Acquisition: Now the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language and then to produce and use words and sentences to communicate is called Language acquisition. Researchers have categorised language acquisition into two phases – first-language acquisition and second-language acquisition. First-language acquisition is a universal process regardless of the home language. Human infants listen to the sounds around them, begin to imitate them, and eventually start producing words of the language the family speaks. Second-language acquisition presupposes knowledge in a first language and comprises the stages an individual goes through as he or she learns the elements of a new language, such as vocabulary, phonological components, grammatical structures and writing systems. The most common instance of second-language acquisition is when a child who speaks a native language other than a foreign language goes to school for the first time and is exposed to people and peers speaking another language. Children find it much easier picking up that second language. This is not to suggest that for others at a later age learning a second language would be that much difficult; but obviously it will need a lot more practice, time and dedication.
Learning a second language is as exciting as it is beneficial at all ages. The benefits are practical, intellectual as well as based on aspirations. In this age of globalisation fluency in a second language opens up a world of opportunities. Nelson Mandela, the great revolutionary and later the President of South Africa aptly said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language – that goes to his heart.” Also in this regard, the quote of the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is as significant – “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Some of the more important benefits of learning a second language are: Better job prospects, satisfying travel experience, exposure to new cultures, clearer understanding of the world, greater insight into the first language, improved memory function and a profound sense of achievement.
While teaching a foreign language following points have to be factored in:
- language spoken at home
- quantum of opportunity to practice the second language
- internal motivation of the learner
- reason that the second language is needed (e.g., learning for school purposes, to converse with a friend or for work)
The oldest and the traditional method of teaching a foreign language had been the grammar–translation method also called the classical method which was historically employed for teaching the two classical European languages, Greek and Latin. Under this method, in what is called grammar–translation classes, students are made to learn grammatical rules which they apply in translating sentences from the native language to the target language that is sought to be taught. This method envisages reading a particular text in the source language and writing or reproducing it in the target language mainly paying attention to the form of the sentences. By focusing only on reading and writing, this method undermines speaking and listening. In the Grammar–translation classes, usually conducted in the native language of the students, two things are achieved namely they start learning grammar rules i.e. memorising by repetition and then apply the grammar rules deductively to translate a text of native language into the target language helping the students to further their general intellectual development. Despite the fact that this method of learning a foreign language originated in medieval times it remains to this day, for whatever reasons, the most popular method of learning a foreign language in high school. The likely reason could be that progress in learning foreign language could easily be evaluated by making students take these translation tests.
Notwithstanding the popularity of this method in foreign language instruction, this method has been the single most dominant reason for making learners to hate learning a foreign language. No wonder the method has miserably failed to make people achieve fluency in a foreign language. This shortcoming has sparked a debate as to how important it is to learn grammar in learning a language. While not minimising the importance of learning language grammar, many successful language learners agree that prioritising on learning of grammar is not the best path to tread, in learning a language. Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that one has no need to learn grammar. The only point to emphasise here is that learning grammar can be put off till such time one gets reasonable communicative proficiency in the language much as a child learns a language by listening to others speak it. The fear of grammatical error may create a mental block in learning a language. Grammar really makes sense only if a learner has been exposed to the language for a while. But in the final analysis, if one wants to master a language grammar has to be learnt, some day or the other.
The best course for one to learn a foreign language is to adopt a top down approach which means the learner looks at the big picture first before trying to figure out the details of the rules that were applied in framing of sentences. However, many language teachers would argue that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to leaning a foreign language. Some method may just work well for a learner while some others would find it not the best way to learn a language. When a particular method followed in a language class does not quite work for a learner, he/ she could even develop an aversion to continue in that class. This is because we all learn differently, there being some quick learners and some taking more time to get to grips with a new language.
Learning to converse in a new language beyond childhood can appear very difficult, but the learner can make it easier by not creating more barriers that will hinder progress of the learning curve. To make the learning process much smoother and enjoyable the most workable strategy for the learner would be to stop trying to translate ideas and thoughts from the native language to the target language. After obtaining a basic grasp of vocabulary in the target language, the learner should stop thinking in his/ her native language, trying to translate everything in mind, as this slows down progress and limits the real focus of learning.
One very effective way to learn a foreign language is to read and listen to dialogues in that language for a considerable period of time. This will enable the learner to understand how the language practically works without taking recourse to lengthy grammatical explanations and without memorising endless grammatical rules. Short explanations of the grammatical concepts may be provided after the learner gets to see the concepts actually used in conversations. Reading or listening to practical dialogues containing commonplace words and phrases comes very handy in learning a language. Learning the usages of these words and phrases in actual conversations is more practical because it helps the language-learner to learn the words in their exact context as opposed to memorising long vocabulary lists. Understanding correct usages of words and phrases in proper context helps in retention of vocabulary, in assimilation of the learned concepts and in accelerating conversational fluency in the language. This method of learning a language even prompts the learner to think in the target language as soon as possible. When the learner starts thinking in that language to the extent of saying line by line in the head, the learning process can be said to be nearing culmination.
Importance of learning English as a foreign language: The English language is one of the most widely spoken and understood languages and is often reckoned as the most influential language in the world. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Well over 67 countries have English as their official or native language, more than any other language in the world. It is one of the official languages of most of the countries of the British Commonwealth besides the USA. The international business community often uses English to communicate. While it is not easy to approximate the exact number of English language speakers in the world, some estimate puts it at around 1.5 billion people who speak English as a first or second language, one of the highest numbers for any language. One needs to be proficient in English language for pursuing education in countries like the UK and the USA. There are several globally recognised examinations for international students to measure their English language ability. 55% of all websites are in English. The bulk of electronic communication is in English; being able to read and write e-mails is of immense advantage. Some of the world’s best films, TV shows and music are in English. Therefore, learning English will help one for a better understanding of other cultures.
Learning practical English: Learning English at a later age can be quite difficult. Therefore, following propositions the learners may find useful by not creating more barriers in their path of learning.
- Refrain from translating: It is advisable to stop thinking in one’s own language and trying to translate everything into English because it grossly slows down learning progress and limits the focus. It is better to proceed with the already acquired vocabulary for creating the expression in English.
- Getting over fears of mistakes: Fear about how others may react to one’s speech is a great barrier in the way of conversing. Mistakes are natural for learners and mistakes are a great learning experience to quickly get better.
- Avoiding negative thinking: Negative thoughts about perceived difficulties in conversing and harping about mistakes committed earlier hinder progress in learning. Positive thinking boosts confidence in conversation.
- Shaking off nervousness: Grabbing every opportunity to speak will go a long way in getting over nervousness.
- Refrain from taking it personally: It is desirable to avoid feeling too conscious about accent and pronunciation as it leads to apprehension about others not understanding one’s accent.
- Going beyond the classroom: It is imperative not to confine to English conversation within the classroom itself and to grab every opportunity to converse in English even outside in informal surroundings.
- Keeping up the effort: Not to give up till one is more confident in conversation should be the motto.
- Refraining from comparing oneself to more fluent English speakers: Not everyone has the same pace of learning since opportunities and surroundings vary from person to person.
- Not to be apologetic about not being perfect: Perfection comes with time with more and more practice.
- Avoiding outdated methods of learning: Not to adopt the Grammar Translation method for leaning that inhibits the process of learning, is the way forward.
- Not spending more time in studies: It is advisable to spend more time in application of principles of grammar or rules of language rather than studying about the rules and getting them by heart.
- Keeping up effort at reading more texts: Wider reading habits sharpen the knowledge about usages in composition of sentences and refine language skills. This also improves writing skills.
Communications skills help develop intelligence and knowledge which is the key to prosperity and growth in developing and advanced industrial societies, in an increasingly interdependent world. In this context acquiring capability to converse and communicate in widely spoken foreign languages like English becomes indispensable. One more thing is worth remembering in the matter of learning another language; one has to distinguish between nuances of spoken language and the written one. Speaking the “written version” of the language will make one sound foreign and unnatural. On the other hand, if the speaker sounds natural when speaking, the audience will be honestly impressed and will feel closer to the speaker.