The fundamental misunderstanding about language learning.

There are two distinct activities:

  • Linguistics. This means language science. It is the conscious study of the components of a language or language in general. This is like all other sciences and intellectual persuits: biology, chemistry, mathematics, etc..
  • Language learning, or rather, language aquisition (which is the term I'll use for the rest of this article). This means developing the ability to understand, speak, read or write in a language. This is not a conscious activity, but rather training your brain, programming it, more like muscle memory than studying math.

Both are worthy pursuits. Some people are interested in only one, some people are interested in both (I'm interested in both).

However, the great, fundamental misunderstanding, is that most people believe that developing the first (linguistics) will lead to the second (language acquisition). This is completely false.

As Steve Kaufmann likes to quote:

"If the scientific knowledge of anatomy were a condition for making love, professors of anatomy would be unrivaled lovers. If the academic knowledge of grammar were a condition for making literature, grammarians would be unrivaled writers. But this is not the case....."
- Rubem Alves

What they teach you in language classes in school is very basic linguistics. This is why (IMHO) most language courses are so terribly unsuccessful. Language acquisition is not a conscious activity, it is a matter of activating your natural language acquisition device (one of Noam Chomsky's terms).

But some people -- especially language teachers -- are unable to separate these two things (linguistics and language acquisition). In Steve Kaufmann's recent discussion (video is available!) with Robyn Matthews, Robyn insists several times that the learner needs to know syntax. Syntax, for those who don't know, is the system by which words are combined to form sentences. In English and many western European languages (like Spanish, French, Italian) this means word-order. In many other languages (like most of the Slavic languages, including Polish and Russian) this means word-endings.

And, yes, you do need to have the ability to correctly form sentences in a language in order to speak it and be understood. But you don't need to know syntax, to have this syntax ability. In fact, most native speakers don't know the syntax of their native language, but still have this ability (myself included when it comes to English).

But here is the real kicker: no matter how well you know syntax, this alone will never translate into ability.

So, if you aren't interested in the linguistic aspects, you can skip that part all together. In fact, I believe it might be best for adults to avoid it until after a certain level of proficiency. This is because most adults are pathologically afraid of making mistakes in social situations. Once they know a "language rule" they will consciously monitor (from Stephen Krashen's "monitor model") their speech to try and avoid this mistake. However, speaking a language is not a conscious activity!!! When you speak your native language are you consciously thinking of the rules of syntax? Of course not!

This monitoring, when used in moderation can help the non-native speaker appear to possess a higher level of language ability than they actually have. This is a good thing. When over-used, it completely disrupts the natural production process and can make the speaker sound very unnatural.

This is all not to say that linguistics and language acquisition cannot work together.  Linguists (like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen) study the process of language acquisition and what they discover can be used by language learners -- which is what I am trying to do in this article.

To repeat my main point: a linguistic understanding of a language does not automatically give way to ability with the language.  One still has to acquire the language the natural way.

And so what is the natural way?

I'm glad you asked!

Comprehensible input.  That term has Stephen Krashen written all over it.  It means hearing and listening to input in the target language which you understand and are interested in.  Given enough comprehensible input, the language acquisition device in your brain will learn to understand and speak the target language.  No conscious linguistic understanding is necessary.

Now, I hope you noticed the two very important conditions: (1) you must understand the input, and (2) you must be interested in it.  How can you understand a language you haven't already acquired?  Well, there are several techniques.

One variation is having a text, an audio recording of the text and a translating dictionary.  You listen to the audio a couple of times.  Then you go through the text to look-up words you don't know.  Then you listen some more.  Maybe you make flashcards for the unknown words.  When you're sick of that text, move on to another one.

The second requirement ("input must be interesting to you") is also very important.  Language is about communicating a message.  You must concern yourself primarily with comprehending the message in order to activate your language acquisition device.  This is the same way you acquired your first language, you wanted to understand what your ma was saying or the story or the cartoon, etc...

Repetition can be very helpful, especially in the beginning, but it shouldn't be forced.  If you're following your interests, you only need to deal with a text until you've gotten what you wanted out of it.  Once you've understood it and you feel like going on to something else, you're done.  Too many adults will never get past the first couple texts because they want to "perfect" them before moving on.  Quantity over "intensity."

There is some technology to help with various parts of this process.  Steve Kaufmann's Lingq does basically what I've described above.  There are also many computerized flashcard systems, including my own, Memorati (based on Lingwo.flashcards).  One of the most popular is Anki.  There are also several great online translating dictionaries, just Google around a bit.

I've known some people acquired a foreign language primarily using music as their input.  If you really love the music of a particular band, its great motivation and will help the words stick in your head much better than other types of input.  I've also known people who used soap operas.  The context and the person's emotional involvement with the characters can be enough to provide meaning even without the text.  Of course, you have to be the type of person who can get emotionally involved in soap operas for that to work. ;-)

The point is the input can be just about anything, so long as it meets the requirements.


As I've discussed before, I started learning Russian and Polish in a university setting, which taught me very well the grammar of those languages (linguistics).  While this was interesting and fun for me -- because I like that sort of thing -- it failed to allow me to speak and understand, ie. I hadn't acquired much of the language.

Since I've began to focus on comprehensible input as discussed above, I've been making really strong progress.  I still have quite a ways to go -- I'm hardly fluent in either language -- but I seem to now be on the right track.

Sometime next year, I plan to try learning Spanish using these techniques.  This will be the ultimate test because I don't have any conscious grammatical knowledge of that language.  I'd also like to learn Egyptian Arabic, but Spanish comes first because I'll likely go visit my sister living in Argentina next year.

For more in depth information on this topic, check out Stephen Krashen's "Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning" (full text available!).

Happy (Language) Hacking!