The Nuts and Bolts of Language Learning
Here are the three essentials of learning a language.
The student has a defined goal that motivates them to want to learn.
The student works on language skills and systems.
The teacher uses a style of teaching that mirrors the student’s learning style.
That was a distillation of what academic textbooks have to say. My interpretation of these in plain English is:
- The student knows what they want to be able to do and is single-minded about achieving it.
- The student gets the whole story.
- The student is taught in a way that is simultaneously comfortable and challenging for them.
Let’s think of ‘skills’ and ‘systems’ as the nuts and bolts that hold any language together. If the nuts and bolts fit each other, language that’s useful, precise and comprehensible will be created.
By ‘whole story’ I mean: working specifically on language skills and systems that are relevant to a particular student’s objective.
Language skills come under two general headings. Firstly: speaking and writing, i.e. when language is produced. Secondly: listening and reading, i.e. when language is received. A student’s objective determines which of these will be worked on. I divide the skills further into sub-skills because it is through improvement of these sub-skills that the student’s objective will be achieved. An intensive reading sub-skill is vital for a proof-reader, but studying this sub-skill could be irrelevant for a hotel’s customer services manager.
Language systems come under four headings.
- Lexis (or vocabulary). Meaning words or groups of words relating to a topic. If we take houses as the topic, these would be relevant lexis: roof, roofs/rooves, lounge/sitting room, loft extension/ conservatory, maisonette/bungalow/barn conversion. In our increasingly specialised world, developing a wide lexis in your specialism is vital. My students are taught how to manage their own lexis.
- Grammar. Just seeing and hearing this word can be scary. I think of grammar as a good friend, because the more familiar and competent I am with the customs and behaviour of a language (i.e. its grammar) the more likely it is that my ‘friend’ will help and support me. The difficulty is grammar textbooks; they love to use terms like ‘present perfect progressive/continuous.’ Ironically these terms are often harder to remember than the language form they describe! I concentrate on helping students to think about why they have chosen a particular grammar structure to get their message across. I believe that if a student knows why they chose to use, let’s say, the ‘present perfect continuous/progressive’ tense of a verb in preference to another tense, they will be able to work out when to use it again in the real world.
- Phonology (or the sound of spoken English). The phonetic alphabet uses over 40 letters and symbols to represent all of the sounds used in spoken English, whereas the writing alphabet has a mere 26. Learning to recognise and use the phonetic alphabet is crucial to cultivating accurate pronunciation. This is why I insist that students learn this alphabet before starting a course with me.
- Function (or why you choose to use particular English in a certain situation). A situation where is request is being made might include formal written language such as ‘Please can you provide me with..’, but in an informal situation ‘I’ll have a cappuccino please’ has the same function and is a better choice of language. Students of English need to know when to use which
A language course must be a very personal and participative experience, because that’s how we use language. Whether a student likes to learn rules and exceptions to rules before using them or prefers to jump in and have a go and then work out how to improve their work afterwards, must be their choice. My job is clear: I need to know (or help my student to find out) what learning style works for them, to design learning activities that match this and, going back to my nut and bolt theme, to equip the student with a metaphorical spanner to be able to put it all tightly and precisely together.