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The 3 things you need to learn a language … a teacher isn’t one of them.

Aug 31, 2020

In my previous blog post, I offered a sort of treatise on the theory behind what language is and how it impacts our daily lives. To build on that, I’d like to offer the language-learning philosophy of Babble On.

You need three things to learn a language, and a teacher is not one of them.

At BabbleOn, we are not shy about our love of Task-Based Learning.  In Jane Willis’s 1999 book, A Framework for Task-Based Learning, she outlines three things that anyone needs to learn a language:

1. Exposure

To learn a language, you need to be around it.  I have never learned Malagasy (Madagascar) nor heard of it before I just looked it up and typed it here; among the many reasons, I have never learned Malagasy because I have had exactly three experiences with it: looking it up, pasting the name here, and pasting it again.

Nobody can learn a language without some access to it.

2. Use

To learn a language, you not only have to be around it, you have to use it.  This involves being put in situations where language can be practiced, learned, reinforced, and where valuable mistakes can be made.

3. Motivation

To learn a language, there has to be motivation.  This motivation can exist in many forms: maybe there’s career pressure, maybe it’s a hobby — this, of course, is personal.

Are they equally important?

In short, the research seems to suggest that Motivation is the most important.

Here are some examples:

  • A study performed on babies to see how we learn our first language suggests that a baby’s first words often follows what takes their interest; if a toy or certain interaction takes their attention, they are more likely to learn the words for that (and the sounds!) over other words that mom or dad repeat most often.  Even when toddlers do recreate words that mom and dad repeat a lot, it’s often because mom and dad are the most interesting/motivating forces in their lives.
  • Another study showed that fluency-focused students perform better than accuracy-focused students.  Both accuracy and fluency-focused students have their motivators, but the fluency-focused students are motivated to make mistakes, while accuracy-focused students avoid them at all costs.
  • Yet another study shows that accuracy-focused teachers can actually cause students to lose their ability in a language, demonstrating that positive motivation aimed toward using the language is the best tool for continuing.
  • Some interesting examples have followed this principle in language teachers attempting to capitalize on this fact.  One English teacher, Paul Taylor, brought comedy into his work.  This engaging format increases student participation and desire to continue learning.

So, why do so many people want a teacher?

While Exposure, Use, and Motivation are the three things you need to learn a language — a teacher can help build on these for improved quality and accelerate your results.

Having an experienced trainer can help expose you to new language, give you opportunities to use the language and tips on improving that use, and a teacher can often be the source of motivation.

Overall, a teacher may be desirable but not required.  I have found at Babble On that maintaining a motivation to keep learning is the single most important thing that I can do as a teacher; with that motivation to keep using English and seek out new opportunities, the learning of my students will not only go to another level but continue for years down the road.

Many people still contact a teacher anyway.  Why? Because they lack motivation.  Often, our clients contact us because they feel the threat of failure.  They lack the confidence in their English to succeed.

Our job, always, is to motivate people to overcome their fears in learning a language. See our other blog posts for ongoing tips, and if you or anyone you know would like to overcome your fears in English or German (Deutsch), contact us right away. 


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