Thoughts about good foreign language instruction

Although I studied Latin, German, and ancient Greek in high school and college, I never achieved anything beyond rudimentary abilities in these languages.  For many years after college I had no strong motivation to pursue any additional language study.  Over the last 10 years, however, I have had the opportunity to travel to a number of other countries, and to prepare for these travels I have done quite bit of foreign language study on my own.  

I would like to share some lessons I’ve learned from these recent experiences as a language student. I hope they may be useful both to adults who want to learn another language and to teachers who want to teach foreign languages to children as effectively as possible.

Focus on reading and listening at the beginning with just enough grammar to allow for understanding

As I discussed in previous posts, a good lesson structure involves providing students with some relevant experience and then analyzing it.  For foreign language instruction, the relevant experience, of course, is listening to speech or reading text. Grammar instruction is necessary, but it is best addressed in the second step, the analysis step.  For example, when introducing a new tense to a student, I wouldn’t begin by saying, “Here are the endings used in the future tense.”  Rather, I would have the student read some text with this construction and then point out the words in the future tense and analyze how they are formed. 

Focusing on listening and reading thus keep the focus on developing the student’s ability to comprehend the new language, which, of course, is the goal of language study. It is all too easy for grammar to assume a role not as a tool used to acquire understanding, but almost as an end in itself.  I know this was the case with much of the foreign language study I did in school.  When grammar becomes the focus of lessons, valuable time is taken from working to understand speech and text, and students often become overwhelmed and confused. Grammar points are much easier to learn when they are directly related to a student's experience with the language rather than in isolation and out of context.

A initial focus on listening and readiing also allows the student to postpone significant work in speaking and writing until he has acquired a vocabulary of several hundred words and the ability to understand simple expressions using basic sentence structures.  Postponing speaking and writing has several benefits. I have worked with a few programs that emphasized developing speaking skills from the outset, but they did so at the expense of developing oral language comprehension.  As a result, I could express some simple ideas quite early in my studies, but I was not able to understand what a person was saying to me.  Receptive tasks, such as oral comprehension, are generally easier than expressive tasks, such as speaking, so it makes sense to start with the easier tasks that are the foundation of the more difficult ones. 

Another benefit of postponing speaking and writing is that it can reduce the anxiety often associated with foreign language learning.  It is psychologically quite demanding to try to say something when one has very words in one's vocabulary and very little knowledge of how to string words together in the language. If extensive work on speaking is delayed until the student has a more extensive vocabulary and ability to understand more speech and text, that is, when he has more experience with the language, it is much less daunting to speak and much easier for the student to be able to express a reasonably complex idea.  Indeed, I suspect students who follow this sequence not only often find themselves ready to say quite a bit but can surprise themselves as well with how eager they are to do it.

Train with audio (and lots of it)

I have tried using some books that didn’t have any associated audio. This approach is effective if the only goal is to read the language.  However, if one wants to be able to understand when others speak and to be able to speak oneself, it is absolutely essential to listen to lots of the language spoken by native speakers. Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of digitized sound, the personal computer and the internet, there is a tremendous amount of audio readily available, much of it free.

The most efficient way to learn from audio is to study it in conjunction with a transcription.  An excellent routine is for the student to listen to the audio a couple of times without reading the text, trying to understand as much as possible.  After these initial trials, the student can then read the transcript in order to understand the passage thoroughly.  During the reading the student can figure out, moreover, why he wasn’t able to understand certain parts.  Was it because the speakers used vocabulary new to the student, or was it because he wasn’t able to recognize the pronunciation of a known word.  This analysis is tremendously useful.  Then the student can go back and listen to the audio again without looking at the text.  Students should continue this process until they can understand the spoken text easily.  When I follow this routine, I not only comprehend a new passage thoroughly by the end of the routine, but also I find that my ability to comprehend new speech improves quite dramatically.

Once a student is familiar with a particular text, he should then try to read the text out loud along with the native speaker.  At first it is advisable to play a phrase, pause the audio, and then repeat it.  Once the student is able to pronounce all of the words easily, then he should go back and try the exercise again, but this time he should try to read the text at the same time as the speaker. It is an extremely challenging but powerful exercise.

A final step is to for the student to memorize a few sentences or a paragraph and recite them without looking at the text, repeating this exercise until he can recite the text at a normal conversational rate.

Embrace errors

The more errors a student makes, the faster he will learn. This counterintuitive phenomenon occurs because the best way to commit something to memory is to try to recall it.  In other words, the best way to practice is to test oneself constantly.  However, it takes many repetitions to remember new information and how and when to apply it correctly, especially when the learner is embarking on a new area of study.  Therefore maximizing repeitions, which should be a primary goal of instruction, naturally leads to many errors.

There is, of course, another condition that needs to be met to make this practice as efficient as possible, and that is that the student needs to receive feedback about his errors, including help to analyze them so that he understands why his mistakes were mistakes.  Those of you familiar with the ABeCeDarian Reading Program know how much I discuss the nature of good error correction and how important it is to the program.  I’ll have more to say in future blog posts about specific techniques for dealing with errors, both in foreign language instruction in particular and in other areas as well.


In my next post I will present a number of resources I have found invaluable in my own foreign language studies.