“Daddy, play it again!” my four-year-old daughter said.
“The same song? Again?” (We’d already listened to it nine times in a row.)
Later that night, we would read the same storybook three times straight.
Young children want us to repeat songs and stories. They like to point at things, like pumpkins, and tell us, “I know what that is. It’s a pumpkin,” when they know that we know that they know what it is.
Of course, kids like the songs and stories they ask us to repeat; and they are clearly seeking our attention and approval by demonstrating knowledge of a word.
But there is something else going on. To acquire language, children must interact with vast amounts of repetitive input. Fortunately, they come “hard-wired” to do just that.
My daughter is just beginning to read aloud. When I help her finish a sentence, she promptly goes back and reads it again. In conversations, she repeats or paraphrases what I say. I’ve never asked her to do these things; she does them instinctively.
Continual exposure to repetitive input forms the foundation for accuracy, fluency, and literacy in a first language.
How, if at all, does this relate to an adult learning a foreign language?
To remark that the average adult language learner does not often read or listen to the same stories nor routinely form sentences to identify objects would be a gross understatement. Except in extraordinary circumstances, adults are not immersed in the language, much less guided by caretakers who encourage and reinforce their learning. Many of us take classes or buy phrase books, conversation CDs, flashcards, or software programs; however, few of us exploit these resources to obtain multiple exposures to input.
Pattern practice is as unnatural and dull to adults as it is intuitive and fun for children.
An adult English student who learns the phrasal verb bring up, as in to bring up a point, is unlikely to read, listen, or say repeat it multiple times. Once she understands what it means (whether from context, an explanation, or a dictionary), her natural inclination is to “move on” and “learn something new.” As adults, when we “know” things, we feel we’re “done.”
Moreover, who wants to mindlessly repeat phrases and sentences? It’s boring and stresses us out.
But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!
To learn another language, regardless of age, comprehensible input is not enough; we need repetitive exposure and practice with comprehensible input.
Take an adult student watching a sitcom in English. He hears one of the actors say, “I should have called her” and pauses to consider the meaning of the sentence. He then writes it down with the intention of using it in the future. If this is the extent of his exposure to this structure, what is the likelihood that it will “come out” accurately and fluently in conversation? Even if he meets the structure several more times, his chances of internalizing it are slim, at best.
Ditto if he labors through the average textbook unit and lesson on modal perfects (should have called, would have been there, etc.)
Adults are still “hard-wired” to “take it in.”
Unlike children, adults are capable of conscious, analytical thought. Unhappily, this interferes with second language acquisition. It also tends to make us anxious, which, in turn, compounds the problem.
On the other hand, like children, we learn a tremendous amount when we’re “not looking.” Scores of adult English learners can recite-with flawless accuracy and fluency-lines from TV commercials, songs, movie scenes, and stories they have watched, listened to, or read again and again. The vocabulary and grammar structures are “stuck in their heads,” primed for use in communicative situations.
Had they been assigned this content and tested on it, would it be so?
Creating a base on which to build a second language to fluency is all about the 3Rs: Relax, Repeat, Remember. Get good at the first two and you’ll surely excel at the third.
Note: This article by Jason R. Levine originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.