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How language learning loses its way

Despite the wealth of intensive courses and methods available to those seeking to improve their language skills, the example of word-hungry children has plenty to teach us.


Motivation is the key to language learning.

Learning a language is a process that has been radically changing over the last ten years. Continuous advances in technology as well as the application of scientific methods have perfected the process of language learning to the very last detail, but that is precisely the reason why it is falling back to some of its old bad habits.

Nowadays there is a European Framework of Languages that defines clearly what can be accomplished with language at every level, what should be studied and what not, depending on your degree of knowledge of the language. There are official examinations in almost every country of the EU that will demonstrate your level of competency.

There is nothing wrong with that, in fact, these are some very useful tools. But don’t be mistaken: these are just another set of tools from the many that are available today that can help you achieve your language-learning goals.

Think of the way in which a baby, who has no knowledge of reading or writing, picks up a language. Does he follow any kind of standard process that has been tested in any of the top universities? Clearly not. We all know the first method that a child uses when learning that language that grown ups are chattering around him all day long: imitation.

If we continue looking at the child, we will find another key ingredient that isn’t normally pointed out in any of the best-known academies or universities. A small child has a serious problem with all those adults continually saying things that he can’t understand. And he also needs to express himself. They don’t necessarily understand him when he needs to go to the bathroom, instead they keep on grabbing him and pulling stupid faces, they feed him tasteless food and they always leave him alone in the middle of the night when it’s dark and frightening. I am sure the baby has something to say about that and that is why he is going to learn how to talk, he has a very good reason to do so and so he is highly motivated.

Adults who want to learn a new language can be motivated to increase their career opportunities, their level of culture, can read books, watch movies, travel… but none of them are even close to the kind of motivation a child has. Yet some of them believe that an intensive course of one month, or a three-month stay during the summer in a country will solve all their problems. A super-motivated child typically needs 30 months to speak in sentences of several words, and will still have to keep working at it until the age of six to be speaking mostly like an adult.

Learning a language is not a one-night stand, it is a long term commitment and also one of those that will change your life and open up a whole new world for you.

Rafael Álvarez is the founder and director of, a community that promotes the use of video and artistic expression to learn languages.

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Published: Apr 13 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “How language learning loses its way”

  1. ” Continuous advances in technology as well as the application of scientific methods have perfected the process of language learning to the very last detail, ”

    Sadly, this is not the case at all.

    Advances in technology are often used gratuitously with little thought to teaching methodology. Science does little to improve teaching, as most materials providers are happier quoting science selectively to support their existing practices than they are applying it rigorously to develop new and better ways to teach.

    In fact, contradictory though it may seem, the question of expression is both the reason for the current failure in language teaching and the solution to the current crisis.

    The CEFRL, the framework mentioned in the article is an attempt to do exactly what the article author proposes: focus on the learner’s needs and desires in order to encourage learning. However, they have done exactly what I stated above: they’ve looked at current practices — topic-led lessons such as “at the airport”, “at the restaurant”, “at the shop” — and justified them in terms of “communicational imperatives” and such. But these don’t serve to describe needs at a linguistic level — a baby doesn’t learn domain-specific “units” of language tied to the particular context. Much of the same grammar occurs in wanting to go to the toilet as wanting to have a cup of milk.

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