Steps to success

The Inner Reward Approach

by Torsten Sauer - edited by Lynne Hand

Don't you turn green with envy whenever you see a child speaking it's mother tongue fluently and accent free at the age of 3? Whereas you, the adult learner of a new language, cannot do so even after 9 years of learning! What's wrong with us? How do little children learn their language so much easier and faster than adults learn a new language? To state the obvious, children don't use textbooks. So the conclusion may be that learning a new language, not using textbooks will enable you to speak a new language accent free with flawless grammar within three years.

But what are we to do instead? To put it in a nutshell: we can make use of a mental mechanism built into our brains, which normally is in a dormant state in an adult person: The language learning mechanism. By waking up that mechanism, we should be capable of understanding 70% of a spoken presentation or a movie within less than a year, and from that point in time start gradually speaking, until after 2 years we should be able to understand 90% and be able to form short sentences.

The majority of traditional language students will never know that learning a language can not only be fun, but can even become an addiction, yielding amazing results when carried out the right way. My conviction is, that everybody has a built in language learning mechanism in their brains, that can make language learning a compulsion, when used properly. In doing this, learning does not just become effortless, over time it becomes a relaxing and stimulating process, like any other type of sport or interest that one does for leisure.

If language learning draws energy fom you rather than giving you strength, be sure you are following the wrong path, and you will probably never make much use of it in the long run. If you learn that language with a feeling of repulsion, if you have to force yourself into spending a certain amount of time each day with a textbook, that time is simply wasted. But if you have already done so, not all may be lost yet. You may have already been learning a new language for many years, knowing all the grammatical rules, having a rich vocabulary of more than 10,000 words and their derivatives. Yet, you still get lost watching an average movie. If that's the case, don't give up on your knowledge. Be assured, there is a method you can use to vitalise that knowledge within a couple of years, so that you will eventually be able to use it almost like a native speaker.

To understand, how we can switch on our built in primeval language learning mechanism, we need to have a look at the child again. At the very beginning, the talking, which the child is exposed to, comes like a flow of music without any meaning from the sourrounding family. Communication mainly works through gestures and noises. Then the brain starts to dissect the flow of music all by itself. After a while the child will be able to make out certain words and connect them to the gestures, items or results that usually come along with them. Over time, the brain becomes more and more discerning. The vocabulary builds by linking words to movements or pictures. The language learning mechanism is now in full swing. With every new word that's recognised, a sensation of success runs through the child, thus stimulating further learning. The reward comes from inside.

At the age of 3, the child has a full understanding of the grammar of it's mother tongue. You can best verify this by making a grammatical mistake on purpose. The response will come instantly, and I'm positive, that child has never even seen a textbook.

From the age of 6, however, the language learning mechanism gradually goes to sleep, until in an adult it's not active any longer. And be assured that the way we generally learn vocabulary from a textbook won't wake it up again.

If you lack an environment of native speakers, in order to switch on the language learning mechanism, you need to expose yourself to the spoken word in the required language and that is where modern technology comes in. You may, for instance, begin to follow a soap, comedy or long running drama series on TV, Video or DVD that reflects everyday life in a country that speaks the target language. Watch it regularly, learn as much as you can about the content from the images. At first, the language may come as mere soundbytes - at this stage it's important to just keep listening - after a while (between 2 and 6 weeks) you should find out that you are able to make out certain words, mainly those that occur more frequently than others. The process continues, burning in deeper those words that are used most frequently. Listening and watching the same programme again and again may also help a lot, bearing in mind, that a young child likes hearing stories over and over again, because that improves their understanding.

Those learners who have already worked on a language for a long time, using textbooks, and still cannot follow the plot when it comes to native speakers, it may be an advantage to switch on the accompanying subtitles (tele)text pages usually meant for listeners who are hard of hearing. In this way they can read and listen at the same time, thus correcting stress patterns, intonation and pronunciation that they may have stored incorrectly in their memory whilst reading a textbook. Incorrectly stressing words is one of the main reasons for misunderstandings, this method works wonders by connecting huge amounts of vocabulary to the real world.

Another way of learning could be by watching those programs normally meant for the youngest viewers or by watching the news broadcasts. But don't overdo these two, because they don't use a typical cross section of the target language, and the way you begin to talk may sound stilted to the other party.

However, once you have started learning and you have acquired the ability to make out certain words, you can start to build your vocabulary. A much better method than learning words individually is to learn phrases as they come. Otherwise you could end up speaking phrases of your mother tongue and using words of the target language. This can be very amusing, but hardly understood by native speakers of the target language, unless they happen to speak your language too.

While building your personal vocabulary, please try and avoid one very bad mistake our schools in Germany make. Don't learn lists of translated words, neither from a dictionary or anything that looks like it, such as those textbooks which create short vocabulary lists to assist you in understanding the chapters. What students who have been taught in this manner often do is pair equivalent words of both, their own and the target language, not putting a picture to the new word, but using the stored one of their own language. Such an approach prevents true understanding and an ability to speak fluently for ever.

If you learn from a traditonal textbook, at first you are most likely to pronounce new words in a way, that's close to your mother tongue, thus developing an accent and, if the stressing pattern doesn't fit, creating difficulties in understanding. Secondly, your memory will always have to work in a two-stage process, translating an expression before having access to the picture that's linked to it. Depending on that two-stage process, you may never be capable of following a conversation in real time, unless your brain works 10 times faster than the average human being. But, if you do belong to that group, you don't need advice from a mere mortal anyway.

Typically what happens to the traditional learner of a new language while listening is that they get tired and frustrated and eventually end up trying to avoid it completely. However, since the primeval language learning mechanism depends on spoken words, they never experience its intriguing effect. Instead, after having coped with the accent shift, they first search their brain for the mother tongue equivalent of a word that they don't understand instantly. In a second step, they recall the picture that comes along with that word in their language. By then they have normally lost the context of the conversation. Not considering the fact, that, quite often there is no 100% equivalent for the meaning of a word. At this point, the majority tend to give up on ever fully understanding the target language.

To overcome this predicament of traditional learning, I suggest making use of a method called visualization. As we return to the child's approach to learning, we clearly see that there is no further language to connect newly acquired words and phrases to. Instead, the spoken words are linked to impressions that come at the same time. Pictures, gestures, items, sounds and more abstract things like character traits and various other things sometimes too subtle for us to be fully aware of. So, if we want to invoke the sleeping learning mechanism in ourselves, why not try doing it in the same way as when we were very young. Basically, attach a picture to each word. Since you are supposed to learn words in context, it's advisable to remember that context or a picture of it for a while. In case of a character trait it makes sense to pinpoint somebody you know who has that trait and put their picture to the word, as it's stored in your memory. Looking words up in the dictionary is not forbidden, but it's recommended to just write down the word of the target language for recollection.

The list of your lately acquired words should be considered a trophy, used every second day to recall the pictures or scenes that are stored in your mind. You just sit back and let your mind's eye display an imaginary slide show as you go through the words. You'll find out how relaxing this can be instead of exhausting. Learning the words and their meaning in this fashion will enable you, to invoke pictures when listening, rather than going through a two-stage process that has the translation in between. To have words bring up mental pictures is a natural way of understanding and either way, it's much less time consuming.

When you do expose yourself to a soap, maybe just for half an our every day, you'll feel within weeks how your mental language learning mechanism is getting revived. Doing this for half a year, you should have learned enough to feel the urge to speak the language. But beware, don't make the mistakes our conventional education forces us to make with their “monkey see, monkey do” approach. Because they need to perform tests on you in order to guage your progress, they make you speak way before speaking comes naturally from within. What happens is, you end up speaking the target language the way you are used to in your mother tongue, thus burning in the wrong patterns.

Since unlearning is much harder than learning, speaking beyond your capacity is not a good idea. Let's have a look at the young child again. It starts to comprehend its language before the age of 1, but it doesn't start to speak in words until it's 1½ years old, and in whole sentences at the age of 2 to 2½ . This is when reading should start at the earliest. I suggest that school teachers, if they need to perform tests, should for the first two to three years just check for comprehension and undersanding maybe even in the mother tongue.

This theory is solely based on my personal experience, though I admit that I am always listening to experts on this subject, and I have obtained quite a few ideas from them. Please help me to verify my theory, is it possible to harness our sleeping mental mechanism to make language learning not only fun, but also much more efficient. Expose yourself to the spoken word, make use of your computer and other modern media. Keep a notebook of all words that are new to you and visualise them regularly.

Torsten Sauer

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