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How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Approaches to Language

Learning Sequence
Levels of Progress
Approaches to Grammar
What is Grammar?

There are two basic principles to keep in mind in learning actual language texts (or lessons):
First, repetition should be the format for every feature of language: grammar, vocabulary, usage.  Grammar features should be learned by practice, not just explanation.  The more you hear, repeat and use a sentence pattern, the better you will know it.

Second, complementing the first, grammar features should be dealt with in usable function terms.  Rather than rules or explanations, focus should be on examples.  Features should be illustrated, so the learner starts with sentences that show the usages.  These will stick with the student better and will also give a practical format.

Every explanation or feature that is dealt with should be reinforced by repetition practice to impress it on the learner.  The language text sentences are learned by repetition and practice and bring the learner to the point of independent production.  Any questions are dealt with in terms of function and usage, rather than abstract translation meanings.

Learning Sequence

The learner is necessarily dependent at first, with no point of reference, no background to draw upon.  In the language, the way to move from dependence to independence (or from alienness to membership in the language community) is to start with a "hearing model."  Let me address the analysis and suggestions of this section to the learner.

Hearing.  By the term "hearing model," I mean that you should start with an actual sample from the language, rather than, for instance, a statement of some grammar feature in the language.  With this approach, you hear the language before you read it or try to speak it.  This applies to each sentence, each text or lesson and for the language as a whole.  You must start with a correct model.  This becomes the target you aim for in your own practice and production.  Simply, you want to sound like the native speaker of the language.

In addition, you should be sure that the sentences and texts you are hearing and learning are actual sentences from the language as spoken by a native speaker (also called "mother-tongue" speaker) or competent national speaker of the target language.  It is too easy to mislead a language helper by asking for a translation of an English sentence into the target language.  Follow techniques in Donald N.  Larson's Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning or Language Acquisition Made Practical by Brewster and Brewster for techniques of elicitation and text development.

The reason I have given the alternative source of "competent national speaker of the language" is due to the multi-lingual nature of many areas.  For instance, in East Africa the majority of primary users of Swahili are actually second-language speakers who speak standard Swahili, where Swahili is the normal language of social interaction and education.

In France, the official language is "French," which gives the impression that everybody in France speaks that language.  In fact the native language of millions of French people is not French, but Breton, Provençal, Franco-Provençal, German, Catalán, Basque and regional forms of French notably different from Parisian French, which is the standard national language.  Yet most of these people are bilingual in French.  Thus they might be sources of standard French for a learner.


Back to the concept of "model."  When you begin by hearing a correct model, you eliminate interference from your native language.  Your focus is on trying to imitate what you are hearing, rather than guessing what sounds should go with which letters.  You want to avoid introducing foreign patterns into the language as you use it, that is, pronunciation or grammar patterns which lie outside the range of the natural patterns of the target language.

Your goal should be to develop your own speech in the new language to match that of the community which speaks that language as a mother tongue.  (This means of course, you are limited in what you can say initially.  You sound foreign and you are unable to manipulate the language — your basic models are too few at first.  But every day you will add some new sentence pattern or structural feature or vocabulary item.)

You follow the model by repeating after hearing.  You become familiar with the model and internalize it by repetition.  Repetition is an important factor in learning the models of your target language.  You are continually hearing the correct sentence pattern, then you are reinforcing that by repetition.

You are building a store of the basic correct models required by the language.  These models provide a set of standard parameters for the language, upon which you will draw when you speak or write in the language.  Without this internalized standard for the language you could be going anywhere in your attempts in the language.

You have to try to learn the language on its own terms, avoiding interference from your English way of thinking or pronouncing.  This means you should always have a model.  The next step is to go from speaking to reading.  Reading is based, initially, on recognition of a symbolic representation of what you know.  Writing, then, is your production of that system of symbolization.  The language learning sequence, then, is hearing, speaking, reading, writing.

Thus hearing is the foundation for oral production.  You cannot produce without knowing the patterns for production, the models of the language.  Reading, likewise, is the foundation for writing.  You recognize the patterns, then you produce them orally.  Then you recognize their written representation, then express yourself in writing.  In literacy, reading is to hearing as writing is to oral production.  You have to learn the models before you can produce, and you as a foreigner and as a learner do not determine the models.

Dependent.  This means you are in the "dependent learner" category.  Sometimes because this simple concept is not recognized, the learner resists the limitation of not knowing, of not yet being able to say what is clear in the mind.  Even simple learning methods put the learner in a position of psychological dependence.  If you can positively accept that fact and exploit it, this will facilitate learning.

Some language learners want to jump ahead to production before they have any foundation for producing! Learners should understand the method described here and then follow through with that method.  Language helpers, tutors and instructors need to understand this approach, also.  This will actually lead to higher overall skills more quickly.  The sequence is to hear, then mimic, then move to production and then at that stage you can try to manipulate the pattern creatively to learn its functional boundaries in practical use.

Getting "A Feel."  Following this procedure, as the foundation of basic sentence patterns and grammar features develops, you will gain greater facility in producing your own sentences independently.  Because of the patterns you have internalized through practice, you will have a subconscious foundation and reference that will enable you to make correct sentences.  Certain patterns and usages will "feel right" to you.  This will give you freedom and creativity in the language.  This is the end result of simple sentence and phrase repetition on the initial models.

The sequence involved in becoming a member of society is reflected in the sequence involved in learning the language.  Culturally, the learner should also begin with models of behavior and relationship, observing and adapting until the model is internalized and seems "natural" to the learner.

Levels of Progress

The sequence of learning just described applies to each day's activities, each week's activities, each month's activities and the whole of the learner's career.  We can analyze the process from the learner's point of view to define progress in the learning sequence.

Awareness.  The first level is awareness.  Awareness is the first step in learning a new dialogue or grammar pattern.  When the learner hears a new sentence or group of sentences (text), it will take only a short time for it to become familiar.  It is tempting to stop there, thinking, "Now I know that, let's go on to the next item."  This is a trick of the short-term memory.  This familiarity is temporary and will fade.  More drill must be done for the learner to retain the sentence pattern or vocabulary over a long period.

This experience will recur often in the process of language learning and use.  This is what is involved in the common experience, "I know that word, I just can't think of it."  We can recognize it if someone else says it, but cannot quite call it up.  Recognition is easier than production, and our comprehension skills are normally far beyond our speaking skills.  We all can recognize far more words and usages than we need or prefer to use.

Awareness is the very first level of learning.  After the learner hears a new lesson text, the first attempts to repeat it, or to use it independently, will be imperfect, involving errors in pronunciation, grammar or intonation.  This is also true of the long-term progress in the language.  The more one hears and uses a certain grammar feature or sentence pattern, the easier it is to use, and the more natural it "feels."

Overlearning.  But then we can go beyond mere awareness by overlearning the sentence, vocabulary item or grammar feature.  This is where repetition is so important.  The pattern is repeated until it is imbedded into the subconscious mind.  The learner needs to reach the point where it is not necessary to consciously think to produce.  A pattern is repeated enough times and is so familiar that the speaker can stop thinking about it and still repeat it.  The pattern is internalized.  After that, it is not necessary to put each piece of a sentence together item by item, the whole pattern is known and expressed as a unit.

The speaker can, at that stage, speak without thinking about speaking.  The speaker can say what he is thinking, instead of thinking about how to say what he is thinking.  An adequate teaching method or learning approach must include sufficient repetition to fulfill this step of overlearning.

Here again, it is important for teachers' and tutors' individual methods to be consistent with this approach.  Whatever materials are used, the learners, supervisors, program directors and language helpers should all be sure that the learner has overlearned the patterns for each text and topic.  The individual talents and methods of any resource people should complement the basic philosophy of learning.  Where the resource people or the organization of the course are inadequate, the earner should make sure to overlearn key patterns.  This is ultimately the learner's responsibility.

Flexibility.  After overlearning comes the level of flexibility.  The patterns a learner has overlearned are the foundation of communication skills the learner develops in the target language.  These basic patterns are there to draw upon automatically.  At this level the speaker is not limited to the model sentences, but the internalized patterns of the models become tools for self-expression.

It is possible for a learner to stop at the level of flexibility.  At this stage, the speaker can handle most basic situations, but is able to use only limited structures, and ideas are communicated in general, but not precise, terms.  The speaker at this level will usually use only patterns or variations he or she has heard others use.  She may know only one way to say something, and may be stumped if the hearer does not get the intended meaning.

Generation.  The next level takes more learning effort, but is extremely more rewarding.  This level is called generation, because the speaker can generate new and original sentences.  This may come, for most learners, after a couple of years in the language.  Or if we apply this analysis to each lesson of the early months of language learning, a learner may reach the level of generation on one new language text or sentence pattern after, say, 30 or 40 minutes of practice.

At the level of generation, the learner/speaker has internalized a pattern well enough, and has internalized enough patterns, that flexibility is sufficient that the speaker can express his or her own ideas, generating new sentences.  It is at this level that real fluency is attained.  At this level, the speaker has a functional level of proficiency that does not depend upon a model or its simple format.

Creativity.  The final stage is creativity, when the learner has reached the point where he or she can manipulate the language to the degree of saying things that have never been said in the language before.  At this stage the patterns of the language have been internalized to such an extent that the speaker does not simply manipulate the patterns within their limits, but actually stretches the limits of the patterns, and still make sense as a native speaker would.

Every Day.  This sequence applies to every bit of learning.  You don't need to wait months and months as you go through those stages on the whole language.  Rather, you can master each sentence pattern, grammar structure or word form.  Thus each day, you can add to you core of the language, expanding each day's text, topic or experience to the next level of creativity.

This daily reward will give you confidence.  You will find it gradually easier to master new material, topics or vocabulary as more and more of the language format becomes clearer.  And it becomes easier to make associations for new forms you see.  Thus overall learning accelerates as you go.

Bilingualism.  The foreign learner has now achieved language skills (within the relevant areas of expertise and exposure) equal or near-equal to those of the native speaker of the language.  Effective professional bilingualism may be achieved earlier than general skills at this level, due to the concentration in the area of assigned work.  According to the US State Department's Foreign Service Institute, it normally takes about four or five years in the language to attain the level of Full Professional Proficiency.  The time usually needed to demonstrate full bilingualism is about ten or twelve years for most adult learners.

Reward.  Envision yourself in this rewarding situation.  At this stage of creativity you understand the patterns needed to express any new ideas that you might want to communicate.  You can communicate in new and unique ways your new and unique ideas, but in a way that is allowed by the language.

This means that a proficient foreigner might actually enter into the internal development stream of the language! If you express a new idea or make up a new form, it would recognized as a new idea or form, but would not be considered foreign.  What a thrilling prospect! You can use the language creatively rather than being limited by it; it becomes your own language.

Approaches to Grammar

I have found that most people do not have a clear idea of what "grammar" is or how we should learn it.  Two examples will present some perspectives on what "grammar" really is.

"Bad Grammar."  There was an old television commercial for Winston cigarettes.  The exchange went like this:

"Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should."
"That's bad grammar!"
"Well, what do you want, good grammar or good taste?"
What are they referring to when they say "That's bad grammar?" The implication is that the phrase should be, "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should."  The implication is that "like" can be used only as a preposition, while "as" is a conjunction.

One might say, by that rule, "Winston tastes like candy."  But if there is a verb phrase, one must use "as."  But no one ever talks like that!  Thus, my own analysis is that it is not bad grammar to use "like" as a conjunction.  And, you see, that is exactly the point the advertisement builds upon.  Somewhere long, long ago, somebody decided that "as" and "like" must not be used in the same way.  The old rule says that "like" cannot be used in our example because it is only a preposition, while "as" is a conjunction.  Thus one has to say "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should," because (1) there is a verb phrase following, and (2) it deals with the manner of tasting, which is the meaning of "as" according to the old rule.

According to the old rule, "like" could not be used as a conjunction.  But in fact people do make sentences like that every day.  Many words in modern English which used to be prepositions are used as adverbs, and some as conjunctions.  The rule may have fit an earlier version of English, but it does not represent what happens in English today.  It is not clear to me that there ever was a clear distinction between "like" and" as" in earlier English either.  Someone may have just thought the language needed to be clarified, or made more orderly, and thought this rule would help.

It may be that in the old language "like" was used only as a preposition.  Then for that period of the language, the rule would have held.  It would have been a good rule, if it did represent the actual usage.  For today's language, however, the rule contradicts actual usage, and therefore, is is an incorrect rule and cannot be said to represent the grammar of American English.

(I am not sure if the rule would be correct for some other dialect of English.) This illustrates how a rule, accurate or not, can become more important than what is really correct in the language.  If everybody says it that way, how can it be wrong? We can tie ourselves up in formal "grammar" all for nothing simply because somebody made up a rule.

Correctly Incorrect.  The second example is from a friend's newsletter.  He opened his letter, "Surprise!  It's me!  I know 'me' should be 'I.'  But sometimes to be grammatically correct doesn't sound correct."

Let me ask, if it sounds correct, then why isn't it correct? That is how I approach grammar.  If the native speaker prefers it a certain way, that is a good indication that that is the way it should be.  (This is not to say there are not some better or more acceptable ways of saying some things.  But it is the rare person who would ever say, "Hi! It's I"!)

Rules vs.  Language.  The conflict arises because of the formalization of rules meant to teach and develop style and to help a person gain control over the language, rather then being limited by it.  The problem is that the formal teaching of the language is usually more conservative than the spoken language.

The formal patterns of the language are more conservative partly because they cover more than one language (or "dialect," such as the vastly differing spoken forms of language which are all called "English").  All well-educated native speakers of English can read the same language, because they were all educated to read the same language.  But when they speak, they speak a slightly different language.

If you bring together a person from Brooklyn with a person from Los Angeles and a person from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, their speech is going to sound extremely different, though they will generally be able to understand each other.  Yet educated North Americans still think they speak the same language, because they all follow certain formal conventions in their speech.

These conventions limit the amount of regional speech patterns and word choice in conversation with speakers of other dialects.  A problem with conventions is that they can reflect the language and thus be true or they can ossify and maintain no relation to the changes that go on in the language.

This brings us again to the question: What is grammar? If grammar is something that you make up to tell people how they ought to speak, based on some esoteric concept of language, then we are all in trouble.  But if grammar is somehow related to the language that we actually speak, then there is hope.

Inherent Patterns.  Grammar is not the rules that attempt to explain what is happening in the language but grammar is the actual "happening" in the language, the patterns by which the language operates.  These are inherent in the language.  These patterns will also be subject to change, in a regular and gradual fashion, as all aspects of language are.  But this means that usages are going to develop and change as the needs of the people and their life style change.  Language is an aspect of the culture.

Further, each generation changes the language a little bit, partly because each generation learns the language imperfectly and brings slight changes to the language.  These changes are mostly regular and systematic, not random.  (Some of these changes become permanent and some of them do not.)  But the fact remains that the grammar is inherent in the language.  Grammar is the way the language says what it says.

Knowing Grammar. You cannot speak a language without grammar.  But you do not have to understand the grammar in order to know and use the grammar!  Thus if a person is a fluent speaker of a language, and is accepted as recognizably one of the community who speak that language, then that person knows the grammar.  But because we learn "grammar" first as the grammar of our native language and we study it in school, we think of it as a formal study.

But — the purpose of studying grammar is to learn objectively what we have already learned internally.  If we can approach the grammar of the new language in this way, it will help us to facilitate our movement into the community and it will help us to acknowledge the validity of the way the host people speak (rather than trying to "convert" it to English).

Inductive Learning. This view of grammar can free us to learn to change our grammatical understanding as our experience in the language grows.  If I develop an idea of a feature and how it works, then that is my grammar rule.  It helps me do what I need to do in the language, or it helps me understand how to do it.

But if I find somehow that it did not work in a certain setting or it does not account for all occurrences of a certain feature, all I need do is modify the rule.  The language is as it is, but the rule may be wrong.   The "rule" is simply a generalization.

This is why I prefer to teach the language (or a portion of it) and then draw from that a generalization of what grammar we have learned from that segment of the language.  Then the learner is not dependent on his grammar system, but his grammar system becomes flexible, and the language itself is the standard.  This is referred to as inductive learning.

In this way, if you are learning the language, you cannot help learning the grammar.  Then all you have to do is understand what it was you learned.   That makes it easier to learn the grammar.  You do not have to worry with the full system until you need it.  If you encounter a problem, you can always re-focus the system and adjust it.  This is the problem with teaching from a grammatical analysis point of view because grammatical analysis is a totally different science from language learning.

Communication vs.  Analysis. Most books on language are reference books on the grammar rather than a learner's lesson book.  They are designed to give a good, clear reference as a very full and adequate grammatical analysis of the language.  But teaching the language to foreigners, and particularly adult foreigners, requires a different format.

The "grammar books" or "text books" are very well suited for reference, or review, for answering questions that come up as the learner progresses in the language.  Many such reference books would be good for a refresher course after one or two years working in the language.  And they are good for vocabulary building.

There is a great difference between the formal analysis of the system and fluent communication with people.  Language study can be easier and more productive by combining fluency and grammar.  Both can be learned together through communication.

If we can communicate with the people, the slight problems we might have in in the grammar we have constructed in our heads can be dealt with. Our primary concern as learners is our communication with people.

If the learner is observant, major problem areas can be detected informally.  As the learner finds that people are responding differently than expected in certain situations, or at certain points in the conversation, the problem often becomes apparent and the learner can make the necessary adjustment.  When this happens, the learner has made a correction in her grammar.  She has expanded her awareness of the grammatical system.  It is then that the grammar charts make sense.

For the observant learner, communication clarifies the grammar, analysis simply helps with the details.  The reference materials and the grammar charts help you at this stage to analyze what you are learning, as you learn it, as you become aware of it.  Then, as they begin to make sense, you realize the grammar charts are not so critical.  This simply reflects the fact that communication, not analysis, is the goal.

Usability. The most important goal for anyone who wishes to effect any change — teacher, medical worker, development worker, diplomat — is that they communicate effectively, not just spout prepared information.  For this reason, it is important from the first lesson that they be able to use what they have learned.

For instance, if the first language texts are learned on a Thursday or Friday morning, the learners should learn initial greetings so that they can introduce themselves.  Then all weekend they can go out and introduce themselves.  This gives them immediate success, immediate reward.  They can greet people and tell them "I just got here, I cannot say much, but I will be learning some more.  Will you help me?" Then as they learn more, they will soon come to know why those initial phrases meant what they did, why they were used as they were.

Functional Meaning of Grammar. All the learner need know initially is when to use a certain word or feature.  That is the foundational way the grammar of a language makes sense — a functional meaning: What is the need this pattern fulfills, and what is the response it requires? If those functional questions are satisfied (and if the learner can just postpone for a while the psychological pressure Westerners have to analyze), then the learner can get a lot of immediate feedback and progress can be accelerated.

Sometimes the Western approach to grammar or meaning is different from that of speakers of, for instance, African languages.  But if the learner can get a functional meaning, the learner will have a practical understanding of a feature's use, even if he cannot analyze it immediately.  Analysis and fluency are separate skills.  Analysis is a formal skill, while fluency and sentence construction are functional skills.  It is not necessary to analyze a sentence pattern in order to use that structure functionally in the language.

If we can keep this in mind, we can help the learners move more quickly toward the goal of language fluency.  I would like for every learner to be able to analyze everything in the target language.  But if the learner can analyze a pattern or grammar feature after it is learned, the pattern will make a lot more sense, and the analysis and formal knowledge will be a support rather than an academic burden.

What is Grammar?

Here are some contrasts to help clarify my concept of grammar.  These contrasts may help distinguish what grammar is and what grammar is not.  There are four contrasts.  First, the essence of grammar is not explanation, but practice.  You can always practice it even if you cannot explain it.  I know a lot of things in a lot of languages that I cannot explain, but I can make them work.

Control.  The essence of grammar is not awareness, but control.  You can practice and then gain control of what you have practiced without necessarily being aware of why or how.  You simply know the patterns and usages required in certain situations for certain results; or you know the proper response to a certain formula.

You can be aware of the patterns and anticipate them before you have actually gained control over them.  Most likely comprehension and recognition of a pattern will surpass ability to use that pattern fluently.  But the learner strives for automatic, or sub-conscious control of the patterns.

For instance, in a Bantu language, the speaker needs to be able to use automatically the prefix patterns that match a certain noun all the way through the sentence — to do it without thinking.  When this is accomplished, the speaker is controlling the pattern and it is not controlling or limiting the speaker.

Communication.  The essence of grammar is not knowledge of the language but communication in the language.  You can know the language formally, that is, you can know about the language, but that is not the same thing as knowing the language.   "Knowing" the language means being able to use the language to communicate.  

Language is a skill, not information.  In academic courses you are learning new information.  Language is the format of conveying information.  In your native language you already have the format; you are only adding information to the format.  In learning a language, it is the format for knowledge that you are learning and the motor skills of speech to use the format.

Performance.  Dr.  Donald N. Larson once made a distinction that might serve as our final contrasting pair: competence and performance.  His special use of "competence" means that you have an awareness or knowledge of what you should be able to do, but still the practical performance is one step further.  You may be able to read a Mozart symphony but you have to practice extensively before that competence can come through your fingers into performance.

It is the same with language, since language requires a combination of knowledge with motor skills.  You can learn to become competent, but the input has to carried to a second level into performance, because it is a question of motor skill, like riding a bicycle.

The learner who keeps this in mind will focus on practice and use of the language, not just book knowledge of the language vocabulary and grammar.  The patterns that are heard, or read, must be internalized.  The patterns that are recognized become the learner's own when they are practiced and produced.  The learner should reinforce the language patterns through repetition and use.

Also related:
[TXT] Mastering the Models


First posted on OJTR as part of How to learn a Language and A Culture 06 July 2000
Last edited 24 April 2010

Copyright © 2000, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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