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How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Principles and Techniques of Language Learning

Here are some short-hand references to principles and techniques.


The natural learning sequence facilitates learning for most learners:
                        hearing, speaking, reading, writing (understanding)

Author in his office, Johannesburg, South afirca, 2006

Eyes can trip ears in the new language, because the only sound association a new learner (normally) has is the system from his native language. This will be imposed upon the new language and patterns learned wrong are very hard to unlearn. Unlearning takes enormous effort, which could be better used in correct learning of sound-symbol association by training the ear first.

Literacy.  Literacy can begin from the very first, even in a hard writing system, and grows at each stage. Just learn how to represent what you have learned up to that point.

        Remember: You don't pronounce letters, but rather, letters represent sounds.

Association.  Work to build a strong event association, focusing on social, kinetic, visual reinforcement or setting, not grammatical structure. Drama, directed activity. We remember by association. A communication event is associated with place, people, exchange, result. Thus learning is retained better and reproduced better if initial learning is associated with a social event, a particular place, certain people, certain actions, etc.

Mastery.  The goal is mastery, not just conscious awareness, not just understanding of the rules. The theory of Generative Grammar focuses on the basic patterns and changes that can be generated. The learner must master these limited basic patterns and draw upon the subconscious models to generate sentences in appropriate variations. Thus recurring practice on and use of basic grammatical structures is always worthwhile.

Focus and practice on the models/basic structures and the transformations/variations possible in the language. Work towards independent construction based on models and observed transformations. A helper can lead in questions and answers using the sentence pattern in focus.

Think in terms not of teaching the language, but facilitating learning. Learners can help their tutors in this perspective.


Many techniques and activities can be used to foster learning, to create a learning environment.

Drills.  The purpose of a drill is to focus on one feature or set, to reinforce that and lead to recognition and production.  Perform any activity which presents a model, and leads to mastery. Reinforcement works better than simple correction.

Activities.  Use visuals for new texts drills: slides, magazines, pictures, stick figures, student position in relation to the helper, real life situations for environment reinforcement.

Kinetic Learning.  Movement or action reinforces learning; gives higher recall than verbal or visual learning:
        Spatial position  -- communication associated with movement, action, events.

Social Context.  Social context: practice language in the cultural setting. Learn on the spot from experiences in social contact. Bring the learner's needs from actual situations into the next classroom session.

Enhance learning and motivation with:
        On videotape, simple setup staging for model text, practice or free expression;
        Written by students and corrected or simply extemporaneous;
        Videos -- 3-5 minutes; conversation, cultural topic.

        Directed dialogue
        Question-answer; comment-response.

        Comprehension Drills
        Comprehension exercises give command for various physical actions that can be performed in the room.
        Individual command-action; group practice.

        Directed comprehension drills:
        Teacher commands student to give command to another student -- involve the class.
        Go to various locations to practice topics and vocabulary for that setting.
        This is good practice for person and number of the verb, and provides kinetic reinforcement for verb meaning, in addition to building general hearing skills.

Instructions.  Instructions used in the classroom should always be in the target language:
                repeat, good, no, try again, listen, open books, read, come forward, write.


05 July 2000
Last edited 30 May 2006

Based on notes from a presentation for
1. an Inservice training session for language teachers at Skyline High School, Dallas (Texas) Independent School District, 1974;
2. an Inservice for language teachers at Rosslyn Academy, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 January 1995.
First Published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, Issue 27, June 1998, as "Perspectives: Aspects of Language."

Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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