by Purna Virji
Most of us have either heard or said the following: "I studied a language for years at school, but when I visited a country where it was spoken, not only was I tongue-tied and barely able to string a couple of sentences together, I found it almost impossible to understand what anyone was saying."
People are quick to blame themselves for this problem, but its root lies largely within prevailing teaching methods. Foreign language instruction in the U.S has long attracted heated criticism, but any moves towards the more modern methods of instruction advocated by language experts have been slow, shackled by issues such as budgetary problems, disparity in standards and regulation across states, and plain old bureaucracy.
But there are ways that you, the student, can ensure your foreign language learning doesn't fall by the wayside. Here, we show how using an audio-based language learning program can both enhance and make up for the shortcomings of traditional teaching methods.
Ideally, every language student would be taught by a native speaker. However, even if you are fortunate to have a native speaking teacher, you are still only listening to them for a maximum of a couple of hours a week.
Choosing an audio-based program that uses only native speakers means you have a teacher that is available any time of day to help you hone and perfect your accent. It gives you time to wrap your tongue around the alien syllables of the new language- time that is simply not available in most classes.
In addition, listening to native speakers will tune your ear in to the sounds of the language. Think about how you first learned language as a child- you listened, soaking up the information before you even spoke a word. In short, the more you listen, the more you will understand. On an academic level, this is the best possible practice for listening comprehension tests, while it is also great rehearsal for engaging in real-life conversation.
One of the biggest changes that has taken place in the study of second language instruction is in what is actually taught. For decades, grammar was seen as the central component of language, encompassing the "building blocks" necessary to speak a language.
Now, "there is widespread acceptance of the importance of formulaic expressions in the acquisition of a second language," said Dr. Rod Ellis, a linguistics professor. By formulaic expressions, he means phrases such as "I don't know", "Can I have...?" "What's your name?" These phrases are important because they teach more than the sum of their parts; "Can I have..?" can be used in a wealth of situations.
Formulaic expressions are now seen as equally as important as grammar, but the schooling system is still heavily weighted in favor of grammar. A good audio-based system begins teaching you these important formulaic phrases immediately, which helps to balance the scales more evenly.
In most schools, grammar is still taught directly, using grammar books and lists of rules which students must then try to utilize in conversation.
However, this method of learning grammar has been largely kiboshed by language learning researchers. Linguistics professor Dr. Stephen Krashen says, "We acquire the grammatical rules of a language by understanding input containing these rules. Our attention is not on consciously learning the rules but on understanding the message, and we subconsciously absorb the rules the same way children absorb the rules of their first language."
Audio-based learning programs use a more natural way of acquiring grammatical knowledge than rote memorization. By listening to the grammar in context, you gradually build up an understanding of what sounds correct. In line with what Dr. Krashen advocates, you are almost subconsciously learning the rules, which means you will then begin to use them subconsciously too.
It's far from groundbreaking to opine that speaking frequently is important when learning a language. "Output obliges learners to pay attention to grammar, helps to automatize existing knowledge and provides opportunities for learners to develop discourse skills," said Dr. Ellis.
In other words, practice makes perfect, or at least fluent. However, speaking time in class is severely limited by time, certainly not extensive enough for you to gain the confidence and fluency to use the language automatically.
Using an audio-based program that simulates real life conversation and asks you questions is an ideal solution to this problem. It is also ideal for shyer students- it is easier to grow in confidence practicing by yourself than in the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of the classroom.
Having daily contact with the language is possibly the single most effective way you can ensure language learning success. Daily contact with or exposure to the language keeps your brain tuned in and the vocabulary fresh in your mind. However, language lessons in schools are often squashed into a couple of 2 hour blocks a few times a week.
Listening to the language every day using an audio-based learning system will keep you in that all important daily contact. Convenience is a big plus here too- the last thing any student wants after a day spent sitting at a desk or computer is to do the same at home. The portability of audio-based systems means that you can listen while walking home from or to school, exercising or even while doing chores.
If a fellow student ever tells you that they have never fallen behind or missed an important concept in class, they are lying. It happens to everyone- maybe you were daydreaming, maybe you were having an off day, or maybe it just went over your head.
But school and college classes are necessarily based around the teacher's goals. Teachers must meet the stringent demands of the syllabus, battling against time to cover all the exam material. This leaves very little room for the student who lags behind, and the problem is, that once one important concept is missed out on, the rest can come tumbling down like a house of cards.
An audio-based learning program places you in control. You decide when you are confident enough to move on to the next stage, you can return to parts that you are unsure of and practice the pronunciation of that tricky diphthong until it's rolling off your tongue like a native.
As the debate on foreign language instruction in school rages on, it is likely that the education system will see gradual changes and moves towards the more natural way of learning encapsulated by audio learning programs. In the meantime, however, you can get ahead by using an audio learning method as a supplement to your language learning coursework.
Purna Virji possesses a talent for learning new languages with six in her present language-speaking repertoire. She is a former producer for an Emmy-nominated television show with a master's degree in international journalism. She currently works at Pimsleur Approach, the world leader in the audio-based, language-learning program developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur.