How to Learn a Language Through Interaction
by Serena Pasqualetto
How many times do we decide to learn a language by picking a textbook and reading all the grammar rules and all the words by heart? Maybe this is not a universal approach, but if you are a grammar geek, or simply the logical type of learner, then you might know what I am talking about. Learning grammar and lists of words is actually reassuring - when there are rules, there is something certain and unchangeable (let alone, of course, exceptions). However, once you have all the grammar rules stored in your mind, as well as a good number of words, it is not difficult to realize the pointlessness of what you have been doing once you are faced with the need to order a meal at a restaurant in a foreign country, or simply when you find yourself struggling to make up a sentence during a simple conversation with a native speaker.
When learning a language we should not forget about the importance of output and interaction, that is to say, speaking and writing to native speakers. There are a number of reasons why we should spend at least 80% of our learning time on these activities:
- One very straightforward reason is that, by speaking and writing frequently, we increase our fluency. By using the same structures many times, we tend to internalize them;
- When interacting with a native speaker we produce incidental acquisition, that is to say, we learn unconsciously. How is this possible? According to Long's Interaction Hypothesis, when we speak or write to a native speaker, or even with a nonnative speaker, we negotiate meaning, and it is precisely because of this negotiation that the process of learning is facilitated. The adjustments we make during a conversation, as well as the provision of negative evidence by our interlocutor (through corrections and feedback), all contribute to this process. In short, conversation or simple chatting gives us a lot of opportunities for producing modified output.
- What's more, when we make a mistake and our interlocutor corrects it, we are likely to remember it and not making it again. This is because we pay attention to it, i.e. we notice it (Schmidt, 1990).
Then why not start putting into practice - real practice - what you have been learning on books and grammar references? Pick a language partner, it is easy thanks to the new technologies, such as Skype, or choose an online tutor to learn a new language effectively by getting fluent and confident through interaction.
About the author
Serena Pasqualetto is an Italian language tutor on Skype. She has her own blog, Italianencounter.com, where she posts about the Italian language and culture.
Ellis, R. 1999. Learning a second language through interaction. Philadelphia: Benjamins