How did everyone become so fluent in their first languages?
You have to wonder.
Germans spout German with perfect ease. The French do French with devastating charm. How did and when did they become so good? At what point did they stop stammering awkwardly and making rookie mistakes?
Maybe you’re sweating to learn Russian or Spanish or Chinese. And then along comes this 5-year-old native speaker, who’s lived not even a quarter of your years yet, and he chatters (albeit simply) with a perfect accent.
In this post, we’ll look deeper into the processes and techniques of first language acquisition. Using the lens of the Natural Approach Theory, we can discover how native speakers rock their languages and how you can do the same.
Because somewhere on this planet, there’s also a guy asking himself, “How do people get so good at the English language? How?”
What Is the Natural Approach to Language Learning?
The theory is based on the radical notion that we all learn language in the same way. And that way can be seen in how we acquire our first languages as children. If we want to know the secrets of picking up a new language, we should observe how a child gets his first. And hey, we know it works because we have 7.3 billion humans on the planet who, on a daily basis, wield their first language with astonishing fluency.
The term “natural” almost presupposes that there are unnatural methods of learning a language. To doctors Krashen and Terrell, these are the structural approaches to learning—the grammar method that deconstructs a language into its component pieces, and the listen-and-repeat drills that happen in classrooms.
In the Natural Approach, there’s almost a zen-like attitude towards acquiring a language. You’re not forced to utter words or phrases, much less pronounce them correctly. There are no endless drills on correct usage and no mentions of grammar rules or long lists of vocabulary to wrap your head around. There’s no hurry and no worry that months have passed and you can’t yet distinguish nuances in usage.
By continuously exposing you to the language, to how it’s properly wielded in different situations, and by giving you inputs that are meaningful and memorable, much like a child’s daily experiences with mom and dad, a spontaneous emergence of speech happens.
In the Natural Approach, the initial focus really is on comprehension. The crux of the issue is, “Do you understand what is being said?” (You don’t need to notice subject-verb agreement for this.)
The first stage in the Natural Approach is essentially a silent phase, where nothing seems to be happening. Children have this stage when they’re not really talking. At all. It seems nothing is going on. You’re essentially getting nada. No utterance, just a blank stare. Silence.
Actually, so many things are happening. They’re listening. Picking up on meanings. Reading context clues. Interpreting and making guesses on what is being said. Making mistakes and honing their guesses.
And when babies start uttering their first words, their first phrases, their first simple sentences, the focus is still on comprehension. But this time, the crux of the issue is “Are you being understood by the other person?” (Again, you don’t need perfect grammar for this.)
Bothering with correct grammar comes late in the acquisition stage. In the Natural Approach, the early stages are replete with grammatically incorrect communication that are not even really implicitly corrected. When a child says, “I drinks,” mommy doesn’t give him a firm scolding. She finds it cute and then hands him a drink. But that child is slowly getting fluent with his first language. He’s now communicating and using language to express what he wants, and all that’s happening without any direct grammar lessons.
This progress to fluency continues as more exposure to the language happens. The (meaningful) linguistic experience stacks up so fast so that when that child sits waiting for his first grammar class, he’s already chatting non-stop with his seatmates, with perfectly decent grammar, even before the language teacher arrives.
And when the lessons do come, the child is really just getting to peek behind the scenes to see the specific rules (grammar) guiding his own language usage. All that’s explained to him is the rationale, the nuances of communication, behind the groupings of words he’s been using naturally all along. It’s all a review of what he already (more or less) knows. The child has learned the language way before the rules of subject-verb agreement are explained to him.
And that’s what Natural Approach is all about. It’s looking back to first language acquisition and using the whole bag of tricks there in order to get the same kind of success for second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) language acquisition. Just because you’re learning another language doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel. The expectations and the learning curve might be different for adults, but the underlying human, mental and psychological mechanisms are the same.
So in the next section, we’ll look at five powerful first language acquisition strategies that you can perfectly apply to acquiring that second language.
5 Language Learning Tips from 7.3 Billion Satisfied Customers
1. Don’t Learn the Language, Acquire It.
The first thing to notice in The Natural Approach is that there’s an important difference between “learning the language” and “acquiring the language.” And it all has to do with the activities involved in each.
“Learning” involves conscious instruction. When you memorize usage rules and vocabulary, when you memorize the different conjugations of the verb, when you’re concerned whether or not the tense used is correct—those are all “learning” related activities. “Learning a language” means you’re studying a language, its linguistic forms (grammar, semantics, phonology) and how the different elements interact with each other. Most “learning” activities happen inside a classroom, but you could certainly manage to do these independently.
“Learning the language” will get you good grades, but it will not necessarily lead to fluency.
“Acquiring,” on the other hand, involves different activities which are, for the most part, communicative and immersive in nature. Meaning, these activities give you plenty of opportunities to listen, observe and experience how language is used. And, even better, these activities give you plenty of opportunities to use the language in order to communicate.
For example, you’re living with an Armenian family. Every day you get to listen how they talk. You get to hear what the mom screams when she wakes the kids up in the morning, or what she says when she calls them to the table for dinner. You hear grandma talk to you in Armenian because she often forgets that you’re not one of her granddaughters. Every day you find yourself exposed to the language. Something very subtle then happens. You’ll slowly pick up the language. You’ll be able to work out the context of things being said and work out their meanings. Maybe the dirty words first. Then you’ll pick up their expressions, then maybe the adjectives and verbs, and so on and so forth.
This is inevitable. The receptive nature of your brain will ensure that.
Exposure to language is big when you want to acquire it rather than “learn” it. So as a language learner (or rather, “acquirer”), you have to put yourself in the way of language that’s rife with action and understandable context. Watch movies, listen to songs and podcasts, read (children’s) books and talk with native speakers. You’re not required to understand everything. See, hear and get a feel for how your target language is used by native speakers.
You can also change the language option of your gadgets and different social media accounts so that they display in the target language of your choice. You can also make your home a hub of language learning by using Post-Its to label the different objects that you use every day in the language of choice.
Outsource your label-making for the most important vocabulary words by using a Vocabulary Stickers set, which gives you well over 100 words to put on items you use and see every day around your home and office.
There’s so much you can do, short of going to a country where your target language is spoken, in order to make picking up a language as immersive and as natural as possible. Subscribe to this blog because it’s brimming with awesome tips and techniques that make acquiring a language so instinctive.
2. Break the Rules Early. Make Mistakes Often.
Now, don’t take all that’s been said before this to mean that grammar doesn’t matter at all or that you should never correct the initial mistakes you make. For sure, you’re going to do a lot of correcting. But the point is, grammar doesn’t come early in the game. In fact, it comes quite late in the game—when you’ve had plenty of experience with the language.
In the early stages of picking up a language, you have to be open to making plenty of mistakes and looking foolish. That means opening your mouth even when you’re not sure if you got the pronunciation or accent right, or even when you’re not confident of the words you wanted to say.
You’ll make mistakes. That’s for sure. And you’ll have to be indifferent to those mistakes. “I’m making mistakes…so what?” The world doesn’t end when you commit a booboo, even when you come out looking foolish.
You’re going to have to be okay about committing them—the wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugations, wrong noun genders, wrong usage, wrong meaning, wrong translation, etc. Don’t be ashamed of your mistakes, but hey, don’t celebrate them either. They’re just there. They come with the territory. No big deal.
A practical thing you can do is to get some conversation practice online with a native speaker. For example, on one of the most popular language exchange sites, you can Skype somebody who’ll be very open to teaching you and listening to you barbarize his native tongue. He’ll find your mistakes cute and be glad that you expressed an interest in his native language.
Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Tell him if you’re an absolute beginner. Honesty is a powerful anxiety killer and you must absolutely be honest with your partner.
You don’t have to speak in just the target language. Switch to English mid-sentence if you have to.
Now the native speaker will be gracious and try to correct the mistakes. Take them with equal grace. But remember that correcting grammar isn’t really the top priority. It’s actually getting a feel for committing those mistakes and coming out with the realization that, “Hey, I’m actually fine! I made 600 mistakes today and survived.”
I want you to be very good at this. I want you to know that it’s no big deal. So claim your absolute divine right to make mistakes. Just like a child.
3. Get Exposure to Different Situations with Different Senses
Going to a country to acquire its national language only works when you’re actually exposing yourself to the myriad of available experiences in the country of choice. A change in geography won’t do you any good if you only keep to yourself or associate exclusively with fellow English speakers and commune in English-speaking enclaves.
But the thing is, you don’t even have to up and leave just to get exposure and immersion. You can get yourself exposed to language as if you’re living abroad. Getting a language learning partner is one method for doing this and was already pointed out earlier.
Another method is actively seeking out the native speakers who are already living in your area. If you’re in a big city, chances are they already have an association you could check out. And they often have activities to promote their culture such as food raves and language meetups like these in New York. Attend these and socialize with the folks there. You’ll find tons of fellow language learners (or rather, acquirers) this way. Knowing that there are others who are on the same journey will be a big boost.
The important thing to remember is that, when you’re going for exposure and immersion, you should always make it a point to get it in different situations and have the experiences fully stimulate your senses. Bathe yourself in the same experiences that native speakers have. Eat their food, listen to their music. Read the headlines of their newspapers. Find out what’s up with their local celebrities. Again, you don’t need a passport to have the needed immersion.
If you want to learn Chinese, go to Chinatown and make a day of it. Dive into the rich underbelly of Chinese culture and you’ll come out with priceless insights, not to mention some really interesting home décor. Get into some stores there and try to ask about the different stuff they sell. The folks there will give you the time of day to explain what their wares are all about. Haggle. And haggle some more. Watch out for hand gestures and you’ll have learned something not found in grammar books.
Get some food packs and try to make out what’s written on the backs of packages. You’ll learn plenty of contextually rich Chinese just by befriending the characters on those food labels.
Going back to the online experience, I highly encourage you to try out FluentU’s videos. They are highly immersive, interesting and, most of all, instructive. There’s nothing like visuals, audio and text working together to help you experience your target language.
4. Work with Materials That Suit Your Level
Nobody would hand a physics book to a toddler, right? One of the tragedies that befall many who try to acquire a language is that they use the wrong materials for their level. When someone gives up on a language, you usually hear one of these excuses:
“The audio was too fast.”
“I couldn’t understand a word in the book.”
“The sentences are too long.”
“I didn’t have enough time to digest what my partner was saying.”
It doesn’t mean that the language is too hard or the person is too slow. They didn’t stand a chance because the materials they got exposed to were too advanced to be remotely meaningful to them at that stage of learning. It became gibberish and had no place in the memory to be anchored in.
The tragedy is that this person would have been perfectly able to acquire the language had they been using materials that were more approachable for them. For example, that’s why we start beginners with children’s books—where the target language is in bold, capital, colorful letters, where the sentences are simple and where pictures help the folks figure out meaning.
For exposure to be meaningful, it should be in the general area of the learner’s competency. For example, it should be easy enough so that a reader already understands at least 50% of the words in the sentences. (The remaining 50% is the room where the learner grows.)
Imagine a mountain climber ascending a steep rock. He doesn’t reach for those grips that are several meters above him. Nope, he reaches for one an arm’s length above, while the other hand is keeping him safe and steady.
So instead of banging your head against materials that prove how much you don’t know, go for materials that say, “Yeah, you already know this. But look, there’s more!”
Instead of challenging yourself with materials that ultimately overwhelm you, strategically choose materials that you know you can master given enough time and effort.
5. Make the Road to Fluency Stress-free
There are people who thrive on pressure. These are your Tiger Woods, your Michael Jordans and your Steven Spielbergs. They require pressure to really shine. If there’s no pressure to be found, they push themselves in order to extract that special performance, that special shot that only they can deliver.
These people aren’t the norm. (That’s why they get paid indecent amounts of money.)
For sure, some amount of stress or anxiety is constructive—especially in fields like medicine, law and business. But in the phenomenon of language acquisition, our friend Dr. Stephen Krashen asserts that anxiety should be zero, or as low as possible.
For a language to be successfully acquired, motivation must not only be high, but anxiety must also be low. Otherwise, all the language inputs we’ve talked about earlier will find no home in the brain. When a person is so anxious that they can’t even tell you where they are, much less focus on the immersive experience, no amount of stimulation will be comprehensible input. Everything will be for naught.
According to the Natural Approach, pressure won’t lead to acquisition. The pressure of a language test might push you to learn a language by memorizing plenty of vocabulary, drilling grammar rules and getting good grades, but it can’t always lead you to acquire language. (We’ve already distinguished “learning” and “acquisition” earlier, right?)
Language acquisition is about being so relaxed and so dialed into the conversation that you forget you’re talking in a foreign language. You become engrossed with the message or content, instead of the medium.
So shed off the pressure you put on yourself. Thoughts like, “I need to learn this now” or “I’ve got two months to learn this list” won’t be helpful to your cause.
Expose yourself to the language instead. Watch your Spanish telenovela, eat your Chinese noodles after looking at the labels, enjoy that children’s book in French. Don’t even think about grades or timelines or milestones. Just put yourself in an environment where you can listen and read and observe how the target language is used.
If you do that, my guess is that your acquisition will move into high gear in the coming months.
And that’s really all these is to it!
I’ve just given you five powerful ways to achieve language acquisition, all backed by the scientifically-proven Natural Approach. They’ve also been proven by 7.3 billion people.
So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and be a carefree child again.
After all, learning a language should be fun!
And One More Thing…
You can get started learning a language through the natural approach right now.
Just give FluentU a try.
FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into language learning experiences. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the range of content available:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.