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PhiNotPi's avatar

Why are second languages taught differently from first languages?

Asked by PhiNotPi (12242 points ) August 29th, 2012

A couple days ago I realized that first languages and second languages are not taught the same way. When learning a second language, a person is taught things such as conjugating infinitives, helping verbs, making verbs agree in number/gender with nouns, and other things. A person typically learns the use of a bunch of grammatical terms that may not even be used in a typical English class. Writing typically involves a process of applying different rules, such as conjugation, agreement, and other things.

For example, the thought process of translating “I have…” to French might be (when the language is first being learnt):
I -> Je
To have -> avoir
Conjugation of avoir with “je” is “ai”
Je ai -> J’ai
Eventually, a person will simply memorize this. However, this process represents how it is taught. When learning a person’s first language, a person can go for a long time without ever thinking about the fact that “have” and “has” are two conjugations of the infinitive “to have”.

A second example might be the formation of tenses. Early on while learning a second language, a person is taught how to form a specific tense of verb, such as “simple past”. A person might be taught the process of adding a specific helping verb and modifying the verbs in a specific way. When learning a first language, a person does not learn the various names of tenses. We hardly realize that we are using different tenses when we say “He played” vs “He has played.” We are only aware of the past/present/future aspect.

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So anyway, I want to know why foreign languages are taught differently than a first language. Are they both equally effective? Or is learning stuff such as formally of sentance structure best left until after a person already understands the language? Is total immersion, like that of learning a first language, the best way to learn a language?

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8 Answers

CWOTUS's avatar

For one thing, “first languages” are taught to children who have generally already been speaking in the language at least colloquially for several years. All they need to learn are the formal rules to codify things that they already “know” or hear around them every day.

A second language is taught to someone who already knows the rules of one language, so the second language is usually taught in terms of comparison: the rules you already know vs. the rules of the new language.

Tachys's avatar

I studied Japanese at college, but did not really understand it until I lived there and used it. I think immersion is the best way to truly understand the nuances of the language.

muppetish's avatar

This is purely speculative, but it could be because most classroom settings follow the Banking Method: that is, the instructor dumps information into the brains of students and the students then spit the information back out. Language classrooms typically have a formulaic structure. You memorize “formulas” (grammar rules) and that you then apply with a variety of variables (vocabulary.) This probably isn’t a very effective way to learn language.

We have this discussion with our English Second Language students at school: the best way to learn a second language is to immerse yourself in the language. Speak English, listen to English, read English, etc. They think it won’t work because they want the formulas, they want the grammar rules, but that’s how we learn as children (as @CWOTUS pointed out) and nothing beats that.

bookish1's avatar

I regret the way foreign languages tend to be taught in the U.S. Until I studied in France, took phonetics and grammar courses there, and had no choice but to speak French all day, I spoke American classroom French, which is to say, not really French at all. I wasn’t being trained to hear French and the way syllables and words are parsed, nor to think in French. I was being trained to ‘speak’ French based on how it was written, and based on my knowledge of French translations/equivalents of English phrases and words, which, as @CWOTUS points out, is bass-ackwards, because that is not how native speakers learn a language.

I think that the way foreign language in the U.S. is taught discourages many students, and it ends up being a colossal waste of time for them. They struggle to pass the required three semesters or whatever of it in high school and/or college, and then hardly ever continue. I completely agree with @muppetish about the dreadful “banking method” of language instruction and the value of immersion…You are not actually speaking a foreign language until you just know it, rather than hunting in your head to find the equivalent of something in your native language. And knowing a language in this way, thinking in it, rather than translating it in your head, can only come with building a language base and with immersion (and of course, lots of trial and error and fatigue and embarrassment during the process!), it seems to me.

Nullo's avatar

You should check out immersion programs. That’s as close as you’re gonna get to the way that you learned to speak English.

CWOTUS's avatar

I knew I was learning Dutch when I came home to the hotel one night and turned on the television to kill some time before a group of us went to dinner. I happened to catch the Dutch version of Wheel of Fortune. It’s exactly the same as the American version, except for the language, of course.

The clues on the board were:

— — R D V— R K — N
and the host mentioned that there were only vowels left. I started laughing out loud as (like an idiot) I started yelling through the television to the hapless Dutch contestant, “It’s AARDVARKEN, you moron!” I hadn’t ever seen the Dutch word for aardvark, but I could recognize it before the native speaker.

Nullo's avatar

@CWOTUS That explains the weird spelling of “aardvark,” then.

linguaphile's avatar

@Tachys and @Nullo are right—immersion’s far, far the best way to go. I work in second language teaching programs and the students who immerse are always, without fail, better than the ones who just go to class.

Second language acquisition happens in two different ways— it can happen concurrently, like if a child is growing up bilingual (or even trilingual). When that happens, the second language is learned in the same way as the first language.

In foreign language classrooms, it is different. The system assumes that the student has a strong first language and that the first language’s “map” should be used to support the acquisition of the second language. In ESL classrooms, the ESL teachers know that this isn’t always true and that it’s not as simple as just slapping a second language on top of a first language.

My opinion is that it is stupid, stupid, stupid to expect metalinguistic skills (parts of speech identification, grammar, etc) from someone who doesn’t know the language. How can you fully study and understand the structure of something you don’t know??! American kids aren’t even expected to practice basic English metalinguistic skills until they are about 7 or 8, long after they’ve internalized conversational English. But that’s how many foreign language classrooms are set up— using the first language’s metalinguistic skills to study the second language’s structure. That’s why many foreign language students get stuck mentally going through their first language to process the second language.

First languages aren’t “taught” really—they’re internalized from interacting with the world. Second languages, ideally, should be accessed the same way.

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