Foreign Language Acquisition

A Fresher Look on The Acquiring of Foreign Languages - How Professionals Do It, and How You Can Too

Foreign Language Acquisition

Before the dominance of English, Arabic, Mandarin and most other dominant lingua francas present in the world today, there existed the lesser developed but ever flourishing Indo European language of the ancient Greeks. This archaic society had a knack and for mathematics, architecture, and especially philosophy. The latter being the most surprising, as well as impressive, considering how intricate, evolved, and precise their ideas were made out to be with such a limited vocabulary. Those who lived in Ancient Greece learned to communicate to each other effortlessly, as one would normally do when acquiring their native tongue, with words that contained thoughts that were rather vague. In terms of learning a language, stressing the importance of establishing a level of communication (i.e. being able to carry along any sort of conversation and having a good understanding of how the language works), the next step of proficiency becomes quite easy to achieve. A child doesn’t learn the basic foundations of grammar of his native language before learning to say his first few words. Acquiring a foreign language is a process which is made out to be a task which is difficult, if not inefficient in an exclusively monolingual society such as ours, though it is one that can be made simple and effective when the right principles and study habits are developed and employed.

One man in particular who has done extensive research on the matter is Dr. Stephen Krashen, a professor, linguist, and educational researcher at the University of Southern California. The core idea of his principle hypotheses is the importance of comprehensible input, which is the amount of content acquired in the language being learned that is able to be understood by the learner, despite not understanding all of the words in the sentence. The ideal level of such content is typically described as about one level above what the learner is already able to understand. The student uses the information and vocabulary he has already acquired, however limited, to infer the meanings of incomprehensible words, or he simply uses a cross-language dictionary. After a bit of study, the student will be able to understand everything included in this given content and will graduate to new material containing new words to be learned. After gradual continuation, language will be eventually acquired. This core idea of Krashen’s theories is the basic structure from which his other hypotheses branch out.

Dr. Stephen Krashen

Dr. Stephen Krashen has five main hypotheses of which his theory consists. They are the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis, the Monitor hypothesis, the Natural Order hypothesis, the Input hypothesis, which we have already covered, and the Affective Filter hypothesis (www.sk.com.br). His first hypothesis establishes a distinct difference between the acquiring and learning of a foreign language. Put simply, acquiring the language is a more effective route to be taken in order to reach a decent level of communication, and learning a language is to be taken more into consideration after communication is established and consists of activities such as studying grammar, litterature, and nuances of and in the language. In short, acquisition is the building the blocks in order to establish a level of communication or fluency, and learning is the product of a more traditional instruction. Of his five hypotheses, these can be regarded as the most important. His Monitor hypothesis is basically the explanation for the relationship between acquisition and learning of a foreign language and how and the latter is influenced by the former. His Natural Order hypothesis explains that in any given language the main grammatical structures are part of or follow a sort of predictable “natural order,” and in said language some grammatical structures are acquired early while others later, and is statistically accurate in the majority of learners despite their native language. His Affective Filter hypothesis takes into account what role factors such as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety have on the language learning process.

Steve Kaufmann is a man of similar principles. While he isn’t officially a linguist himself, he is the founder and CEO of LingQ, a website developed for those wanting to learn foreign languages, and he does have plenty of experience under his language acquisition belt. Mr. Kaufmann has learned at least 18 languages to at least a conversational level of fluency, including French, Mandarin, Japanese, Greek, Arabic, and Czech to name a few. He employs plenty of the same methods and theories made evident by Dr. Stephen Krashen, but his approach is more bare bones and straightforward, focussing on his hypothesis of comprehensible input (thelinguist.com). He principally relies on texts with a level of vocabulary slightly above his own in the target language, paired with audio of a native speaker pronouncing the phrases in the texts, and acquiring the unknown words, as outlined in Krashen’s theories.

Steve Kaufmann

Of course, looking past Dr. Krashen’s basic principles, there are many different ways to go about learning a foreign language. For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there lived a cardinal named Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti. Mezzofanti was a particular man, as he is recorded to have been able to speak around 39 different languages “with rare excellence.” (the.guardian.com). His method of quickly understanding and breaking down the structure of a language was quite simple, and consisted of cross-translating passages of the Bible that he knew well, and noticing the similarities and difference. The excerpt he would famously use for the majority of his languages was the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s concise, and contains a level of vocabulary that stretches from very basic to intermediate. Repeating this cross-translation method at the beginning of the language learning process is a tremendous step forward.

Another well known polyglot who uses a similar method is Tim Ferriss, an entrepreneur who is passionate about living an ideal lifestyle and learning in general. He has an approach to learning languages that was much inspired by Mezzofanti. He chooses a select few sentences in English that contain basics of grammar that demonstrate how words affect each other in the phrase. “The apple is green, John gives me the apple, I will eat the apple,” and so on (tim.blog). Memorising how these sentences work in the target language make the learning process much easier as grammar and how words work with each other in individual sentences is easier to understand and won’t take too much thought.

Tim Ferriss

Another polyglot with a quite analytical approach to the acquiring of a second language is the Irish Benny Lewis, who is an author, an engineer, and a sort of cheerleader for learning languages in general. He has learned at least 13 languages to a considerable level of fluency with his very simple method of “speak first, think later.” He begins by attempting to learn the basics and the most frequently used words in a very minute amount of time. After about a week or two of intense study, he visits a country whose population speaks the language, and he stays and speaks to locals for about three months before returning to his home with an intermediate to advanced level in the language. Much unlike Krashen and Kaufmann, who are more concerned with comprehensible input over the course of a long period of time, Benny Lewis stresses the importance of output in a quite short amount of time. His method is more appropriate for people who need to speak a language quickly, and the other methods covered are more suitable for people who want to learn more in depth about and in the language.

Benny Lewis, "The Irish Polyglot"

A polyglot who benefits from a method more akin to Mezzofanti and Tim Ferriss is an Italian language coach named Luca Lampariello. What’s interesting about this language enthusiast is that we can see how he takes it all a step further, and speaks the language in a manner that makes him sound almost native like in the fourteen foreign languages he speaks. He has a level in French, English, Mandarin, and Hungarian, for example, that make him nearly indistinguishable from native speakers. He achieves such a level by using this cross-translation method at the beginning of his learning processes, and after about one year he develops the ability to communicate clearly. The next year and beyond are dedicated to diving deeper into the language, experiencing it through other speakers he’s met, social media, reading or listening to the news, and especially watching films and reading novels. After about two years of this approach to acquire the language, he establishes a native-like ability to speak the language.

Luca Lampariello

Every person that lives on this planet is different, and every one of those people learns in a manner that is different as well. No two people will learn with the same exact process, method, theory or hypotheses. Some people simply speak with whatever limited vocabulary they have until a decent level of communication is established. Some people prefer to study grammar almost exclusively. In any case, it has been seen that these of many successful polyglots have attained considerable success in using the same core foundations. The ancient Greeks may not have been able to express themselves using the most sophisticated vocabulary, but they definitely had the ability to learn in an efficient manner. So throw away the hefty grammar books and start gathering all the vocabulary you can.

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J Mitchell Lagaras
J Mitchell Lagaras
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
J Mitchell Lagaras

Musician and polyglot. Passionate learner, aspiring thinker.

See all posts by J Mitchell Lagaras