What is the best way to learn a language?
This may be the single most important question to a serious language learner. Learning a language already seems to take forever. But if we used the most effective method, we could learn more quickly.
It turns out that there are several different research disciplines that examine language acquisition and learning. Over time, we’ve seen a number of different theoretical perspectives emerge with different ideas about how we acquire language.
These perspectives differ in what they emphasise: some focus on the environment we learn the language in, others focus on cognitive factors, and still others focus on characteristics of the learners.
Here, I’ll attempt to give a brief description of several of the important theories about how we learn language and discuss how you can apply these to creating the most effective method for learning English.
The Behaviourist Perspective
Behaviourism is a theory of learning that was most famously advocated by B. F. Skinner.
It has at its core the idea that we learn particular behaviours based on the consequences that occur after them. If we engage in a behaviour and there is a result we like, we are more likely to do that behaviour again. For example, if a child’s action results in affection from its parents, behaviourism predicts that we would see more of that action.
Behaviourism for language development
Behaviourism has been used to explain language development. Behaviourists propose that correct language use ultimately comes from children imitating and practising what is heard around them and that this correct usage is reinforced by others.
Behaviourists make the observation that children often imitate the sounds and patterns that they hear and that parents often change their behaviour in ways that could be rewarding. For example, parents, upon hearing their child say their first word, smile and pay attention to the child. When a child makes a grammatical mistake, parents often correct them.
Behaviourists say that these kinds of feedback mechanisms are central to language learning.
Criticisms of behaviourism
The major criticism of this theory is that children often use novel language that they haven’t heard before. A theory based on imitation, practice, and rewards cannot easily explain these novel instances of language.
It also can’t explain the kinds of errors children make when they speak.
For example, children often over-apply grammar rules.
They’ll say things like “we buyed a lolly” instead of “we bought a lolly” or they’ll refer to several males as “mans” rather than “men”.
These mistakes suggest that the grammar of children is based on the application of rules that they have absorbed and internalised rather than being based on direct imitation of adults.
For these reasons, behaviourism seems to provide, at best, an incomplete way of understanding language acquisition.
The Innatist Perspective
Noam Chomsky was one of the major proponents of language being innate to humans.
Chomsky said that children are biologically programmed to learn language—that they have a kind of “blueprint” for language learning in the brain.
He suggested that language develops in similar ways to other biological functions like walking: as long as a child gets adequate nourishment and has freedom of movement, they’ll learn to walk—they don’t need to be taught. He suggested that language developed similarly.
While there is no clear “organ” for language learning, this theory proposes that there is a theoretical language acquisition device (LAD) that each of us has and which is responsible for learning language. It is proposed to be similar to how the hypothalamus is responsible for maintaining body temperature.
This theory originates in the observation that language seems to be universal. Since every known human culture has some form of language, it seems like there must be something innate in humans that enables learning it.
Innatist theorists also note that there is a kind of universal grammar that is shared across languages.
While each language has differences in grammar, there are similarities. For example, virtually all languages have verbs and nouns and similar ways of structuring thoughts.
Criticisms of Nativism and Universal Grammar
Most psychologists and linguists actually generally accept that humans have an innate ability to learn language—that it’s part of our basic set-up.
But some critics of this view, including Jean Piaget, point out that language isn’t just a result of a particular neurological set-up in the mind. They say that this picture of language acquisition misses the importance of the social environment.
They argue that a language only develops in the presence of others that speak the language. If a child is raised in isolation, they will not acquire language. Therefore this ability must be activated by others. Language is a social phenomenon.
Interactionist / developmental perspectives
The interactionists argue that language isn’t a separate module in the mind, but a kind of knowledge that is acquired through the physical interaction between children and the environment.
Jean Piaget was a famous developmental psychologist who proposed that children’s language is built on their cognitive development. He observed that children go through a number of stages of cognitive development and this, at least partly, determines their language development.
Lev Vygotsky was another important interactionist. He especially emphasised social interaction and developed what is essentially a social constructivist view of language learning. He showed that children learn language the quickest when they have a supportive and interactive environment.
He further observed that, in conversations with children, adults would change their speech so that it was understandable to children. From this observation, he proposed that there is a kind of zone of proximal development: to improve at something—including language—it has to be a little challenging, but not too much.
At its core, the interactionist perspective suggests that, while humans may have a cognitive predisposition to learn language, interaction with others—and social interaction in particular—is essential.
What do these theories of how we learn language imply for the English learner?
Each of these theories of language acquisition provides some insight into how we might efficiently learn a second language.
Behaviourism: mimicry and memorisation
Behaviourism explains language learning in terms of imitation, practice, reinforcement (feedback) and habit formation. This view had a powerful impact on language learning techniques from the 1940s to the 1970s. Various approaches to teaching second languages, like the audiolingual method, come from this view. These approaches emphasise memorisation and imitating language sentences and patterns. The idea was that these would help form language habits.
What you can take from this perspective
- Practice is important. The more you practise, the more you will learn. This perspective highlights that an effective way to learn a language is to continue to work at it.
- Imitation is useful. Several effective language learning strategies, like shadowing, use imitation and mimicry to help learn the physical aspects of fluency, like pronunciation, prosody, and the rhythm of a language.
- Feedback is important. This perspective suggests that we learn to some extent based on the feedback from others. It suggests that it is useful to be told when we’re using language correctly—and when we’re not.
Innatism: input is important
Innatism was mostly used to explain how we learn a first language, but some researchers have also used it to explain second language acquisition. They show that we actually learn more from exposure to a language than we could know from simply being taught it.
In other words, these theorists suggest that there must be some kind of innate ability to absorb and consolidate input into language learning. This is where Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis comes in: the idea is that with enough comprehensible input, our brain subconsciously develops an understanding of how a language works.
What you can take from this perspective
- Language input is important. This perspective suggests that one of the best ways to learn a language is to give yourself lots of comprehensible input. That means focusing on listening and reading activities.
- Developing positive affect. The affective filter is part of Krashen’s input hypothesis. The idea is that how we feel—our affect—partly influences how we acquire language. We don’t learn as well when we’re tense, afraid, or bored. The implication may be to engage in activities we like doing and work to overcome our fear of speaking English.
- Task- and subject-based learning. Another implication from this perspective is that you can learn a language while doing other things. For example, French-immersion schools teach French by using it to teach other subjects, like mathematics, science, and social studies. The idea is that you can learn the language not only through formal instruction, but by using it to accomplish other learning goals or tasks.
Interactionism: interaction is important
Interactionist theorists say that there is an important role for the negotiation of meaning in developing linguistic ability. Researchers in this camp suggest that conversation is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for learning a language. They emphasise the social nature of language and argue that this is an important aspect of language learning.
Many interactionists agree with Krashen that input is important for learning. But they point out that it is through conversation that comprehensible input is most effective.
They argue that we modify our language in social interactions to ensure that we’re understood by the other person. This includes comprehension checks, clarification requests, and self-repetition or paraphrasing.
This is where Merrill Swain’s comprehensible output hypothesis comes in. This hypothesis suggests that, while it isn’t the only route for language learning, some learning will occur through the production of language as well as through exposure to language input.
What you can take from this perspective
- Language output is important. This perspective highlights the learning value that comes from producing language such as through speaking activities and writing activities.
- Conversation is important. Interactionists highlight the value of conversation or dialogue on language learning. They would suggest that an effective way to improve your English is to find a conversation partner and regularly engage in conversation.
- You don’t need a native speaker. Interactionists suggest that interaction is useful even if it’s not with a native-speaker. You can gain a lot by chatting with other language learners, too.
Theories of language learning aren’t incompatible
We started this article with one of the most important questions for the serious language learner:
What is the best way to learn a language?
I’ve presented a very brief summary of the main theories about how we learn language.
Each of them tries to explain how individual learners acquire language within a particular social and instructional context. But the literature is complex; there are many theories that I haven’t covered here at all.
Still, even just having a flavour of these main perspectives makes it clear that there is some lack of agreement among language experts about how people learn a language.
A “complete”, overarching theory on second language acquisition seems to be some way off. That probably reflects the fact that language learning is a complex phenomenon with lots of different factors.
Perhaps this is a bit frustrating: there is not yet widespread agreement on the best way to learn a language.
But maybe there’s an alternative way to understand that: there are likely several effective ways to learn a language.
Each theory presented highlights different, important aspects of language learning along with a particular set of implications for the language learner.
For example, we may choose to engage in shadowing to improve our verbal fluency (consistent with behaviourism), listen to podcasts to ensure we have lots of comprehensible input (following innatism), and ensure we engage in conversation when we can (along the lines of interactionism). Maybe each of these can be effective.
So what should you do with all that?
Here are some suggestions:
- Try a variety of activities. Every language learner is different. If you try a bunch of different activities, you might find that some kinds of activities are more effective for you.
- Reassess regularly. If you find that you’re not making progress, maybe you need to switch your activities. Maybe you need to listen to more native speakers, or maybe you need more interactions with others. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your learning plan.
- Put in the time. All three of the learning perspectives above require some effort: you need to practise. No matter what activities you do, make sure you consistently put in the time.
- Enjoy yourself. You’re much more to put in the time to practise English if you actually like the activities you’re doing. Choosing language learning strategies that you find pleasurable is an effective way to ensure you continue.
We’re all in different situations. Some of us have access to native speakers, some of us don’t. Some of us have lots of extra time and money, lots of us don’t.
The idea of this guide is to give you some ideas about what people have said about language learning so that you can fit those ideas to your situation.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure you do it consistently over a period of time. Language learning is hard work, but by being persistent, you can become fluent.
Cook, V. (Ed.). (2003). Effects of the second language on the first (Vol. 3). Multilingual Matters.
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned 4th edition-Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers. Oxford University Press.