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What does it mean to “know” a language?

The ability to process language in real time, whether for receiving or producing messages, is what it means to know a language.

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What does it mean to “know” a language? How did I find out?

Recently my friend Nataliya recommended a book to me. It has a relatively nerdy title: “Key Questions in Second Language Acquisition”. I’m not finished yet, but I’ve already changed my mind about language learning and teaching.

What I knew before

I was already familiar with the concept how a well-balanced language course should provide roughly equal opportunities of learning from activities that belong to each of the Four Strands: Meaning Focused Output, Meaning Focused Input, Language Focused Learning, and Fluency Development.

If you look at each of these strands with Language Focused Learning, you’ll find that only 25% of a course should be spent with explicit learning like memorizing verb conjugations, grammar exercises, or learning with word cards. That means 75% of the time spent learning a language should be about communicating or receiving messages. Literally learning a language is mostly about comprehending input and producing output.

What I Learned about the Research into Second Language Acquisition

The book talks a lot about Universal Grammar (UG) and how the human brain is literally hard-wired for learning language. Learning a language appears to be developmental and it’s not clear that teaching helps learners. When researchers have wanted to know if teaching helps students, they usually do something like this:

They test the students to see what they know about a grammar point (passive: The cow was kicked by the horse).

They teach students more about the grammar point.

They test the students again about the grammar point.

This is very explicit. You can almost imagine the students doing the final test and working their way through it:

“Ok, we just learned passive and the test is probably about passive. I’ll put the receiver of the action in the front. Now I need the “be verb” and it needs to agree with the subject…”

This is clearly about knowing rules. This is explicit knowledge that you know you know. You don’t need this to learn a language. You might learn rules along the way though.

Luckily, researchers are now starting to use other methods to test implicit knowledge, like track eye movement with sentences that are grammatically incorrect.

What does it mean to “know” a language?

The ability to process language in real time, whether for receiving or producing messages, is what it means to know a language.  This mental representation in the brain that allows this to happen is basically what it means to know a language. For years I’ve felt awful that I am not able to spontaneously use any of the five languages. In fact, it takes a few days of practice to “warm them up.” I can pick up novels and understand them fine though.

I used to always think I didn’t “know” these languages. But it turns out I do. The reason that I can quickly become conversational is because I do have an underlying mental representation for those languages.

What should we do more of?

Spend 75% of our time with a language doing message-focused activities. In my next post I’ll talk about the Four Strands more. It will help you develop a mental representation of a language. But we all want to show off and use our ability in a language with others, right? The Four Strands ensures there is enough speaking practice.

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2 thoughts on “What does it mean to “know” a language?”

  1. Great article. Do you think that learners’ oral fluency development related to their self-esteem? Sometimes, learners can’t produce the language they know due to negative evaluation by their peers and fear of making mistakes. Does the role of self-esteem play a vital role in foreign language learning? If so, in what way can we help learners’ self-esteem and how can we measure? Thank you.

    1. Hi there. Yes you have a valid point. This makes me think of the role of affect with learning. I have experienced different classroom situations as a student who was more fluent in some languages but a rather weak learner in another. I think that fluency does improve the more that you try to use what you know. It takes some accepting that you aren’t going to sound or be as competent as you are in your first language. Self-esteem is vitally important with staying motivated.
      How can we help? Find time to work with them and council them perhaps. What are their goals? Practicing visualizing our future selves is helpful too. I’m not aware of any means of measuring motivation. It might be better to find ways of involving them throughout the course.

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