Second Languages and How They Are Learned

     Most North American and European education systems today find that students can benefit greatly from learning a second language, both from a practical point of view and from the discipline and intellectual efforts that are required in learning another language. Although it is quite rare to find schools still offering the classical languages, Latin and Greek, most elementary and high schools offer one or more modern language. How these languages should best be taught has been the subject of great discussion over the years, and even today, there seems to be no consensus on what constitutes the best approach.

     All teaching methods are developed in the context of how students learn, and no educator can teach without understanding how the learning process takes place. The uninitiated frequently confuse teaching with telling. If we simply tell students what the facts are then they will know, and the teaching will be done. Unfortunately, this approach does not work. Teaching and learning are far more complicated than that. The task of the professional teacher is to acquire a full understanding of how learning takes place. This has been, and continues to be, a special challenge when it comes to learning another language.

     Traditional methods of teaching a second language were heavily oriented towards translations. It was believed that since all thinking is done in one’s own mother tongue, the best way to understand and speak a second language would be to learn the meanings of individual foreign words and to study the grammatical structures of the language concerned. This could be developed and improved by translating passages from one language to the other.

     The translation approach is well founded, and many people have learned foreign languages this way. One of the drawbacks, however, has been that while students could learn to read and write the second language, they were rarely able to speak it as a result of this method. A period of immersion was still required in order to develop oral skills, but if they could find the opportunity for such an experience, the end results were usually good. Full immersion is not always possible, however, and educators were hard-pressed to find new ways of teaching.

     As the importance of oral language became more desirable, methods of teaching a foreign language soon adopted an oral approach. It was reasoned that since a child learns the mother tongue by hearing it constantly from birth, a second language could be learned in the same way. Elementary school children were exposed to spoken language only, for up to three years. Teachers of Spanish, French, and Italian simply spoke to their classes of children in the foreign language, teaching them oral phrases, questions and answers, and songs and games, as they went along.

     The purely oral approach to learning a second language was generally considered to be a failure. Most children did not learn well this way, and they tended to become extremely frustrated because they were unable to understand what was being said, despite the best efforts of the teacher. The problem was a failure to recognize that second languages are not learned in the same manner as first languages. While young children learn their mother tongue by being exposed to spoken language, the brain then relies on this language to learn everything else, including a second language. Teaching methods had to be redeveloped to include an element of translation as before, but the oral component was maintained as well.

     Teaching a second language presents a special challenge for educators because of the complex learning processes involved. Today’s methods involving some translation, reading, and writing, as well as a significant oral component, seem to be a successful, eclectic approach for most students. No doubt, new teaching methods will be tried, and, as with all other teaching methods, they will be assessed and evaluated based on their ability to achieve good results.