Holy Family School

What’s the secret to learning a second language?

Saturday, Oct 27, 2012 05:30 AM PSTStudies reveal it’s more than just a matter of memory. A look at what the science of recall can teach us. 

MICHAEL GEISLER, a vice president at Middlebury College, which runs the foremost language-immersion school in the country, was blunt: “The drill-and-kill approach we used 20 years ago doesn’t work.” According to Geisler, you need four things to learn a language. First, you have to use it. Second, you have to use it for a purpose. Research shows that doing something while learning a language—preparing a cooking demonstration, creating an art project, putting on a play—stimulates an exchange of meaning that goes beyond using the language for the sake of learning it.

Third, you have to use the language in context. This is where Geisler says all programs have fallen short. “A lot of people think that learning with authentic materials”—audio or video in which native speakers are speaking naturally, without a script—“is just a gimmick. But what you will get out of it is all the non-linguistic cues that you get in a real language-speaking situation. If you are in a doctor’s office, you know what they are saying due in large part to visual and audio clues, not linguistic clues.”

Fourth, you have to use language in interaction with others. In a 2009 study led by Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington, researchers found that young children easily learned a second language from live human interaction while playing and reading books. But audio and DVD approaches with the same material, without the live interaction, fostered no learning progress at all. Two people in conversation constantly give each other feedback that can be used to make changes in how they respond.

Over the last decade, the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language has conducted language research dedicated to national security and intelligence. The center has more than 150 research scientists and affiliates whose work focuses on second-language acquisition, technology, cognitive neuroscience, and less commonly taught languages. “You’re seeing a great movement to put language learning online or on a disk, without a teacher,” said Richard Brecht, the center’s executive director. “But our research shows that the ideal model is a blended one,” one that blends technology and a teacher. “Our latest research shows that with the proper use of technology and cognitive neuroscience, we can make language learning more efficient.” 

WCEA