The Psychology of Learning a Foreign Language

The Psychology of Learning a Foreign Language

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If you want to learn English, the classroom is not the best place to pick up the language. Think about when children are learning how to talk. Typically the parents or guardians of the child teach this by acquisition. James Paul Gee defines acquisition in his short story “What is Literacy” as “…a process of acquiring something subconsciously by exposure to models and a process of trial and error, without a process of formal teaching. It happens in natural settings which are meaningful and functional in the sense that the acquirer knows that he need to acquire the thing he is exposed to in order to function and the acquirer in fact want to so function. This is how people come control their first language.” (Gee, 107) Which, miraculously, is the reason why, for most children, their first word is usually Mommy or Daddy. I’m sure this wasn’t because they decided at toddler stage to pick up a book and read the word Mom or Dad. Generally parents constantly reinforce that they are Mommy or Daddy over and over. Which sets up the natural subconscious setting that Gee said is to be where most learning takes place, eventually the child picks up on it and spits out the word. Even when you grow old enough to venture off to school it is the teacher’s job to teach you how to read and write. Really though, English is so much more than strictly reading and writing. In order to fully understand the English language you need to be taught by acquisition. Not only would you learn English more efficiently you will also be introduced to social rules of English that are not talked about in the classroom.

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I have heard it is easy to learn the basics of English but, in order to master and become fluent it is difficult because there are so many expectations and rules to everything. If I were to guess it would probably be due to enormous vocabulary, confusing spelling system accompanied by the many tricky rules, and the synonyms. Our vocabulary roots from many different cultures, making it difficult to break down a word into roots, if your not an expert in many different cultures that we have borrowed words from. The reasons there are spelling bee’s for the English language is because the way words sound in some cases aren’t how they are spelt with silent vowels and other rules. Our language also contains words having the same or nearly the same meaning as another. Also, depending on where you learn English or which dialect will be different from another area that is spoken. To myself, being raised the in the U.S. and being exposed to different dialects, it’s something that I have learned to expect and not be confused by. However to others that aren’t in my situation I could see how this could be very problematic. James Paul Gee feels that acquiring secondary language is crucial “The point can be made using second language as the example: most people aren’t very good at attaining a second language in any very functional way through formal instruction in a classroom. That’s why teaching grammar is not a very good way of getting people to control a language. However, people who have acquired a second language in a natural setting don’t thereby make good linguists, and some good linguists can’t speak the languages they learned in a classroom. What is said here about second languages is true, I believe, of all of what I will later refer to as “secondary discourses”: acquisition is good for performance, learning is good for meta-level knowledge (cf. Scribner & Cole, 1981). Acquisition and learning are thus, too, differential sources of power: acquirers at talking about it, that is, at explication, explanation, analysis and criticism.”(Gee, 107) It’s almost as if English has two sub divisions, communication inside the classroom and communication beyond the classroom.
Too many English classes curriculum are simply formal reading and writing. I use the word formal because unless your preparing a business letter or in a classroom, you really don’t use formal English. Sure being part of a businessperson discourse would cause this curriculum to be helpful. Not everyone is a businessperson though, so this part of English would be irrelevant to the majority of people. As mentioned in “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle” by Min-Zhan Lu “When I listen to my daughter, to students, and to some composition teachers talking about the teaching and learning of writing, I am often alarmed by the degree to which the metaphor of a survival tool dominates their understanding of language as it once dominated my own. I am especially concerned with the way some composition classes focus on turning the classroom into a monological scene for the students’ reading and writing. Most of our students live in a world similar to my daughter’s, somewhere between the purified world of the classroom and the complex world of my adolescence. When composition classes encourage these students to ignore those voices that seem irrelevant to the purified world of the classroom, most students are often able to do so without much struggle. Some of them are so adept at doing it that the whole process has for them become automatic.”(Lu, 133) If we spoke the same way we construct papers we would most likely sound like robots. Sure it is important to know how to formally address someone in a respectful manner. However, in my experience formal language is way too much of a dominance of English class. English should be a place where communication skills are practiced and discussion is abundant. Ideas should bounce around to introduce students to different perspectives to make students more well rounded and get exposed to other people’s discourses, because really school is an institution to prepare children for the real world.
The English language is constantly changing pushing English classroom discourse to change as well. Going back to when William Shakespeare was composing famous plays English was spoken completely differently from then to current date. Shakespeare created slang for the English language that has even carried on to dialect today. In classes I have previously taken, we read and acted out some of his plays. It was extremely difficult to understand what was going on even after the translation. The English language has come quite a way and gone under major transition. Every generation new words and phrases are produced to develop the English language to something different than it was before.
The younger generation is mainly responsible for new terms and slang. For example five years ago the word “bootylicious” was non-existent, now Webster’s recognizes it as a word in the English system. I do believe this word was first heard when Destiny’s Child released the hit song “Bootylicious”. The time era that you grew up in could be considered a discourse because you created the slang of that time. The nineteen-seventies is a discourse because they brought meaning to the term “flower child”.
Why is that the younger generation are the ones being creative with words? Is it because younger people are more willing to take a risk of doing something different versus older people who are stuck on their ways of thought? Most of the slang I hear now is from music. The slang from music originates from somewhere too. Depending on the genre of music and where the artist is from is usually where the slang comes from. Then it’s broadcasted through the radio and the next day it’s on everyone’s music playing device. Music is a method of communication of new words.
Being that America is a melting pot, has put a strong influence on the development of the transition of English over the duration of time. People migrate from different countries, which they also bring different customs and dialects to the English language. In fact, America’s population has become more diverse, and English is becoming more commonly a secondary language educators are putting more concern on the way English is being taught in the classroom.
Which leads me into how English dialects vary depending on the location it is spoken. In America nearly every state has a slightly different accent. It’s amazing that living only miles away from another country, Canadians have a different dialect than Washingtonians. Dialects relate to discourses that you engage yourself in. Dialects vary with discourses relating to whom you are around. The way you talk with your family is a generally in a different way than you do with your friends. James Paul Gee defines discourse as “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or “social network”.” (Gee, 104) Just by hearing someone speak could give you a good insight as to where they live and what sort of groups they’re involved in. If you visit England you’ll stick out like a sore thumb with a so-called Yankee accent.
Over time since I have been in school the English curriculum and discourse has changed. Assignments used to be very straight to the point and not fun writing. Now you are told to use your voice and to personalize your writing. Is this happening just because I become older and wiser and assignments are asking for more? Or have school districts decided to adjust the English curriculum to be more life like? It doesn’t make very much sense that in grade school students are not capable of grasping the idea of writing with their own unique voice. When children are young its almost easier for them to speak with their voice because they haven’t been trained to write formally, or without emotion strictly because they are assigned to write on a prompt. Then it’s almost like when you get older they are trying to teach the complete opposite. Great writing comes out when the writer is truly engaged in the writing. How could a paper be half way decent if there is not any kind of a connection? In my opinion older textbooks are usually very boring and dry to read which in turn makes it more difficult to retain information. Textbooks now are becoming more interesting and instead listing dull facts they produce stories about the facts. I believe this is because administration and teachers are realizing that it is harder to retain and learn information if students have no connection with the text.
From my perspective the reason there is the subject English in school is to learn how to communicate through writing and talking. Communication is a major aspect of life whether it for pure enjoyment or trying to get across important information. Communication is so simple but at times can be so complex. Possibly because people have a hard time translating communicate from the outside world to formal classroom conversation. Why is that if we know how to do something, we can’t explain how to do it to another person? Or why when we explain something to someone they don’t understand? It doesn’t make any sense that we know how to construct a business letter but we can’t even explain our own actions. Like Gee said “we are better at what we acquire, but we consciously know more about what we have learned.”(Gee, 107)


Gee, Paul What is Literacy? From Teaching and Learning: The Journal of National Inquiry, Fall 1987 pg. 104,106,107

Minh Zahn Lu, “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle” from College English #49, April 1987. Copyright 1987 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission of the NCTE. pg 133

Scribner, S. & Cole, M. (1981). The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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