Language Variety. Click for credits.

Second Language Learning

This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.

If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.

Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.

Reading for (Self) Improvement

Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.

1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.

2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.

3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.

4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.

[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we’re not alone in this. Just check ‘literature’ out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]

Book. Click for credits.

What to Read

In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.

Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)

No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.

Old Books. Click for credits.

Writing. Style & Content

Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.

If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.

Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?

But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.


As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)

A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s (Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.

Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.


Related posts:

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger
Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Power of Reading
Guess What is Better than Prozac
Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head
Books, Multimedia and E-learning
Locking Horns with a Young Roman
Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

18 thoughts on “Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

  1. So, you can take a man out of teaching…but you can’t take teaching out of a man.
    I simultaneously learned French and English listening to my parents as a baby. My son learned English listening to PBS and Bugs Bunny. My daughters, at 8 or 9, they were resisting, learned English with Bob Barker on “the Price is Right”. The Input method works but you need more formal teachings afterward to become really knowledgeable. Which all Three got at Champlain College and McGill University, as I had at Collège André-Grasset thanks to a remarkable English teacher, Father Lachance, who guided me for 6 years through English litt. and some grammar.
    Keep it up compadre.


    1. Paul, I agree one needs more formal teaching afterwards. I am a prophet of no method, whose validity depends on the person. My wife for example doesn’t like much the massive exposure approach. She prefers language formal courses. I think that best results can be achieved by combining various methods. I though believe in a high education for languages (good literature, basically), something similar to what Father Lachance did with you. He guided you through English classics and some grammar.

      I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I miss this job a lot. I especially miss my students. Compadre? Great term: let’s both keep it up compadre!


  2. I am an instructional designer, as I may have reiterated before. Designing trainings (for anything that’s teachable under the sun) is part of my profession. Hence, your article interests me immensely.
    I am a firm believer of combining informal and formal learnings in my training programs. Feel of grammar approach instead of grammar approach is what we have used for teaching English to global audience of mariners. It has not been field tested yet, I hope to tell you how positive it has been after our product has released.


    1. Thank you for your interest, moviemaniax, hope it can be of any help. From your gravatar it seems you are Vee – I did some gravatar checking, hope I’m not wrong lol.

      Oh, I just learned it’s you Poonam! [she just told me she was logged in with Vee’s account]. I’m glad you liked this post. Of course I’m in favour of this approach – flexibility in language training – and I’d love to hear about the field testing results of your English teaching program!

      I am a lurker of the *moviemaniax awards* (my knowledge of Indian films being close to zero.) I learn from comments at your place it’s Vee’s idea 🙂


      1. hehe Sorry to have caused the confusion. I will certainly let you know about the field results. It will take some time though.

        I would be glad to have you at MovieManiax awards, which is certainly Vee’s initiative.:)


  3. Well, so much for Balzac. I am devouring him in English, but thoroughly enjoying my Asterix et Obelisk comics en Francais!

    BTW – thanks for the link to Eternally Cool, where I saw some nice photos of that museum of antiquities in the old power station. I missed that when I was in Rome a few years ago. Next time!

    (I tried to comment there, but you have to sign in?)


    1. Well, some gradualism can be good. People are luckier now. They have ‘*Minimus*, the mouse who made Latin cool,’ and other easy graded stuff.
      I also love Asterix and Obelix but never read it in French. Comics language is so fresh.

      EternallyCool is cool. No idea if one has to sign in. I couldn’t comment either. And yes, the Centrale Montemartini is absolutely great!


  4. Very interesting post! I am fluent in Italian and Englich, but the task of raising my son as bilingual is not easy. I grew up with mamma speaking to me in Italian, and daddy in English. All it took after that was studying in International schools from kindergarten onwards, and my languages were locked.
    I’m a single mom, and I tried talking to my boy in both languages from the beginning, but he is very confused when I switch to English. He’s very talkative for his age, but I can’t steer him away from his romanaccio de trastevere inflection. I have been applying my own personal input method with him recently, aware of small children’s absorbant minds. Evviva cable TV, DVDs and books on tape. And Man of Roma for his wise foreign language 101. Ciao!


    1. It shows from your blog you are perfectly bilingual. You received both languages when you were a baby. I instead had to toil with my English which will never be at a mother-tongue level. I started by way of self study and reading, no conversation with mother-tongue people, but basically I started too late (14).

      With French I could be closer to mother tongue if I practised it enough (which I don’t) since my father imposed this French lady coming to our house twice a week when we were 5-6. We didn’t like it and ran away whenever we could. After that, zero French until I was 26. At that age I went to France to study one year. My French was non-existent at first but it suddenly popped up after 2-3 months! Of course I helped it with a lot of input, and yet …

      I think that if you have talked both in English and in Italian to your son, he’ll be bilingual anyway, although afterwards formal education and motivation will also be crucial. Now he maybe associates you with Italian, your English sounding weird to him, plus he lives in Rome, surrounded by Italian and romanaccio.

      Don’t give up. I now thank my father for those frustrating French conversations twice a week.


  5. Great post. I got hold of a couple of great 1970s Spanish grammar books and went through them gradually, plodding like a school kid through each lesson. It worked fine. But I have found it difficult to find suitable texts to enable me to make the move from text book to living language. Your post encourages me to try again using some of the resources you mention. If you know of any other examples please let us know.


    1. I’d keep the grammars for later and buy instead graded texts (with audio too), there are so many. As for my taste – I did a hasty research – I’d start with *these readers*, adapted from Fedro, Aesop, La Fontaine. I’d later approach more complex *literature*, tho simplified.

      At that point I’d get rid of any parachute: García Lorca, García Márquez, Borges, Cervantes, there are so many!!

      [I never got into Spanish, too similar to Italian. Got enough kicks from French]


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