Language acquisition debates – Week 56


One of the reasons for undertaking my Mandarin experiment is as a motivation and context to engage with language enthusiasts and with language-acquisition theory. I have done that in the past year through forums such as HTLAL and Chinese-forums, commenters on my blog, other blogs, online research, and personal observation and analysis.

For this week’s post, I decided to write down some of the major questions that are debated in the second-language-learning community and that speak to my Mandarin experiment, whether directly or tangentially. I tried to formulate them in a way that allows for yes/no type answers, and is thus conducive to an opinion survey. I converted the first few questions into the above polls and would greatly appreciate if you take just one minute to give your opinion—regardless of whether it’s strongly held or just a hunch.

Please note that, as far as I am aware, there is no consensus among polyglots, language instruction professionals, or academic research on any of these questions. There are very smart and experienced people on both sides of each debate.

Here is the complete list of questions. At the end I comment this week’s study activities.

  • Is it optimal to acquire languages essentially by natural/communicative methods, i.e., just listening, speaking, reading, and writing, or to include a good amount of formal/abstract study of the languages (as one would study an academic subject such as math or biology)?
  • Are purely immersive methods optimal, avoiding using a first language (L1) during periods that one is studying the second language (L2), or do translations and explanations in L2, when properly used, speed up and improve acquisition?
  • Generally speaking, is deliberate, focused memorization of vocabulary (for example, using flashcards) an effective strategy for language acquisition? Does an optimal language acquisition strategy include a significant amount of memorization?
  • In second-language acquisition (SLA), is it most effective to tackle the input/receptive and output/productive skills simultaneously from the outset, or to focus first on input and then on output? In other words, should one delay speaking until definite progress has been made in listening (and, similarly, delay writing until one has made progress on reading)?
  • In SLA, is it optimal to focus first on oral skills (listening and speaking) and later focus on reading and writing, or to tackle both the spoken and written languages simultaneously?
  • Is listening to audio content of which you understand very little beneficial or a waste of time? In other words, does content have to be mostly “comprehensible” to be useful or, given some visual cues and focused attention, is listening to content that is far beyond your level an effective acquisition strategy?
  • Assuming an equal level of enjoyment and concentration, is it generally more effective to listen to same audio content many times or to listen to as much content as possible just one time? It may be beneficial to mix the two approaches, but for best results should one spend most of one’s time repeating (intensive listening) or listening to new content (extensive listening)?
  • In SLA, is using authentic content (done by natives for natives) generally better than using content made for language learners? Or is using high-quality language instruction material generally more effective, at least until one has reached a high level of proficiency?
  • Do adults ideally learn languages essentially in the same way as children, or are the mechanisms essentially different?
  • Does study of grammatical rules contribute significantly to effective language acquisition? Is it efficient to dedicate a significant portion of one’s time to explicit grammar study?
  • Is efficiency in any given acquisition approach a function of intensity of concentration, or can subconscious acquisition, without attention, be somewhat effective? For example, can listening to radio in L2 in the background while one is completely engaged in other tasks significantly boost acquisition, or is it mostly useless?
  • Is effective second-language acquisition inherently similar or inherently different from first language acquisition?
  • Consider two second language (L2) learners. One seeks to achieve basic proficiency in the shortest possible period of time. The other does not care about short-term results, but wants to attain native or near-native level mastery of L2 with efficiency. Should they follow the same or different methods for their first few hundred hours of study? In other words, is achieving basic proficiency as quickly as possible conducive to the best long-term results, or is there a tradeoff?
  • Do people have widely different learning styles that should be respected for optimal language acquisition? Or is language acquisition an essentially universal neurological process, such that certain approaches are optimal for the vast majority of people?
  • Is there a critical period or neurological window for optimal language acquisition? If so, what, on average, is the age range that defines that period?
  • Given the right approach and sufficient time, could almost any adult attain near-native mastery of a second language, or do only certain people have the ability to attain near-native mastery? In other words, do adults rarely master a second language at a native-like level because most people have an inherent neurological limitation in this respect, or because people rarely put in enough time and effort with the correct approaches?

This week I watched the movie Shaolin. It’s entertaining, has themes I like, and is generally well-acted and produced. However, it is a second-tier wuxia movie, if compared to greats like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Dragon.

I watched Not One Less again with my wife, mom and stepfather—a fantastic movie that makes you feel good to boot. I also spent some time on Mulan and the song Nan Zi Han, and a bit of Qiao Hu to round out my Mandarin diet.

7 thoughts on “Language acquisition debates – Week 56

  1. Greta Browne says:

    Yes, I would recommend ‘Not One Less’ for any viewer whether interested in Chinese or not. In addition to the great story I loved seeing the country and the city scenery as well as the people, children and adults.

  2. Sofia says:

    I enjoyed taking your poll. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not one optimal method. A lot depends on the learner’s style, preferences, and motivations.

  3. Thanks for taking it.

    I’m still divided on that question. It’s conventional wisdom among educators that learners have different learning styles and therefore there is no one ideal approach. Of course, this is basically true. However, I think this reasoning often leads people to take or justify extremely inefficient or ineffective approaches. The classic case is the language learner who says he is visual and needs to see everything written down and moreover understand all the rules in order to form correct sentences. In my experience, that person never gets very far in language acquisition. I believe if that same person went “against” his presumed learning style and plunged himself in immersions, striving continuously to understand more and communicate better, he would be more successful.

  4. I also don’t buy the self-assessment of the ‘visual learner who needs to see everything written down’. We have all learned our mother-tongue through the ears (and eyes, but looking at the mouth, not a piece of paper). If anything, we’re all auditory learners.

    When engaged in this particular argument, it may be useful to remember that 90% of languages on this planet are not written. People, including adults, still manage to learn those languages just fine. Swiss-German, which is not an obscure language with about 4 million speakers but no established writing system and no literature, print media etc., is a case in point. There are hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Switzerland who have learned the language just fine.

      • Actually, I need to correct myself: I couldn’t verify the 90% figure I mentioned in my comment above. It’s probably more like 50% of all languages which are spoken only, not 90%, and most of those languages would be rather small. But the argument still holds, I’d say, it’s just less impressive (or relevant).

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