Language Acquisition: Tips and Techniques

There are essentially three aspects to language acquisition: writing skills, verbal skills and listening comprehension skills.  When learning a foreign language, the written component is comprised of producing written material, while verbal is, of course, speaking.  Both of these components form their own separate challenges due to the fact that they both require the student to produce language.  The third component is more ambiguous as it includes reading and listening comprehension which are more passive forms of language acquisition. There are some simple and easy ways to increase each student’s skills in each of these areas.

Written Language Practice

This can be the most difficult because you have to create scenarios where the student can produce written work that is useful for learning the language. The key is to try to mimic as much total language immersion as you can and have them use the language in as much of their daily routine as possible. This is more useful and has a more lasting effect on their language skills than having them produce written work in other ways.

For example, have a student make their “to-do” list in the foreign language instead of having the student write sentences about daily actions.  This is a more effective activity because the “to-do” list has meaning to the student and is useful to them, as opposed to random sentences.  Another possible writing activity is to have the student keep a journal in the language.  Again, the key is substituting written things they regularly create in their native language with the foreign language.  The extra benefit of being a tutor is that you can tailor the extra practice to your student, so be creative!  Here are some more ideas for writing practice in the foreign language:

  • Write emails to friends and family
  • Create Facebook / Twitter posts
  • Create a greeting card
  • Translate a comic strip

Verbal Language Practice

Verbal language practice can often be the most intimidating for students.  They have to think on their feet and often feel frustrated when their speech is slow or full of pauses.  Almost everyone who has studied a foreign language has made an embarrassing blunder and said something that was incorrect and inadvertently funny.  Remind the students that this is normal and it is really best to laugh away the feeling of embarrassment.

During tutoring sessions, try to only allow the student to speak in the foreign language and you, as the tutor, do the same.  However, when you are giving instructions or explaining things such as grammar, be sure to repeat yourself several times and try to find different ways of saying the same thing so that you can account for gaps in understanding or vocabulary.  It is also important to remind the student that when they do not know the exact word they want to use that they can get the same point across by describing what they mean using words they do know. 

Try to emphasize to the student that the goal of language learning is not perfect speech, as most native speakers are not grammatically flawless when they speak either.  The goal is to be understood.  Students should accept that they will have an accent, especially at first, and the important part is that their pronunciation and grammar errors are normal but are really only problematic if they impede their ability to be understood.  It is alright to point out the student’s errors so that they can be aware of them and they do not become “fossilized” but save the fine tuning of the student’s work for later when they are comfortable with the basics.

Listening / Comprehension Practice

Listening practice is a fantastic tool to allow students to become more comfortable with the language without risking making mistakes.  Furthermore, the better a student understands the language the more comfortable they feel speaking and writing in that language.  Try to create as little anxiety over listening exercises as possible.  The wonders of the internet should not be ignored.  You and the student can sit down and watch television shows, movies, cartoons, news broadcasts, and music videos that all work wonders to increase the student’s exposure to the language. 

Finding the videos is as easy as a youtube.com search. You can find videos in German, Russian, Arabic, French, and Italian–just about anything you can imagine.  Make sure that you watch the video ahead of time and check to make sure it is the right content and level for your student.  The pictures and video help the student follow what is going on even if they do not understand all of the dialogue.  

It is also important to remember to pause the video and talk with the student about what has happened and make sure they are not lost and are understanding.  Try not to make the pauses too much like a quiz.  The more a student understands what is being said the more confident they feel about their speaking and writing skills in the language.

Helpful Notes

Language learning can be a difficult process for even the best students.  It is important to remember that language learning is a process that tends to have a steep incline where the student will make rapid advances in their understanding, speech, and writing, and then it will often plateau out.  When this plateau occurs, it is important to keep the student enthusiastic and motivated.  An easy way of maintaining a student’s motivation is to take a step back from grammar practice and vocabulary when they are frustrated and try to play a game.  

A simple game of hangman with new words can make the session fun and less stressful, without sacrificing time.  For more advanced students, there are games online or you can find a game normally played in their native language and play the game in the foreign language instead.  Another good motivation tool is to explain to the student that it is normal to have points in the language learning process where it feels as though vast improvements are not being made (unlike in the beginning) and the important thing is to push through it.  Remind the student of how far they have come and how much more they can say, write, and understand.

Recommendations

  1. Practice written exercises that have meaning, such as “to-do” lists
  2. Only speak in the foreign language in tutoring sessions
  3. Watch videos in the foreign language
  4. Remember that perfection and speed are not as important as accuracy

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