Theory 104 – Classroom VS Natural

by Robbie Kunz

So, there are two ways of speaking a language. There is the classroom way where one has learned a bunch of vocabulary lists and memorized a lot of grammar rules and there’s the natural way where one is able to speak based on what feels “right” which is how a native speaker speaks.

The classroom learner usually speaks the language in a slow way often stopping to think for a bit about what he or she is going to say next. This is obviously not an ideal way to speak a language since it requires a significant amount of mental effort and it results in slow, unnatural sounding language, often with many errors.

At this point though, you might stop me and tell me about someone you know who took language classes and then became able to speak a language quite proficiently. If taking a class, memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules will only result in a poor ability to speak and use the language, then how did these other people do it?

It is true that there are some people who took language classes and then became proficient in their chosen language. In fact, I was one of them. Before I realized these techniques and lessons that I am teaching you now, I had to spend quite a bit of time in Spanish classes.

The truth is, those people who are able to become proficient in a language through classes actually spent a lot of time outside of class studying. I was one of the best in my Spanish class, not because I did the homework the best or scored the highest on the tests (in fact, others often scored higher than me), but rather because I was passionate about the language and so I took time outside of class to study and use the language. This is what helped me get to a higher level than my classmates.

On the other hand, there is something very important to note here about classroom speaking and real speaking.

I also spoke in the classroom manner for a time. That is, I had to memorize vocabulary lists and grammar rules and I thought about these rules as I spoke because I hadn’t yet built a structure for Spanish. Of course, my Spanish was slow and I had to pause a lot. It also probably sounded very unnatural.

However, these days I am able to speak Spanish in a more natural manner without having to pause and think about these rules. So, how was I able to accomplish this if I had originally learned the classroom way?

Besides the fact that I had spent time outside of the classroom studying the language, the other thing that happened was that I slowly became aware of what was natural and what was not natural by using the language in class.

Even though I was originally thinking hard about the grammar rules and that sort of thing, eventually my mind began to comprehend which parts were natural and which were not by repetition since I continually used the language.

At some point, I made the switch so that I was no longer thinking about the rules but rather speaking based on what felt natural to me. Because I had spent so much time studying the language, I slowly had been able to make my way into that area where I was able to speak with what “felt” right.

If you do learn a language the old classroom way, you will probably start out speaking where you have to think slowly and carefully about the rules but by continually doing this, you will eventually get a feel of what is right simply because speaking this way is also a form of repetition and input.

The key word, however, is “eventually”. This is perhaps the slowest and most painful way to build your structure in the new language. The point is that the classroom method itself is just a roundabout way of achieving the same end goal that we could get much quicker if we just went straight at the goal of building a great deal of input and repetition right away.

Namely, if we spent more time trying to build the structure in our new language through lots of input, we wouldn’t need to stumble around for so long thinking about complex grammar rules to build our syntax.

I should also note that creating your own output too soon is dangerous. Since creating your own output is a type of repetition and since you haven’t received enough input to have fully created a stable structure in your new language, your incorrect output will only strengthen the unnatural parts of the new structure in the language. It will take more time to correct these errors later.

Additionally, sitting in a classroom listening to other beginners making numerous mistakes will only help to reinforce an incorrect structure for your new language and slow your ability to make real natural progress in the language.

You can either start the classroom way by trying to employ complex grammar rules and then slowly reach the level of knowing what “feels” natural and what doesn’t or you can just start right in on receiving a lot of input and go straight for that goal of knowing what “feels” right and what doesn’t.

Clearly, we should go right for the goal since that is the quickest and most efficient way. But the important fact is that even if you do go the way of the classroom, you will not be speaking the language fluently in the manner in which they teach it. You will never speak a language fluently while thinking about complex grammar rules and trying to apply them as you go. You will only be speaking the language when you have reached that level of knowing what is natural.

As for the underlying principle of your language study, you should always focus on full phrases from the language. This real input will provide you with the sentence structure and vocabulary information that you need in order to speak and write in a natural way.

In the beginner and advanced techniques, I will teach you the best ways to use this principle in your language learning. I will teach you exactly how to use textbooks, audio programs and other resources and I will show you how to study so that you will make progress in your foreign language efficiently and in my opinion, in the most enjoyable way.

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  1. Robbie, I’m 62 years old and have been doing collegiate ministry for the last 30 years. At least every four years my wife and a group of students travel to Uruguay to work with missionary friends. I also just returned from working at an orphanage for a week in Honduras. My life is meaningfully busy and I most likely won’t actually retire any time soon but we may relocate to the Gulf Coast in 4-5 years. All this said, I so wish I could get enough of a grasp on Spanish to get by with most/many common types of sentences: “Where can I find the milk?” or “I need to get a battery for my car.” or “I love that shirt! Where did you buy it?” What do you suggest for someone my age with a busy and often distracted life who does still want to learn at least some elementary and fluid Spanish?

  2. Aside from my native lagugane and English which my second lagugane, I am also learning Japanese here at PSU. One day, God willing I hope to be able to understand some Chinese and maybe Tagalog which I already know some. My experiences with learning a foreign lagugane has taught me that commitment and practice is very important. The study of a lagugane whether it be your first or your fifth is a continuing process that you need to be committed and willing to work hard and to have FUN with it. Another thing is to practice, practice, practice. It’s been quite a challenge but also rewarding nonetheless.

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