Now that I’m not working and the apartment is almost finished (Why does it take soooo long to get furniture in France?!?!), I have a lot of free time on my hands. I have been working on my website a little – just uploaded a few lessons from Foreign Service Institute Italian FAST – but sitting at the computer all day when it’s unbearably hot is not ideal. And now that I’ve finally put all the books back on the shelves and I can concentrate on linguistics with few interruptions, I’ve been starting to do research again that I hope will lead into my eventual PhD.
Second Language Acquisition has always been my favorite part of linguistics since I study and teach languages, so naturally I’m interested in how humans actually learn them and therefore, what is the best way to teach them. Too bad I have such a broad range of interests, which is evidenced by the hundreds and hundreds of scholarly articles on my hard drive…
Vocabulary Acquisition: Learning vocabulary is the most important part of learning a language, because even if you know how to conjugate verbs and which gender a noun is, you still cannot actually say anything until you know the WORDS. Concrete words that can be visualized, the most frequently used words, and cognates with the native language are the easiest to learn; so the focus should be on abstract words and words that are the most phonologically different from the native language.
Listening & Repetition: And how do you learn the words? By listening to the language as much as possible. There is a strong link between the phonological properties of a word and how easily it can be stored in long-term memory. It is difficult to access and produce a word from your memory if you do not know how it is pronounced. And even though it sounds clichéd, repetition really is the key to remembering. Repetition helps make up for the lack of exposure to the foreign language, especially when you don’t live in the country where it is spoken. And without enough comprehensible input (i.e. without ever listening to the language), receptive skills cannot be learned and acquisition cannot occur. This is also the reason why it is nearly impossible to learn how to speak without learning how to listen first. How can you produce something from nothing?
Authentic Language: Slang is often ignored by language textbooks because it is seen as too informal or too vulgar. And since textbooks are often concerned with teaching the formal written language, usually for academic purposes of analyzing literature, informal language has no place in the curriculum. But for those students who just want to speak to French people, especially to their peers, it is very frustrating to have never learned the most common slang words or reductions in speech, even after years and years of study in school. Students need to hear the real language as it is actually spoken in everyday life in order to be able to reproduce it and sound more like a native speaker.
Classroom Materials: Textbooks seem to be written based on introspection rather than empirical research. There is a real need for corpora of written and spoken language to be taken into account when creating vocabulary lists so that the most frequent words are included. There is also a need for more independent listening materials since classroom time is woefully inadequate compared to the time needed to be devoted to listening comprehension. By using properties of computer-assisted language learning (CALL), we could develop useful audio and video components and exercises that students can do in language labs or at home. And by using the internet and realia, we could expose students to informal language in both its written and spoken forms that could also be used in or outside of the classroom.
So, from the best way to teach vocabulary and the importance of listening and authentic language to how to use corpora and CALL to design materials and break away from textbook reliance, how am I supposed to narrow that down to one little research topic for a doctoral dissertation???