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Frequently asked questions about language learning

Who is this FAQ for?

The primary audience for this FAQ are the mainstream (i.e. non-ESL) teachers at Frankfurt International School. For this reason some of the answers are related to the particular situation at FIS. Some of the links (e.g. to internal documents) will not work outside of the school's intranet.

What is the best way to learn a second language?

There is no one universally accepted theory of how a child learns a second language. Our philosophy in the ESL department is that language is learned not for its own sake but in order to communicate and to find out about the world. For that reason our teaching is organized around major topics, such as animals, ecology, inventions, culture and language, etc. Each topic consists of linguistic tasks, and incorporates study and computer skills. Students are exposed to written and spoken language that is (made) comprehensible to them, and engaged in different kinds of productive activities.

Professor Krashen, the eminent researcher who in my opinion has the most coherent and convincing theory of language learning, has postulated that language is acquired, both in the language and the mainstream classroom, when the student is motivated by the task, feels low or zero anxiety, and has had his or her self-esteem protected or enhanced. If such conditions prevail, and the input is comprehensible, interesting and relevant, then there is no filter or barrier preventing the natural acquisition of language.

More on comprehensible input.  More on language learning methods.  Go to Krashen's website.


When is the best age to learn a new language?

If you want to be able to speak without an accent, then the younger the better. Otherwise, researchers think that early adolescence is the optimal time. See my newsletter article to parents on the same topic.


How long does it take to learn a second language?

How long is a piece of string? It depends on what you mean by "learning a language". Even on the assumption that this means acquiring the language skills and vocabulary of an average native-speaking adult, there is still no simple answer to the question, since it depends on where and how the second language is learned, and the age at which it was started. Obviously the language learning situation of a young Peruvian child adopted by America parents is totally different from that of a middle-aged Chinese man try to teach himself English from English novels.

The question has to be made much more specific before an answer can be given. So for example in the FIS situation we can ask: How long will it take a beginning ESL student at FIS to learn sufficient English to be ready to enter the full mainstream program in middle school (i.e. exit from ESL)? And now it is possible to answer: on average students need about three years in ESL before they have sufficient English to function successfully and independently in the mainstream. However some students pass through the program much more quickly, while others need a fourth or even fifth year of ESL. See the answer to the next question for reasons why this should be.

For a further discussion of this point, see my PTG newsletter article.


What are the factors that influence the acquisition of a second language?

The speed and ease of acquisition of a second language is a complex interplay of internal and external factors. These are outlined in some detail in another article on this website. The information is summarized for ESL parents in a further article entitled The good language learner.


How is learning a second language different from learning your mother tongue?

The differences are due to three main factors: the age at which you learn, who teaches you and how long you have to learn.

Generally, you learn a second language a lot later than you learn the first, and this can give you certain advantages. Firstly, it means that you already have experience as a language learner and that you are cognitively more mature. You also have a metalinguistic knowledge; this means for example that you know what a word is and what it means to make a noun plural. Finally, you have a greater knowledge of people and the world. This helps you to make good guesses at the meaning of the unfamiliar language you encounter. On the other hand, the fact that you are older may mean that you are more inhibited and less spontaneous in using the new language for fear of making mistakes or appearing silly.

The most important teachers of your first language are of course your parents and immediate family. They generally have boundless patience and enthusiasm with your efforts to learn the language, and by intuition offer just the right kind of input to promote optimal language learning. This modulated language input is called motherese, a feature of which is the fact that mistakes of fact are corrected whereas mistakes of grammar generally are not. This all contrasts strongly with the teaching that many learners of a second language receive in the language classroom!

As far as available time is concerned, you are learning your mother tongue from the moment you are born (some say you start even before you are born!) You are then exposed to language every waking second of your day until by the age of six or seven you have mastered its essentials. That is an awful lot of time on task, and compare it with 3 or 4 hours a week in the typical foreign language classroom!

In summary, everyone learns their first language because they have the best teachers and the best circumstances, the most time and the least pressure and the greatest motivation. Learners of a second language have certain cognitive advantages but none of the others, so it is not surprising how few go on to be as proficient in their second language as in their first.


What is the difference between written and spoken language?

In general spoken language is spontaneous and unplanned, irrevocable and transient (unless tape-recorded). When speaking, the speaker and the listener(s) are both present and the listener responds to and can interrupt the speaker. Part of the message can be conveyed by intonation. Writing on the other hand is often preplanned, it can be revised for content, and checked for grammatical accuracy. It is permanent. Often the writer does not know the reader(s) and receives no feedback. Intonation obviously plays no part.

It is not surprising therefore that considerable differences between the two kinds of language in terms of word choice and word order, grammatical accuracy and complexity. For example, spoken language tends to have more idioms and phrasal verbs than written language (put up with vs. tolerate). There is much more repetition in spoken language, which also abounds with fillers such as you know, I mean etc. Spoken language rarely has long, complex or complete sentences; it consists of strings of short phrases, backtracking and restarting or reformulating.


What is the best way to teach a language?

Over the last 30 years there has been an intensive study of how a second language is learned, but as yet no-one has been able to come up with a comprehensive theory. For this reason there is also no consensus on how language should be taught. (Click here for an outline of some of the teaching methods that have been popular over the years.) Of course, how a language is taught depends to a large extent on the age of the learner and his reasons for learning. It also depends heavily on the learning situation. (For example, see the FAQ on the difference between ESL and EFL.) At FIS ESL students need to learn English for two main purposes: social and academic. The content of ESL teaching reflects these two main aims, but as far as methodologies are concerned, it depends to a certain extent on individual ESL teachers, with some following a more structured, grammatical line and others selecting an ad-hoc task-based approach.

But ESL students do not only learn English in the ESL classroom. It is very important that mainstream teachers realize that they too are language teachers. Much of the advice elsewhere in these FAQs is aimed at helping mainstream teachers maximize the language learning opportunities of the ESL students in their classes.


Which is more important: learning grammar or learning vocabulary?

Clearly, no-one can claim to speak a foreign language unless they have mastery of both its essential grammar and its essential vocabulary. But the question here is: Should the learner focus more on acquiring grammatical knowledge or on acquiring an extensive wordstore?

Over the last few decades vocabulary has been neglected at the expense of grammar in a majority of the published English language teaching courses. This focus will probably continue in most EFL situations, but in ESL situations, such as at Frankfurt International School, there is a growing understanding of the centrality of vocabulary. Certainly, to achieve academic success the ESL student, like all students, must be able to read quickly and with comprehension. A large vocabulary is a necessary condition of efficient reading.

It is true that a mastery of basic grammar is also a necessary condition of academic success in an ESL situation. To a large extent, however, grammar acquisition in such situations can take place without much directed learning or teaching. It is clear, therefore, that ESL students need to focus on the explicit learning of the large amount of vocabulary that they need to do well in their subject classes, particularly academic vocabulary. So for them, learning vocabulary is more important than learning grammar.

Following are citations from research literature that support the above claim:

".. vocabulary is perhaps the most important component in L2 ability." (Folse)

"While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyeyed." (Wilkins)

"Research has shown .. that a lack of vocabulary knowledge is the largest obstacle for second-language readers to overcome." (Huckin and Bloch)

"Nonnative speakers must have good reading skills if they expect to have any chance of academic success. Numerous researchers have shown the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading ability." (Folse)


Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.

To update: Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.

To update: Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.

To update: Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.


What word categories are difficult for learners of English?

There are various ways to categorize English words. For example, they can be categorized by word class (also known as parts of speech), such as noun, verb, preposition, etc. Another way is by the contexts in which they are typically found: everyday spoken language, literary text, nuclear science discourse, etc.

The vocabulary that English-language learners often find difficult falls into various overlapping categories. These are listed below, with links to explanations and examples:

Counter-intuitively, the words that would seem to be difficult (such as precipitation, denominator, reafforestation, etc.) are generally not such a problem for ESL students because they are usually the focus of the discussion in the classroom or are glossed in the subject textbook.

It is helpful if teachers have a sensitivity to important words or phrases that are likely to cause difficulty, such as those from the categories listed above, and alert ESL students to their meaning in the given context.


Is English an easy language?

There's a whole section of this website devoted to my hypothesis that English is not the easy language that some hold it to be. The question has a certain theoretical interest, and it seems that judged by most objective criteria, English is placed at the lower end of the scale of difficulty. (One objective criterion is a simple count of the number of verb inflections: English has a maximum of 5 - speak, speaks, spoke, spoken, speaking, whereas a language like Turkish has dozens of forms.) My position is that the objective simplicity of English - another example is that neither the articles nor the adjectives are inflected, as they are in German - in fact masks a grammar system of extreme complexity.

In an important sense, however, the question is irrelevant. Depending on a multitude of factors, some learners find English relatively easy while others find it very difficult. The key is to try and analyze which aspects of English are difficult for the individual learner, and why, and then work out how best to overcome these difficulties.


Why do some ESL students learn much more quickly than others?

There are a number of reasons why some students learn English a lot more quickly than others. The first language is obviously a major factor here. It is clearly easier for a Dutch or German child to learn English than a child from Japan or China. Also, as children learn new languages they generally find each successive one easier to master since they bring with them a great deal of implicit knowledge of how to learn languages. So a Dutch child who has already learned some French and German will probably find learning English does not present very much difficulty at all.

Another factor influencing second language development is the child’s attitude to the target language and culture. The situation at FIS is a little complicated as the new ESL student is exposed to 2 new cultures at the same time - the culture of Germany, the host country, and the culture of our school, which is dominated by Anglo-American practices. A child who is unhappy about being in Germany, or uncomfortable in his new school will probably learn English more slowly than a child for whom the move is no problem. A related factor is the attitude of the child to his new teachers and the classroom environment. Learning does not take place very easily where there is antipathy between the ESL student and the teacher or the other students in the class. Another influence on the speed at which a child learns a second language is self esteem, and linked to this, a lack of fear of taking risks or making mistakes. Confident students who are not afraid of being wrong have a language learning advantage over the fearful and timid. Personality is another factor: a motivated, hard-working student will generally do better than someone with opposite characteristics.


I have a student who speaks perfect English, yet is struggling badly with reading and writing assignments. Why is this?

Some students, especially those with native languages similar to English, can quickly acquire the interpersonal language skills of speaking and listening. Research has shown however that it can take more than 5 years before the non-native speaker is operating at the same level of academic language competence as his or her native English speaking peers. It can take an especially long time for those students to catch up academically whose main priority in learning English is to make friends and feel comfortable in the school. When they have sufficient English to do this, they may consciously or sub-consciously decide that they have learned all there is to learn, and "switch off."

Professor J. Cummins has more information on the different kinds of language proficiency.


Does it confuse ESL students that they have to learn English and German at the same time?

In general it does not confuse them. There is research which suggests that the brain can acquire and store two languages at the same time with no problems except the occasional switching of words. In fact there are compelling reasons why even beginning learners of English should also take German at our school. Firstly, it is most important that they learn the language of the host country so that they can make friends in their neighbourhood and make the most of their shopping and other social or sporting experiences. Children who feel alienated from Germany because they do not know any language are more likely to be unhappy and unsuccessful in school.

Secondly, it is very important for ESL students to have at least one subject in school in which the native English speakers do not have the special advantage that their command of English bestows. Provided the teacher speaks German most of the time in the German lesson, ESL students have an equal opportunity to be successful. This is good for their self esteem and has a positive effect on their learning of other subjects too.

More information on bilingualism.


What should I know about the vocabulary of my subject?

Generally speaking, each discipline (mathematics, the sciences, the humanities etc.) uses three different kinds of vocabulary, two of which are shared by all disciplines, and the other specific to that discipline only. Examples of subject-specific vocabulary are: hypotenuse (maths), convection (science), colonialism (history), glaciation (geography), inside-trading (economics). In many ways, subject-specific vocabulary is not a problem for ESL students. the words will probably be new to native-speakers too, and the teacher will usually spend some time explaining, and often, testing the meanings of such words.

Also relatively unproblematic for ESL students is the cross-discipline, everyday vocabulary that consists of the most common words of the language - the words we use and hear again and again. Typically these are short words with concrete meanings and direct relevance to the daily experiences of our students.

Much more problematic is the vocabulary which is also cross-discipline but which is restricted to academic texts. This vocabulary has been called semi-technical and it includes word such as simultaneous, consequence, whereby, outcome, gradual, etc. Elsewhere on this website, there is a page of more detailed information about semi-technical vocabulary and how mainstream teachers can faciliate the learning of vocabulary in their subjects.


What is the difference between ESL and EFL?

At Frankfurt International School we have an ESL (English as a second language) programme because English is the language of instruction for all lessons. Students at our school are exposed to English all day in what they hear and read; they must also speak and write English in all their lessons. In such situations a large amount of grammar and vocabulary is acquired naturally in regular classes such as science or drama.

Students learning EFL (English as a foreign language) may have one lesson of English per day, but the rest of their lessons are in their native language - e.g. a German student learning English at a German school. The acquistion of English takes place only in the single English lesson.

In an ESL situation such as ours it is vital that all teachers regard themselves not only as teachers of their subject but also as teachers of language. An ESL student’s language development is influenced considerably by the language learning experiences that he or she has in the mainstream classroom.


Where can I find more information about second language learning?

I have a number of books and articles in my room with more detailed information on all the topics treated on this page. Please see me if you would like a bibliography of what is available. I also have a bibliography of what is available in the library on this topic.

If you have any other questions about learning languages, send me an e-mail. I will either reply direct or include the question and answer in this page.

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)