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6 Most of the mistakes that second language learners make are due to interference from their first language: First, we should recognize that knowledge of one or more languages can contribute positively to many aspects of second or foreign language learning. If the languages are relatively close cousins (for example, English and German, Spanish and French, English and Spanish), there is much that learners already ‘know’-including the alphabet, cognate words, as well as some basic principles of syntax. On the other hand, the transfer of patterns from the native language is one of the major sources of errors in learner language. When errors are caused by learners’ perception of some partial similarity between the first and second languages, they may be difficult to overcome, especially when learners are frequently in contact with other learners who make the same errors. Aspects of the second language that are different from the first language will not necessarily be acquired later or with more difficulty than those aspects that are similar. Second language learning is not simply a process of putting second-language words into first-language sentences. In fact, learners may not always be able to take advantage of similarities unless they are pointed out to them. We saw that learners can be overly discriminating, failing to take advantage of similarities because they assume, incorrectly sometimes, that the languages must be different. However, the first language is not the only influence on second language learning. Learners from different backgrounds often make the same kinds of errors, and some of these errors are remarkably similar to those made by first language learners. In such cases, second-language errors are evidence of the learners’ efforts to discover the structure of the target language itself rather attempts to transfer patterns from their first language.
7 The best way to learn new vocabulary is through reading: This statement is absolutely true. But it does not tell the whole story. Children expand their vocabulary dramatically during their school years, and reading is the major source of this growth. Second language learners can also increase their vocabulary knowledge through reading, but few second language learners will read the amount of target language text that a child reads throughout more than a decade of schooling. Research evidence suggests that second language learners benefit from opportunities to read material that is interesting and important to them. However, those who also receive guidance from instruction and develop good strategies for learning and remembering words will benefit more than those who simply focus on getting the main ideas from a text. What is perhaps most striking in the research is the evidence that in order to successfully guess the meanings of new words in a text, a reader usually needs to know 90 per cent or more of the words in that text.
8 It is essential for learners to be able to pronounce all the individual sounds in the second language: Research on pronunciation has shown that second language speakers’ ability to make themselves understood depends more on their ability to reproduce the phrasing and stress patterns-the ‘melody’ of the language-than on their ability to articulate each individual sound. Another important emphasis in current research is the undeniable fact that most languages of the world are spoken in many different varieties. Thus, it no longer seems appropriate to insist that learners be taught only one language variety or that only native speakers of a particular variety are the best teachers. Rather, learners need to learn to understand and produce language varieties that will permit them to engage in communicative interaction with the interlocutors they are most likely to encounter.
9 Once learners know roughly 1,000 words and the basic structure of a second language, they can easily participate in conversations with native speakers: It is true that most conversational language involves only a relatively limited number of words and sentence types. However, learners will find it easier to understand and to make themselves understood if they also have an understanding of some of the pragmatic features of the new language. It is sometimes useful for them to focus their attention on such things as how speakers show respect, apologize, or make requests. The cultural differences in these types of interactions sometimes lead to communication breakdown or misunderstandings, even when the words and the sentence structures are correct.
10 Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time, and learners should practise examples of each one before going on to another: Second language learning is not simply linear in its development. Learners may use a particular form accurately at stage x (suggesting that they have learned that form), fail to produce the form (or make errors when they attempt it) at stage y, and produce it accurately again at stage z The decline in accuracy at stage y may show that learners are incorporating new information about the language into their interlanguage. We saw, for example, how learners may ask correct formulaic questions such as ‘What’s that?’, or ‘How do you say proche in English?”, and then produce questions like “What you’re doing with that?’ at a later time. Language development is not just adding one rule after another. Rather, it involves processes of integrating new language forms and patterns into an existing interlanguage, readjusting and restructuring until all the pieces fit. Some structure-based approaches to teaching are based on the false assumption that second language development is a sort of accumulation of rules. This can be seen in the organization of textbooks that introduce a particular language feature in the first unit and reinforce it in several subsequent units, and then move on the next feature, with only rare opportunities for learners to practise the ones previously taught. This isolated presentation and practice of one structure at a time does not provide learners with an opportunity to discover how different language features compare and contrast in normal language use. It is also likely that, without opportunities to continue hearing, seeing, and using them, the language features learned in the first unit will have been forgotten long before the last.
11 Teachers should teach simple language structures before complex ones: Research has shown that no matter how language is presented to learners, certain structures are acquired before others. This suggests that it is neither necessary nor desirable to restrict learners’ exposure to structures that are perceived in linguistic terms to be ‘simple’-particularly when this involves the isolated presentation, ordering, and practice of ‘simple’ to ‘complex’ features. At the same time, there is no doubt that second language learners benefit from the efforts of native speakers and fluent bilinguals to modify their speech to help them understand. The language used in modified interaction may contain a variety of linguistic structures, some ‘simple’ and some ‘complex’. However, it also includes a range of adjustments that enable second language learners to engage in interactions with native and more advanced speakers of the second language more easily-more repetition, slower rate of delivery, paraphrasing, etc. Teachers must also be aware, however, that some linguistic forms are so rare in classroom language that learners have little opportunity to hear, use, and learn them if the teacher does not make a paint of providing them. These are not necessarily difficult or complex forms. As we saw in Chapter 6 (Study 31) some common language forms turn out to be extremely rare in classroom language.
12 Learners’ errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits: Errors are a natural part of language learning. This is true of the development of a child’s first language as well as of second language learning by children and adults. Errors reflect the patterns of learners’ developing interlanguage systems-showing where they have overgeneralized a second language rule or where they have inappropriately transferred a first language pattern to the second language. Teachers have a responsibility to help learners do their best, and this includes the provision of explicit, form-focused instruction and feedback on error. When errors are persistent, especially when they are shared by almost all students in a class, it is important to bring the problem to their attention. This does not mean that learners should be expected to adopt the correct form or structure immediately or consistently. If the error is based on a developmental pattern, the instruction or feedback may be useful only when the learner is ready for it. It may be necessary to repeat feedback on error many times. Excessive feedback on error can have a negative effect on motivation, of course, and teachers must be sensitive to their students’ reactions to correction. The amount and type of correction that is offered will also vary according to the specific characteristics of the students, as well as their relationship with the teacher and with each other. Children and adults with little education in their first language will not benefit greatly from sophisticated metalinguistic explanations, but university students who are advanced learners of the language may find such explanations of great value. Immediate reaction to errors in an oral communication setting may embarrass some students and discourage them from speaking, while for others, such correction is exactly what is needed to help them notice a persistent error at just the moment when it occurs.
13 Teachers should use materials that expose students only to language structures they have already been taught: Such a procedure can provide comprehensible input of course, but-given a meaningful context-learners can comprehend the general meaning of oral or written texts that contain vocabulary and structures they have not ‘mastered’. Thus, restricting classroom second language materials to those that contain little or nothing that is new may have several negative consequences. There will undoubtedly be a loss of motivation if students are not sufficiently challenged. Students also need to develop strategies for dealing with ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ material if they are eventually going to be prepared for language use outside the classroom. They do this first with the teacher’s guidance and then independently. Restricting students to step-by-step exposure to the language extends their dependency. When a particular form is introduced for the first time, or when the teacher feels there is a need for correction of a persistent problem, it is appropriate to use narrow-focus materials that isolate one element in a context where other things seem easy. But it would be a disservice to students to use such materials exclusively or even predominantly. We should remember that learners who successfully acquire a second language outside classrooms certainly are exposed to a great variety of forms and structures they have not mastered.