Natural language acquisition – a model for foreign language teaching?

By Erhard Dahl, February 2021

Rudolf Steiner’s idea of teaching foreign languages “in a somewhat more mature imitation of learning the mother tongue” was not an unusual one at the turn of the twentieth century. The principles of the so-called “direct method”, formulated by Gustav Wendt in the “Vienna Theses” of 1898, contain some of what Steiner also considered important for structuring this subject.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

In the course of the twentieth century, this method was displaced in the discussion about the teaching methodology for the subject by others. Recourse to the natural acquisition of the first language or a second language in the target language country was no longer taken into account. Only the publications of T Terrell and S Krashen on “Natural Language Learning” reactivated the debate on parallels between natural language acquisition and school-based foreign language learning in the 1980s. Ultimately, however, their approach failed to gain acceptance in the classroom.

There was one central argument against the assumption that foreign languages could be learned naturally – and taught accordingly: it was the reference to the fact that children at the age of six or seven, and even more so older learners, had already acquired a multitude of lexical, grammatical and phonological characteristics of the mother tongue. The attempt to learn a foreign language would thus encounter an already existing and comparatively complex construct of another language, in contrast to the learning situation of the young child.

There is nothing to be said against this argument. It can also be supposed that Steiner was aware of this fact. Rather, it can be assumed that his reference to mother tongue acquisition was concerned with the conditions under which the mother tongue is so easily acquired. In the past decades, research in the field of natural language acquisition has come to insights that are of very special significance for foreign language teaching at all school levels. Some of them will be explained in the following.

Comfort in the classroom

Mother tongue acquisition is embedded in a loving relationship with parents or other caregivers. Part of this relationship is also the parents’ trust in the child’s ability to acquire their language. Analogously, pupils learn the subject more easily when people they respect and enjoy being with “demonstrate” it for them in the classroom – including their great affection for the language being taught. A basic atmosphere of “comfort”, which positively affects the students’ sense of life, is one of the most decisive prerequisites for successful work in foreign language teaching.

Learning starts with the body

Children learn language through doing and in concrete life situations. These vary, so that the same expressions are experienced in a wide variety of contexts. Furthermore, learners encounter language always holistically. They experiences not only verbal phenomena (vocabulary and structures), but also non-verbal ones, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, physiognomy, sometimes the most subtle movements of the speaker, which appear to be more important for understanding than anything else. The more language comes to expression through the body in the classroom, the easier it is to understand and reproduce. From this it can be concluded with regard to practice that gestures and facial expressions are essential aids in teaching.

In teaching the foreign language, however, situations are only conducive to learning if they are not recognisably didactically pre-structured, i.e. if they are not developed exclusively for the purpose of practising certain vocabulary or grammatical forms. It is the variation in which newly introduced lexical and/or grammatical phenomena appear in the classroom over the weeks – and not their (unchanged) repetition – that makes foreign language teaching effective. Coming up with such variations is indeed a challenging task in day-to-day preparation.

Motivation is all

Another characteristic of natural language acquisition is that what the learner experiences and verbalises should be meaningful to them and have consequences. The learner wants to achieve or communicate something with the language. They act as themselves. With regard to teaching, we recall Steiner’s demand of the foreign language teacher to always pretend that they do not understand and speak German. So the teacher should react to unsuccessful utterances whose intention is not clear with, for example, a follow-up question or in a deliberately wrong way. In other words, the remark has consequences.

If, in a staged dialogue, a pupil asks a fellow pupil for directions but receives a wrong answer, this should be clearly experienced when walking along the route on a city map. By “staging” I mean here, for example, that the teacher draws a city map on the board, then shows a pupil where they are when a passer-by (second pupil) meets them and asks for directions (e.g. to the station). The questions or answers are not given by the teacher, but a situation is initiated that allows for a free dialogue.

It would also be useful to prepare questions that give the pupils the frequent opportunity to express their own experiences, opinions, feelings in the foreign language, i.e. to speak out of their self: “What would you do if ...?”, “Tell us when you ...?”, “Why do you think did she ...?”. The foreign language here becomes the medium for the thoughts that are important to me and this supports – as in natural language acquisition – the anchoring of new ways of expression. Relating what I say to myself personally and experiencing that people pay attention to what I say has a profound effect on the acquisition process.

Children learn as if by themselves

Children do not think about language when they speak. In research, this would be called implicit learning – as opposed to explicit, reflective learning. Intuitive learning causes parents to avoid teaching the language. The child is not interrupted after faulty utterances in order to correct them and explain language to them. Implicit learning also occurs in the classroom. However, this requires a very rich linguistic provision, characterised by systematic repetitions which should gradually lead to links with already introduced language phenomena.

There are linguistic elements that need to be made conscious, for example because they are structures that do not exist in the pupils’ mother tongue; but also because in the Waldorf School we want to lead the pupil from awareness to self-awareness with the help of grammar teaching.

Language is like an organism

There is widespread agreement in research that languages are not learned in a brick-by-brick linear fashion. The elements of a language interact like parts of a large organism. A grammatical structure, for example, can only be learned if “adjacent phenomena” can influence this learning process. Only in this way does the learner experience the specific performance, and thus the utility, of the structure in question. This is the case, for example, with a tense such as the present perfect (“I have done my homework”), whose specific performance can only really be understood through experience with other tenses.

Language is therefore not learned by gradually introducing, practising and testing phenomena of the language and then moving on to the next learning unit. Rather, progress is non-linear. As a teacher, one should therefore rather be guided by the image of a well entwined linguistic “network” that should emerge on the part of the students in the course of the school years.

Everyone learns differently

The learning processes in natural language acquisition can be compared to a construction process. The background of this term here is so-called constructivism – as used in the field of language acquisition research. It refers to the fact that the foreign language is gradually built up internally in the individual due to the innate language acquisition ability. The learner is only slightly aware of the “stages” of this process. The fact that this construction process is always individual means that skills always develop in individual forms.

The construction process is permanently based on an interaction between existing abilities and skills and new language phenomena. This leads to mostly unconscious reorganisation as well as “deletion” and assimilation processes. In principle, all this also happens in the development of the mother tongue. In this respect, there is no contradiction between this construction process and “natural” learning.

The learner builds up the language to be learned and has to reconstruct it continuously because new language phenomena are added and have to be integrated. Research shows that this is obviously a process that cannot be arbitrarily controlled from the outside in terms of its procedure and timing. It is due to the constructive character of the processing action and the individual learning level to which the learner refers that the new construct is never identical with what the competent interlocutor passes on or intends to pass on to the learner. This means that a foreign language teacher should be aware that the learner is very likely not learning exactly what is presented to them but is trying to adapt the subject matter to their level of learning or is not yet ready to adopt it at this point. The pupil is not aware of either of these processes.

It would therefore make sense to structure lessons in such a way that the pupil can link up with their own state of language construction. This requires a wide range of language, situations, text types and methodological approaches. Only then is it possible for the pupil to find something that is suitable and helpful for their own way of constructing language at any given time and that accommodates their own optimal way of learning. Steiner emphasises precisely this when he addresses the importance of active individualisation in teaching (Steiner 1993). However, teaching content that is pre-selected in ignorance of the pupil group in question (through curricula, learning level surveys, textbooks) can quickly impede a natural language acquisition process. It limits the pupil’s ability to build up the foreign language according to their current learning level and learning style.

Steiner’s remarks that foreign language teaching should be satisfied with a “loose curriculum” (Steiner 1975, 2.6.1924), that “language teaching [...] must be handled somewhat more freely in the future”, and that it “need not be set up class-wise on the whole” (24.7.1920), provide the necessary leeway in terms of teaching and general methodology.

Word units as catalysts

In research into natural language acquisition, it has become clear that the vocabulary of learners consists very early on predominantly of formulaic multi-word units rather than single words. Tens of thousands of such units are the basis of fluent and rapid speech in the native speaker. Nouns are acquired together with those adjectives and verbs that almost always go together with them, such as “tall boy” but not “high boy”, “to take an exam” but not “to make an exam”. Likewise, sentences that have become institutionalised in the respective culture are learned as units, for example “I haven’t seen you for ages”, but also sentence openers, such as “I’m wondering ...”, or semi-fixed phrases, such as “There’s no chance of ...”, which are completed by the speaker depending on the situation.

The adoption of such lexical phrases is obviously part of natural language acquisition. Humans absorb language holistically, not atomistically. Even acquisition at school is not in itself dependent on the much more difficult assembly of individual words. If one wants to emphasise the lexical nature of language, it therefore makes sense to familiarise pupils with many of these word units at an early age.

In praise of repetition

In mother tongue acquisition, the child hears the same linguistic forms repeatedly and at short intervals. Repetition secures the acquisition of the language. Everything should actually be done to imitate this in the classroom. For vocabulary work, this means that there should be frequent encounters with newly introduced lexical phrases in various situational contexts within the subsequent three to four weeks. But even after that, an attempt must be made to let these lexical items appear again and again over a period of months until they are used confidently by the students in class discussions and homework.

The same applies to grammatical structures. In order for pupils to a) perceive them, b) compare them with the structures they have already worked with, and c) then experiment with them, they should be practised systematically and cyclically in a wide variety of situations and over a longer period of time, i.e. over several school years. If teachers return again and again at planned intervals to structures that have already been introduced, a period of time is created with regard to other structures in which these can in turn “settle”.

The desire for quick evidence of successful teaching should not lead to a situation where, soon after the first treatment of a grammatical phenomenon, its productive application is demanded in tests or oral examinations. New grammatical as well as lexical elements should initially remain in the receptive domain. This allows students to internally process what has been presented and gives them “incubation period”. It would be ideal if pupils were only required to freely make use of a newly taught language phenomenon after they have been given numerous experiences with it. If this is not the case, the pupil can only lean on the mother tongue when forced to speak or they must grasp the unfamiliar – in both cases they will probably fail. They should be spared this in order not to deprive them of the joy of learning.

But the child doesn’t only hear the mother tongue, they also enter into a relationship with the respective utterance. They hope, expect something, are curious, want to understand, are surprised, laugh. They hear and feel; they learn empathically. Feeling perception is a great help in language acquisition. In class, too, language acquisition is made easier for the pupil if the teacher succeeds in combining their endeavours with joy, humour, excitement, pain, surprise. This not only increases attention and intensifies understanding but also calls upon the soul. It is then present and becomes the preserver of what has been perceived through the feelings because it imprints something on the body at that moment. It forms the repository of the memory.

Those familiar with the publications on Waldorf foreign language teaching will notice similarities between the latter and the findings explained here. But these findings contain further valuable suggestions. Very succinctly, one could put it like this: grammatical exercises should be reduced in favour of lexical exercises with word units. More teaching time should be devoted to the natural, spoken language than to the written language, which is very different from the former. Much less importance should be attached to teaching and correcting than to content-oriented conversations, real teacher questions, and answers from the pupils determined by themselves. The unity of emotion, corporeality, cognition and language should as far as possible be the guiding methodological principle in every lesson.

About the author: Prof Dr Erhard Dahl held a chair of English literature and its teaching methodology at Paderborn University until 1990; from 1990 to 2012 he was a subject teacher of English at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart.


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