5 Things You MUST Know
to Improve Your English

by Dr. Jeff McQuillan,
Center for Educational Development


Almost no one who studies a second language gets very far.

Millions of high school and college students show up (attend; go to) to their English classes in the hopes of learning to communicate in a second language, but most of them will fail, and fail badly.

A few years out of school, and most have forgotten the little they learned in class.

Millions of adults who need to know English for their work, their school, or their travels pay good (a lot of) money for language CDs, books, and expensive software, but still don’t succeed.

None of this, sadly, is news. Language teachers have known about the failure rate in their language classes for many years now. Recent research confirms (shows us to be true) that very few people make it very far, especially on their own, in language courses.

Consider these facts:

  • In one study, 99% – yes, 99%! – of the people who started studying with one of two popular language-learning software programs (Rosetta Stone® and Tell Me More) did not finish even the beginning two levels of the course.
  • For college students, it is even worse: 83% of those studying in beginning language classes never finish their study in a second language.

With all this bad news, is there hope for you?

A Quick Course in How We Get Better at Languages: The Five Principles

We don’t have time for a complete course in second language acquisition (the science of how we pick up languages), so I’m just going to talk about five things that every good language teaching technology, activity, or classroom must have.

These are the five principles you should look for in buying any kind of course, app, or other technology (including the 500-year-old kind called “paper books”) for improving your English.

Any course, class, textbook, or Internet program that does NOT have all five of these elements is NOT worth your valuable time.

Principle #1: Input

If linguist Noam Chomsky is correct, part of our brain is hardwired (programmed) with a capacity to learn language. We'll call this part of our brain the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). We all have an LAD, and it works without any sort of conscious effort or practice. Our only job in the process is to activate and “feed” that device, to get that device to work.

Although some people talk metaphorically about “exercising” the brain, Frank Smith reminds us that the brain is an organ, not a muscle. Like your kidney or your stomach, the brain doesn’t have to be “switched on.” You don’t have to “do” anything, per se, to get it to work.

You do need to give it something to work with, however.

The “something” that you need to feed your LAD in order to acquire languages is called input. Input is just another word for language exposure. In other words, you actually have to have some language coming into the LAD for it to do its magic – for it to acquire languages.

Now, there are a lot of disagreements about the details of second language acquisition theory, but I think this is one area in which almost everyone agrees: If there is no language input, there can be no language acquisition.

Two (and only two) kinds of input

There are two kinds of language input for most language acquirers: reading and listening. That’s it. Those are the two things you can use to get the input into your LAD. (We’ll leave aside the case of American Sign Language for now.) These two means of input – and only these two – must be present for language acquisition to occur.

Notice what is not included in this list: speaking and writing.

Speaking and writing are forms of output, and do not contribute directly to language acquisition. You can go home tonight, lock yourself in the bathroom for several hours, and speak to the mirror using all the high school French you can remember, and your French will not get any better.

The only way to improve your French is to read and listen to French.

Output does not help language acquisition directly, but it can contribute indirectly: If I speak or write to you, you are likely to reply. It’s the reply – what you say or write to me – that matters. That’s the input.

Any approach which attempts, especially at the lower levels, to “balance” input and output is bound to (will almost certainly) fail. Of course, we learn a language in part to speak and write it, but speaking and writing will not causelanguage acquisition. Only input can do that.

Obviously, then, most of what students do in a good language learning environment is read and listen – not play “games” about language, not manipulate the language through exercises for “practice,” not fill out worksheets or their high-tech equivalents. (Of course this doesn’t mean that they should have fun, as we’ll see in a minute.)

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