Friday, June 22, 2012

Education, Language and Learning a Language

Hi guys,

One of the points that I mentioned in the post 'How to get 100% success in teaching a foreign language' was that around 90% students spend 9-12 years studying a language but still can't speak it. They may be able to parrot some sentences out, but they aren't autonomous speakers of the target language.

This is because they are 'learning' not 'acquiring'. By 'learning' I mean 'learning about'.

One of Steven Krashen's main points in the 80s was also that there is a distinct separation between 'learning' and 'acquiring'. He called it 'The acquisition-learning distinction'.

Now although he wrote a book on this in 1981 (31 years ago) titled 'Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning' we still find that in most schools and language institutes in Indonesia today language is still learned but not acquired.

I feel there are three reasons for this:

  1. The acquisition-learning distinction has not been socialized enough with potential and current teachers
  2. It is easier to test that language has been 'learned' rather than acquired (it can be tested just like any other subject)
  3. The text books which teachers are asked to teach from (and which are preparing for those tests) focus of course on learning rather than acquiring the language. 
There are also three reasons that those three reasons shouldn't hold us back on this:

  1. It is easy to socialize the acquisition-learning distinction
  2. The nation will get a far superior benefit from almost 100% of High School graduates being able to communicate autonomously in English rather than 10%. Besides that more students are going to do well in the final year 12 exam in they have been actually acquiring the language for 9-12 years rather than just studying it.
  3. Teachers want to see their students successful. If the focus is changed to being able to autonomously communicate efficiently in the language rather than just get good test scores. I believe teachers will accept the challenge and any changes in the curriculum that supports it.
I want to make this post short and sweet because I believe this is essentially a simple point, a simple fact with simple and easy application. I hope to do more in the application of this point in the coming years, around Indonesia if God grants me that opportunity.

If students acquire English starting from their first year of primary education, they will do well in the TOEFL exams for entry into Universities because they will be competent in the language. The main things that are tested in the TOEFL exam are Reading Comprehension and Correct Vocabulary Selection (usually in the form of multiple choice questions). Grammar is tested but somebody with purely a conscious understanding of grammar will most likely do badly. The student with a subconscious understanding of what fits and what doesn't will do much better in questions relating to grammar. This has been proven in numerous studies and I have seen it also in my own personal experience with language students here.

Further more even if only a slight increase in TOEFL scores and fluency are found (worse case scenario) wouldn't it still be better that most students graduate with a communicative competency in English? a B1-B2 (European standard) competency alone opens ups many opportunities for the individual including but not limited to trade, education, employment, contacts, the global village, cultural perspectives and professional development. Essentially we would be giving millions of people a gift for life, the gift of another language.

So I hope this post has inspired you to spread the message of language acquisition which essentially means a campaign against 'language learning' as there is simple not time for both and our priorities should be clear.

Keep on sharing, shining and changing lives!

Kindest regards,



  1. I was one of that students..let's say...12 - 20 years ago...hehehe. I was born and live in Bali for 29 years and you might know that Bali is known as tourist destination. I received my first English lesson when I was in first grade and the book I used was made for year 7 students. My school was a private school, and at that time public school didn't teach their students English. I got good mark in English, but I couldn't use it to communicate. Our teacher explained everything in Bahasa Indonesia and we never used English outside the English class. When I was in year 9, I studied English hard because I wanted to pass the National Exam (this is another nightmare that hamper the students to acquire English and prefer to learn it only) not because I want to be able to communicate in English. I believe that score-oriented is another factor that makes only 10% of the students can speak English. Do you think the position of English as a foreign language (not a second language) in Indonesia also affect this?

    1. It's because of stories like yours that I decided to start this quest and make this blog. Thank you so much for sharing! ^_^

      I think the position of English as a Foreign Language and not as a Second Language is only a small factor in the equation. For me English is not a "Second" nor a completely "Foreign" language in Indonesia because unlike most other foreign languages like German, Mandarin and Spanish most Indonesian children have regular contact with English through movies, songs, advertisements and of course school. Further more there are many similarities between English and Indonesian such as script and some vocabulary which all assists to make it less "foreign" and more "familiar".

      Through my observations Indonesians pick up English much more easily and better than Chinese, Japanese or Thai students (probably due to the reasons above).

      In fact I believe in only 2-3 years Indonesian students given the right kind of lessons can be autonomous and confident users of the language. It all depends on us. ^_^

      So I hope you will join my quest to spread the word Miss? Together we can change some lives! ^_^

      Regards and salams,