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The Natural Learning Approach to Second-Language Acquisition

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  • 0:04 Teaching English
  • 0:58 The Natural Approach
  • 2:18 The Role of the Teacher
  • 4:11 The Role of the Student
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Godfrey Gaddis

Heather has taught ESL/EFL in the United States, Mexico, and Turkey, and has a master's degree in Applied Linguistics.

The natural approach to second language acquisition is a theory of language learning and teaching that says learning a second language should be similar to learning one's first language.

Teaching English

It's throwback Thursday, and you see posts of your friends decked out in '60s bell bottoms or '80s disco chic. What were we all thinking?

Like fashion, English language instruction has had its fads in methodology and theories, each responding to previous theories and ideas and inspiring future language teaching. For example, the grammar translation approach to English language teaching, a grandfather in language teaching methodology, gave way to the communicative approach in the 1980s and 1990s. One major criticism of the grammar translation approach was that it divided language into grammar points with no context and focused solely on grammatical accuracy, the correct use of language. One common classroom activity was for students to translate texts from their native language to the target or second language. The communicative approach responded to this criticism by promoting fluency, or authentic communication, over accuracy.

The Natural Approach

Similarly, the natural approach to second language acquisition is a reaction against more traditional methods of teaching English. The natural approach shifts the focus away from language learning and teaching to acquiring a second language the same way that people acquired their first language, or mother tongue.

One way to think about this approach is that all humans, with few exceptions, learn to speak their first language from a very early age without formal instruction. We don't learn our first language the same way we learn chemistry or math; we acquire our first language through constant exposure to it. Our parents talk to us from the moment we're born, and eventually we start to take the words we have heard and put them together to form sentences. Naturally, we make mistakes, but our parents are usually able to understand and don't overwhelm us with corrections. Why can't we learn a second language the same way we learned our first language, which didn't take place in a classroom? That's the idea behind the natural approach.

Stephen Krashen, a researcher in linguistics, proposed the input hypothesis. The input hypothesis essentially says that you can only acquire a language if you are constantly exposed to comprehensible and meaningful input, or language in spoken or written form that you can understand. No comprehension means no language acquisition and no language production.

The Role of the Teacher

How can teachers apply the natural approach in the classroom? First of all, taking into account the input hypothesis, teachers need to make sure that they use language that their students can understand. This means being aware of their students' level of English when planning teacher talk time, including instructions, questions, and explanations. Teachers need to use simple sentences without complicated grammar or vocabulary when speaking to their students.

Implementing these approaches can be more difficult than they sound, and inexperienced teachers may need to plan instructions beforehand to make sure they're using simple enough language for their students. Another tool that teachers can use to make sure their speech is comprehensible, meaningful, and memorable for their students is the use of visual aids or pictures of key words.

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