Is it possible to make learning languages child’s play?

A child’s aim, when learning its mother tongue, is to speak it fluently. This also applies to a student in a class using the Natural Approach. The aim is to develop communication skills.
For a child the learning process is subconscious. It acquires the communication skills not by learning grammatical rules, but step by step by listening and understanding. The Natural Approach method of acquiring language skills was created by the linguists Tracy D. Terrell and Stephen Krashen in the late seventies of the 20th century, and is based on this “natural way” of picking up a language. A vital prerequisite for understanding the Natural Approach is the ability to distinguish between learning in the traditional sense and acquiring a language, focusing on instinctiveness (as for example a child does).

The Natural Approach is based on the following five principles:
1. The aim of the Natural Approach is to foster the communicative competence, not grammatical perfection.

2. At the beginning of class, the emphasis is on listening. The teacher presents the students with a variety of easy to understand material (input). This input is always one level above the student’s communicative competence. This way, the students develop the ability to speak in the foreign language. Competence in a language cannot be learned. It has to be acquired. In class, the teacher should try not to use the students’ mother tongue at all.

3. The production of speech, as a response to listening, is developing over several stages:

At the beginning of the process of acquiring the language, the students speak without grammatical correctness. Slowly, because of additional reception and production, their ability to communicate verbally enhances. In class, grammatical mistakes that do not hinder the process of communicating are not corrected.

4. Activities that enhance the process of language acquisition are the main part of the class (input). The main focus is not on grammatical exercises. The amount depends on both the age and receptiveness of the students. For adults the ratio is 20 per cent of grammatical exercises to 80 per cent. This part of conscious learning serves as a monitor. This helps the students to check what they say or write for grammatical mistakes. In class, the students are not expected to make use of the monitor function.

5. The affective filter is especially useful. The aim is to keep this filter as small as possible, in order to achieve the best results. In other words, the less pressure there is on a student, the smaller the affective filter is. This is achieved by focusing on topics that are interesting to the students; topics they are able to relate to and are willing to share their opinion on. Another way of keeping the affective filter small is the fact that no student is forced to speak in the foreign language. This creates an atmosphere in the class room that is perfect to acquire a foreign language.

The common belief to the day is that knowing the grammatical rules of a foreign language is the prerequisite for communicative / communication skills. In a class based on the Natural Approach, the students express their opinion in a given situation and share their ideas. For these students the foreign language is communication tool.

For further information on the Natural Approach:

·        Krashen, S. und Terrell, T. The Natural Approach. Language Acquisition in the classroom Hayward: Alemany Press, 1983.

·        Tschirner, Erwin, Spracherwerb im Unterricht: Der Natural Approach in: Fremdsprachen lehren und lernen 25 (1996), 50-69.

·        Further information in the internet The Natural Approach - what is it?