What do adults have to do to acquire a foreign language?

Every semester some students seem so confused about how a language is learned in an artificial, i.e., classroom setting, I suspect, because of their experiences in high school and the claims of the commercial DVD and CD products that are constantly being advertised on the media. I had one student ask “Why don’t you just talk to us in Italian instead of teaching us grammar?” Another said “This is too hard. I’m gonna go buy Rosetta Stone.” And I was kind of pleasantly shocked when one young woman told me “This class focuses too much on vocabulary. I’m here to learn Italian grammar.” In an attempt to clear up the confusion, I have written a non-technical, easy-to-understand series of statements about language acquisition and include them in my syllabi for elementary-level classes. Each student takes a turn reading a statement out loud as we go over the syllabus on the second or third day of class. In fact, I have the students read the entire syllabus to one another. They like to read out loud and hear each others’ voices. If I were to read the syllabus to them many would just tune me out, and God forbid they should read it alone on their own time. The idea of telling them how language is learned by college students originated the last time we discussed language acquisition in my intro to linguistics class. I basically tell the students that language is acquired in two ways. Before puberty children develop the language(s) they are exposed to naturally and effortlessly. Around puberty this ability shuts off. In a classroom situation, adults have to learn a language cognitively (I explain what “cognitively” means) and that takes effort. If anyone is interested in reading scholarly research on the subject, I recommend Language Acquisition After Puberty by Judith Strozer. I have appended the relevant portion of my Italian 1 syllabus to the end of this article. Please see below. But wait! What if there’s a better way for us to teach and our students to learn? If you’re onto something, please enlighten us. Also, what information about how language is learned in a classroom situation do you include in your syllabi?

This is what the students take turns reading to one another sometime during the first week of class:

Welcome to the study of the Italian language and Italian culture!

Italian 1 is designed for adults who are just beginning their study of Italian. It is important to know that a language is acquired in two different ways.

Because the brain is hardwired for language acquisition, children develop the language or languages they are exposed to naturally and without any instruction.

During puberty, this ability to develop a language by just “absorbing it from the environment like a child does” disappears.

That means that adults (from teenagers to the elderly) can no longer develop a language naturally but instead have to learn a new language by studying its structures and vocabulary in an orderly way and by practicing them, usually by communicating with others.

Linguists say that adults have to learn a new language cognitively, which means they have to consciously use mental processes such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment and their experience with their native language for learning to occur.

All modern language classes are “performance classes.” That means that everyone has to read aloud to the class from time to time and also converse with classmates during in-class activities, and do it all in Italian.

Don’t worry; if you pay attention, it’s pretty easy. And the instructor is always glad to help you.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes while speaking. Everybody makes at least an occasional mistake in a beginning language class. Please accept correction gracefully and learn from your mistakes. And never criticize others, not even in jest.

After the first week or so, during which time we will have fun greeting each other, introducing ourselves, learning to count, asking one another personal information questions, saying good-bye, etc., we will begin to focus on grammar (basically, how to form words and sentences) and vocabulary (words we need to know in order to talk about daily life, etc.) in a step-by-step fashion.

Grammar is usually easy and can be fun, like playing a game or solving a puzzle. It feels really good when you “get it.”

Vocabulary is fascinating, too. Many Italian words are immediately recognizable since Italian and English share thousands of words that come from Latin and the Romance languages. Most Italian words have interesting linguistic histories that make them easier to learn.

Please remember, Roma non fu costruita in un giorno! (Rome wasn’t built in a day!)

It takes time to “build” the language step by step, so in class please be patient, pay close attention, take notes with pencil and paper, ask questions till you understand, and then practice by conversing with a classmate.

Please trust the instructor, who has had many years of experience teaching foreign languages, to order the material in such a way that each day’s lesson builds on previous lessons. That way your knowledge of Italian will continue to grow in a useful way.

From the first day on, try to speak in simple sentences rather than just words.

Every semester, some beginning students are under the impression that learning a foreign language means just memorizing useful phrases. Nothing could be further from the truth The only way adults can become Italian-speakers is to study Italian grammar and vocabulary so they can gradually begin to create their own original sentences.

A great idea is to find classmates who are really serious about learning to speak Italian so you can use your Italian to communicate with one another outside of class. Everyone on campus will think you’re so cool because you can actually speak Italian to one another!

If there are additional words or expressions you and your friends want to use with each other, just ask the instructor after class.

According to linguistic research, a high school graduate knows approximately 60,000 words of his or her native language and has mastery of almost all of its structures.

It takes many years to learn all that in a second language, so at first you have to be content to limit yourself to what you can say in Italian and say whatever else is necessary in English. Please be patient and focus your energies on what we’re currently studying.

By coming to class and participating regularly and doing the homework, your ability to communicate in Italian will grow steadily.

Also, it is a good idea to reread the material we have gone over in class several times before the next class and even memorize a lot of it if you can. And definitely reread it before beginning to do your homework.

Before an exam always reread the entire unit, at least to make sure you know what all the words mean.

Take your book with you when you go to a place where you’ll have time on your hands, like some place where you have to wait in line for a long time to buy concert tickets.

Coming prepared to every class, participating actively in class activities, faithfully turning in your homework when it is due, and studying hard outside of class so you the material inside out is the only way to learn Italian and get a good grade in the class. If this hasn’t been your pattern in school, it’s time to make a change. You can do it! Everyone can learn new habits!

Sorry to say, it is disastrous to wait until the last few weeks of class to “get with the program.” You risk learning little if anything, and you will probably get a D or an F on all your exams and, therefore, as your final course mark.

Also, there is nothing you can do in the final weeks to make up for procrastination. There is no “last moment extra credit” because the goal of the course is to learn Italian, and it takes time for a language to slowly “brew” in your brain.

Exam scores are objective and are the best indication available of how much you’ve learned. That’s why final course marks are based mostly on the average of your exam scores. However, students who do not attend class regularly can not receive an A or a B in the course no matter what the average of their test scores is. In fact, it is departmental policy that students who miss six classes for any reason must be dropped.

In the final analysis, each student has to take charge of his or her learning. The instructor can show you the language, explain it to you, play with it with you, use it to communicate with you, but he cannot learn it for you. That’s not his job, that’s your job. Remember, Italian will not eventually come to you; if you really want it you have to reach out and grab it and make it yours!

Take some time and thought to figure out your own personal learning strategies and add to them as the semester progresses.

Although the focus of the course is learning the Italian language, Italian culture can be interesting, and knowing about it is important.

Culture includes history, geography, the history of the Italian language, art, music, sport, famous Italians throughout history, the regions and cities of Italy, politics, youth culture, current trends, scenic spots, Italian cuisine, holidays, the Vatican, religion in Italy, attitudes towards minorities, housing, Italian cars, the story of the Italian-Americans, and much more. Wikipedia and YouTube are excellent sources for Italian culture!

The instructor needs your cooperation in order to use class time in the best way possible.

Accordingly, please come to class promptly every time it meets, put your homework on the instructor’s table, find a seat, take out your textbook and open it to where we left off (it’s wise to use some sort of book marker). Open your notebook, too, and prepare to take notes by hand (no laptops, please).

When the instructor steps to the lectern and greets the class, please be silent immediately because that means it’s time to take roll and get to work!

Please do not ask questions that are “off topic” in class. The instructor will be glad to talk to you after class or at some other time you and he agree on.

However, during class time feel free to ask questions about the current lesson.

Learning a language is a human-centered activity, so please turn off your smartphones and/or any other electronic devices, put them in you backpack, purse or pocket and forget about them for the duration of the class. They are of no use in a language class, and many students have a hard time resisting the temptation to go online, text, etc.

Why not make a rule for yourself something like this one: “This is the time for focusing on Italian; I hereby free myself from slavery to my smartphone for the next hour and fifty minutes.”

However, if you you know you might receive an emergency call during class, please tell the instructor as soon as you arrive. If you have to answer an emergency call, please go out into the hallway to continue your conversation.

Also, please don’t waste your time by drawing during class time. You really have to rivet your attention on what’s going on in class to learn Italian.

If you find the class uninteresting you might want to consider dropping this semester and taking it some other time when you feel you can really concentrate. Or perhaps you might choose to study something else if you decide language learning is not your “thing.”





8 thoughts on “What do adults have to do to acquire a foreign language?

  1. Hi, Terri,
    You’re right. When I wrote that article I didn’t know how to activate a link. I’ll try to fix it today, If I can’t, I’ll just write another article containing “the relevant portion of my syllabus.” Thanks for pointing this out.


  2. Mille grazie for the prompt response, Dave. I’ve only just now discovered the site, and am sharing it with colleagues– very interesting and useful! Hope to meet you `in persona’ at the upcoming CCCFLC conference. A presto!


  3. Terri!
    Great to hear back from you. I’m so glad you’re telling your colleagues about the site. There is so much to discuss. Please tell them they can use a pseudonym, a screen name, if they want to remain anonymous. We’ll definitely meet and talk at the 2016 Conference at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, CA!
    Mille grazie per tutte le tue parole gentili!
    P.S. How did you discover the site?


    • Benissimo– I’ll let them know about the screen name, and look forward to meeting you later this year. And I found the link on the conference call email sent out a few weeks ago. Hopefully they can do more marketing to raise awareness of both the conference and the blog!


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