Posted by: lyonenglishnetwork | July 11, 2011

The time dynamic and language learning

The time dynamic ? Doesn’t that sound complex ?

There was a time dynamic in the theory (or theories – I’m no expert) of relativity (or relativities). But in language learning there is one too. It took me quite a long time to learn French, my first foreign language. It started in school when I was about 9. We started off by learning names of vegetables and body parts. I had reasonably good grades at school but I wouldn’t say I could speak the language. I went through 3 French exchanges, which were a really good motivator and I have to say really did help. I went through one trip to Bordeaux when I was about 17 which was supposed to really boost my French; in fact, despite the daytime lessons, in the evening, I often ended up in the pub with English people. My first two years of university were spent in seminars or in small groups “trying” to speak French. In hindsight, I have to say, though, that the moment my French really took off was the beginning of my year abroad, in St. Brieuc, Brittany. Even after that, it took time. Now I can speak French pretty much fluently, manage in most situations and I would assess myself as being in the C2 bracket as a French speaker, that’s the top bracket of the European framework for languages

(in French – here:éen_commun_de_référence_pour_les_langues)

But you don’t get to being at that level overnight; or at least, most people don’t.

I had one of my students recently who mentioned that her dad, a French man, had mastered Italian in no less than 2 weeks, but I think that’s either not true – to what level did he actually get? , or exceptional. The student herself, though, says she doesn’t particularly like languages and isn’t making a great deal of progress. I have to admit she isn’t the only one. I hope it’s not because I’m a bad teacher (I try a variety of techniques, TPR, discussion, role play, grammar, listening – in fact, over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve been in teaching I think I’ve tried pretty much everything.) I believe in language acquisition because it’s how I learnt French and I know that when you’re talking to someone you simply haven’t got time to go look it up in a book; you have to be on the money straightaway. So I spend half my time in the lesson trying to give students some kind of input. The other half is spent on what’s called in the trade “production” – speaking or writing. The problem I think I’m finding is, although I encourage students to do work outside the class, and some of them do, the other half don’t and they just turn up for the lesson week-on-week thinking they’re doing the right thing. I’m stagnating! – they tell me. Well, of course, you’re stagnating you haven’t done any work! If you go away from a language class, come back the next week and haven’t learnt any new or fresh words to put into the conversation, how do you expect to improve ?

I’m learning Spanish at the moment; I started a couple of years back and didn’t really get very far. Recently, though, I’ve made real progress and can feel myself thinking in the language. There’s no doubt in my mind that speaking French helps a great deal for the Spanish. But I’m doing something every day. 10-15 minutes only but it’s really enough to go on in leaps and bounds. Ideally, it would be nice to have someone to speak to from time to time in Spanish but perhaps not every week. So, back to our time dynamic. I’m sure that 10-15 minutes on weekdays (5 days a week) is better than one 1 1/2 hour class. It’s roughly the same time 15 * 6 = 90 minutes but the regularity of it is better. It gives the mind time to mull over in the day what you’ve learnt each day.

For an English learner, I believe it’s key to listen carefully in order to acquire vocabulary; it’s the only way, you’ll really master the dreaded irregular verbs the teacher told you to learn as a list in school. Most of my learners don’t know them at all and aren’t able to use them; it’s because, I think, they aren’t far enough along in the acquisition process to use them. It’s the same for phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are verbs you really need to get a feel for as a foreign language learner; it’s hard for a French person to understand verbs like “find out”, “figure out”, “look for”, etc. But if you’re learning them one-by-one, in bite-size chunks, in 10-15 minute periods every day, you will gradually get them. Of course, your 10-15 minute period can be longer than that especially at higher levels or as you get used to it.

But for some people 10-15 minutes that they can do anytime, in the morning, at lunchtime or in the evening is far more flexible than a set 1 1/2 hours ever week and that’s all they get! It seems to me, to make more progress, you really need more.

It still will be necessary to speak at some point but what’s the point in speaking when you’ve made no real progress between speaking classes ?



  1. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say!! Many people say they don’t have the 10-15 mins a day, so I send vocabulary/expressions/grammar feedback on one sheet of A4 and tell them to stick it on the toilet door. Don’t believe they do though. Why not? As you say, often students just turn up to lessons thinking that is enough.


    That is the key – taking personally responsibility and control of your learning.

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