Approaching a second language acquisition
The aim of acquiring a language is to allow communication, to let convey and being understood. It is an ancestral need from the human being to have this communication capacity in order to survive, to grow, to prosper and to progress happily among his contemporaries. In normal circumstances, we acquire a language unaffectedly, i.e., we learn unconsciously what it is defined as our native language.
But, how long does it take to acquire a second language? There are many factors that may influence the timing in this process: age, natural skills, motivation, context etc. However, a method which can make students be able to communicate in a L2 as fast and as accurate as possible, taking into account the potential variation in the individual timing but pursuing a good average for any student within the process, might be one of the most suitable methods. Studying and learning are not synonyms, and although a mandatory minimum study is present in the learning of a L2, a method which provides an easy path to achieve the acquisition in the most natural way, avoiding hard studies which may discourage the students, it would be always a better option.
Maintaining this approach of communication as main goal, it is essential to emphasize the production of the students, based on constant inputs that will go providing the students the required tools to may do so. The acquirement of a vocabulary to allow communication must be settled on grammar structures, of course, and those must be taught throughout receptive skills, but it is vital to reinforce outputs by practicing its production, even though mistakes show up. We might transfer to students to feel free to try and to may fail in the attempt, encouraging their motivation and self-confidence, and helping them to know that, although corrections from the teacher are necessary to help them building the proper foundations, mistakes are natural in any learning procedure and that it is not a shameful fact at all. As a result, when we try to promote communication skills in students, we need to adjust teacher talk in class, providing the required inputs to orientate and extend their learning while we remark the support of their talking time and let them put up communicative strategies.
It is obvious that differences between absolute beginners and more advanced students are real and we must be aware of it to anticipate how to organize and prepare our syllabus at each case. Beginners can´t almost produce, they still have not the minimal base of the language to do so. Yet, the production at their pace, using communication strategies, it is essential to set up the habit of expressing comprehensible outputs, without embarrassment. Activities which introduce basic and simple structures contextualized in their daily routine, this is common functions, may be a good start for them to feel “they can speak”, as well as the introduction of these functions and a new vocabulary throughout cognates and body language, for them to check “they can understand”. From then on, we assist them to erect, step by step, a linguistic infrastructure clean of interferences and interlanguage that will end up in a proper communicative competence.
As teachers, when dealing with advanced students, the accurate assessment of their level and outcomes in the L2 and the ability to get adapted to their weakest points it is crucial to facilitate a good continuation of their acquisition process. At these intermediate and upper intermediate levels, output skills may be not that hard for the students, however, they may have acquired bad habits as interferences, interlanguage and incorrect pronunciation that we need to eradicate. Productive activities must be used to enhance their communicative skills.
If we are facing a learning process in which the aim of the student is the language proficiency, we should also call attention to literary language, promoting more highbrow reading activities and outputs such as precise writings and speeches, and help the student to build a strong foundation in more complex and cultured grammar structures.
Another factor of influence in L2 acquisition process, to be taken into account, is the age of the learners. Children have a higher plasticity to learn, no baggage that mentally interferes and a better capacity to welcome and retain new elements, since they are in this same progression for everything that surrounds them. So, acquisition comes more naturally, as they do not tend to transfer from the native to the second language, and it is free of apprehended complexes. Nevertheless, adults are backed by a motivation, a goal and previous learning processes to use as self reference.
In both cases, even when the teacher adapts the activities and grades the speech to the age of the students, eventually the concept of teaching skills do not vary too much.
The environment and the pace in a class is always an important factor that will influence the students and their motivation and attitude toward the learning process. Besides, affective factors that students develop with the subject to be learned and the teacher who teaches it are proved to be critically important. There is an attractive perspective in methods that underline the importance of eliminating negative barriers within a cheerful environment. To get close to L2 throughout certain stimuli as music, cinema, etc. in the conscious plane probably promote a subconscious learning, easier and more pleasant and, subsequently, facilitate a better motivation on students. Spanish people, in general, have a common feeling of shyness to speak a L2 they are learning. A person who may have an intermediate knowledge of structures in a L2 and may be able to understand whether reading or listening, gets blocked when verbalizing in L2 is required, due to a fear of not being able to communicate correctly and with the appropriate pronunciation. In every case, praising and enhancing self-confidence is a must, but a method that pays special attention to break psychological barriers down can be a highly successful approach in these specific cases.
As a conclusion, when a learner is not in the natural environment, i.e., not living in a country that has the L2 to be learned as official language, I would say that if it were possible to have a teaching process flexible and adaptable to each learner needs and goals, his/her individual circumstances and personal details, this would be the perfect method to acquire a second language. Nevertheless, building a method implies certain generalization and it is highly improbable to may customize 100% the teaching skills for each of its students. As a result, the best option would be a learning process based on criteria of flexibility and adaptability, which takes into account the affective factors, which enhances natural acquisition and subconscious learning, working on learning basis much more than on studying ones, reinforcing production skills from students while trying to collapse any potential physiological barrier they may have. Authentic materials to work with, authentic tasks to be demanded, inputs based on contextualized references, restriction of any translation from or into native language even in the hardest misunderstanding moments, visual and listening activities relied on students common leisure habits as it may be films, novels and music, etc., all these are essential elements to simulate a reflection of the most natural environment to acquire a language, as mentioned, to live in a L2 speaking country. A method that can transport the student to these coordinates not only in class but also outside the class, by guiding the student to set up some habits that may extend as much as possible this reflection to his every day, will lead to a very successful second language acquisition process.