When children learn to speak, the process is typically regarded as natural and eventual; that is, it will happen in due time. In becoming readers, however, the process is regarded as anything but. If we consider that each of these processes involves learning a language, what might be the factors that make learning to read, learning to write, or learning a second language so much more difficult than learning to speak in the first place?

As with most progression, the conditions make the difference.

Brian Cambourne, a pivotal theorist in the New Zealand literacy movement, proposes the existance of 7 conditions of language learning that are present in all successful cases of acquisition. This applies to learning to speak a first or subsequent language, read, write, or perform any other communicative function that might be called a language. This theory has major implications in the home, modern classrooms, and other situations in which the goal is fluency for the learner.

Before birth, children begin receiving a "language flood" that continues throughout their development. They not only hear sounds and words every day, but they hear meaningful language. While the flood is important, emphasis should be placed on the communicative (or meaningful) nature of the stimulus.

In plain English, the learner has to be in an environment which is inundated with necessary and applicable uses of the target language. If you want to teach a child to write, you have to flood them with situations in which writing is paramount. If you want to learn to speak Italian, the best way to do it is to spend 6 months or a year in Italy, where the language can wash over you and you need to drink it to survive.

All around a child learning to speak are model speakers. Seeing holistic, successful demonstrations of the language enables the child to develop the conventions of expression for that particular medium of communication.

We need to see the big picture. A beginning reader should see fluent readers in action; this is why it's so vital that you read to your child from a very young age. In a foreign language classroom, this means students need to see native speakers using their language in everyday practice. This is why we tell new noders to read and take some time before submitting write-ups of their own--they need to observe more experienced writers first, if they're to be successful.

With few exceptions, all parents fully expect their kiddos to speak.

Yet when a child enters a classroom, it is questionable whether they will learn to read and write. Parents don't have grand debates over methodolgy the way educators go back and forth about phonics and whole language instruction. Similarly, many of my students in foreign language classes entered with the attitude that they might learn a few things, but they would never be able to "speak like a real person" in the target language. The goal of fluency is a reasonable expectation that must be established to support the acquisition of the student.

A child might acquire language at their own pace, but we're confident they'll acquire that language eventually. The idea of individuality, often expressed in the celebration of "first words" and varied personality types, allows the child to have control and responsibility over their ability to speak.

How often do we celebrate a child's preferred reading style? In reading, children are all expected to perform tasks the same way, at the same time. They are discouraged from writing in their own dialects, or in their own styles, and are met with grammar lessons and standardized reading materials. In order to give beginning readers responsibility, we have to allow them choice. Just as you spoke successfully when allowed to choose your own words, a reader performs better with a book self-selected and a foreign language student will invest more focus on phrases and conventions they're interested in. Such autonomous choices promote responsibility and fluency among learners.

Babies don't pop out speaking perfect English. Not only do we expect error, we encourage it and use it as opportunity for instruction.

Enter a typical classroom when a child is writing a story. Notice the red marks all over that misplaced period, that dangling participle. A student practices saying "My name is Joe," only to have the professor give them a bad grade for inaccurate verb conjugation. For language acquisition to be achieved, there must be room for risk-taking. Mistakes can be one of the most valuable teaching tools in language learning, yet in so many situations language approximation is considered failure.

If a child says, "Mommy I goes now sleep," the mother is most likely to either accept the input completely or model a more effective way. "Oh, you're going to sleep now?" or "I'm going to sleep, too!"

With enough attempts, the child's approximation will lead them to the correct convention. Moreover, since the discovery was their own, they're more likely to retain knowledge of that convention.

In communicative settings, your output is met with feedback. Learning to speak, your parents probably spent a lot of time replying to your speech. "Oh, you're going to sleep now?" confirms for the child not only a more effective way to say what they meant, but also that their message was received and understood.

Reciting German verb tenses to yourself in the mirror won't make you fluent in Berlin. Writing fifteen nodes a day wouldn't help improve your writing much if you didn't have peers to /msg you with criticism, helpful ideas, encouragement and other feedback. Communication is a two-way signal; the learner needs confirmation that their signal has been received and was appropriate if they're to improve.

We talk to children--even before they can talk back, we ask them questions, tell them stories, and treat them like contributing members of the conversation. New talkers are given many opportunities to to use their language; they are given employment.

In French class, you were rarely engaged in the language. Taking notes, doing repetitive pronunciation exercises and studying verb charts doesn't allow you to employ the language as a communication tool. Too often students are expected to succeed via grammar lessons and phonics workbooks, when the effective solution involves active employment in real communicative activities. For example, rather than doing an exercise on I vs. Me, a child might write a story about him/herself and then edit it with a peer.

While a child's development as a speaker of their native tongue is regarded as natural, we don't have to assume the process is inexplicable or out-of-reach. We can use the success of that development to modify the other systems of acquisition already in place.

I've used the terms "learning" and "acquisition" interchangeably in this write-up, though they can have rather different meanings. Cambourne uses "learning" in a traditional sense. It is growing more popular, however, to use the term "acquisition" when one is speaking of autonomous strategies and to use "learning" in reference to specific skills or tasks. For example, "I acquired the language some time ago but I've only recently learned how to spell without consulting a dictionary."

The information contained in this write-up can be found on the web and in various textbooks, I'm sure. Instead, I paid a rather large annual sum over four years for the privilege of having these concepts imbedded into my skull forevermore.

A while ago I decided to learn some Arabic. There was but a paltry choice of books for the purpose at Waterstones, and I bought ‘Arabic for Dummies: the fun and easy way to start speaking Arabic’. Normally I can do without the ‘For Dummies’ series and its relentless chumminess. ‘Windows for Dummies’ left me poker faced and not a lot wiser. This time I decided I would try to ignore the buddy-buddy style and concentrate on the language, but it is not easy to tune out the chirpiness, especially where it makes matters ten times more complicated than an even slightly more academic approach would. The section on pronunciation is so eager not to scare you off with technical terms that it is virtually opaque:

Name of letter: Daad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘d’ sound, the exact same sound as a Saad, except that you use a ‘d’ instead of an ‘s’.

Got that? What do you reckon a ‘deep’ /d/ sound might be? ‘Deep’ is way too subjective an adjective to describe usefully the quality of a phoneme, no more helpful here than ‘chewy’, ‘bitter’ or ‘medium-sized’ would be in its place. And how can a /d/ be ‘exactly the same’ as an /s/?

Name of letter: Saad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘s’ sound you can make if you open your mouth really wide and lower your jaw.

I’m trying to visualise this. Can you open your mouth without lowering your jaw? I think not. What you certainly cannot do is open your mouth really wide and produce anything that sounds like a /s/, ‘deep’, or ‘crisp’, or ‘even’. This is not the only contortion of the vocal tract one is required to attempt. Try this:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

You might want me to run that by you again:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

If you manage this, do please contact me and explain how. I mean, you don’t need a degree in linguistics to work out that the ‘th’ in ‘those’ (a dental fricative) is phonated with the tip of the tongue brought close to the upper front teeth in order to narrow the passage for the outgoing air. So how do you ‘draw this to the back of your throat’ unless you swallow your dentures?

The writer also seems to think that English is a Romance language and tells us that in Arabic, adjectives follow nouns, ‘unlike in most Romance languages’. Is there a Romance language in which adjectives do not usually follow nouns? I do wish people would check their facts before making such pronouncements about language. I’m sure ‘Windows for Dummies’ would have been assiduously purged of technical inaccuracies before it was inflicted on the public, so why should language books get away with this sort of sloppiness?


About twelve years ago in Athens, I became fascinated by Albanian and began to learn it with occasional help from my kind neighbour Violetta, an ex-actress from Tirana. To start off with, I had only one little book of parallel texts, ‘Dialogë Shqip-Greqisht’ one page in Albanian, the facing page in Greek. The texts were all flat footed teach-yourself-book dialogues of the sort parodied in Ionesco’s ‘La Cantatrice Chauve’, where a Mrs Smith, in casual conversation, informs her husband what the two of them had for dinner and how many children they have, as though this were news to him. In my Albanian book two people fall into conversation on an airliner and as it goes bowling down the runway one tells the other ‘the aircraft is gaining speed’. Still, I reasoned that even if the writer lacked any ability to reproduce natural-sounding human speech, I could still get a fair amount of vocabulary from his little book, which was in any case the only one on offer at the time. There was another eccentricity that took some forgiving, though. The writer created dialogues in which, for example, a foreign visitor to pre-1990 Albania is being shown around a farming co-operative and learning of the proletarian joy that reigns among its members: ‘bujqësia po lulëzon!’ (‘agriculture is blooming!’) Then someone, perhaps the writer, perhaps the editor, had arranged the lines of the dialogues in alphabetical order according to the first letter of each line. Thus, if a dialogue opened with ‘tungjatjeta!’ (hello) and ended with ‘mirupafshim!’ (goodbye), the farewell would always precede the salutation, with the rest of the exchange scrambled all around them, or between them, or above or below, depending on the letters that kicked off each line. It was incredibly frustrating to read, and all the more so because it was perhaps inspired by an addled memory of legitimate language practise tasks where scrambled dialogues are presented to be reordered, but with recognition of the need for judiciously-placed contextual clues, the limited value of the task, and the limited attention (and life) span of the learner.

American travel writer on Albanian: ‘Occasionally a French sounding word surfaces, like qen meaning 'dog', but otherwise Albanian is completely unlike any other language’. (My emphasis) Oh, for God’s sake… French chien and Albanian qen both derive from Latin canis. Albanian forms a single branch of the Indo-European family. It has a considerable amount of Latin-based vocabulary and its grammatical structure is unmistakably of the Indo-European stripe. So let’s have no more of this nonsense, or I shall be handing out lines and order marks.


In the mid nineties a colleague and I wrote two practice test books for Greek schools. When the first book saw the light of day, we were dismayed to find that changes had been made without our permission. I had included a dialogue, based on my own experience, in which a man in a book shop is trying to find a copy of the relatively rare ‘Colloquial Albanian’ by Isa Zymberi, a book that does actually exist but somehow never made the best seller lists. Our editor had decided that a textbook with any mention of Albanian would never sell to Greek schools, and changed ‘Colloquial Albanian’ to ‘Colloquial Mexican’. Somewhere there will be teachers who suppose that it is Costas and I who don’t know that Mexicans speak Spanish and that whole gondolas of teach yourself Spanish books are to be found in any book store.

A feature of our test books was sets of questions prompting students to reflect on how they arrived at their answers to listening tests. The hope was that Greek teachers would, finally, start to focus their charges on the thought-processes that lead them to a response rather than simply rewarding them for being right or slapping them down for being wrong. These meta-cognitive questions were a bugger to devise in such quantity, and so it was galling to find that the editor had amended some of ours to such ink-wasting banalities as ‘which is the right answer?’ Some changes were necessary for the sake of the pagination, but others seemed merely to demonstrate that editors have egos too. We learned that inaccuracies and absurdities in language textbooks are not necessarily the fault of the writer whose name appears on the cover, but may be the work of those who get to monkey about with the text once the writers are safely out of the way and it is too late for them to protest.

Teachers’ feedback on our books was positive. People thought the listening scripts were funny, nobody spotted the ‘Colloquial Mexican’ solecism, or if they did, they did not mention it. Everyone simply ignored the meta-cognitive stuff, having no idea what it was intended to accomplish.

EFL books have a short shelf life, a couple of years or so. Not only do Greek language schools get through test books the way whales get through krill, it also doesn’t take long before the photos look dated and fourteen-year-old students are unable to focus on the language because they are too busy hooting at the characters’ quaint clothes, naff trainers and clunky mobile phones. Our books are still around somewhere, many probably frayed, damp and termite-munched in third world classrooms. You can buy them on Amazon, but nobody does. Last year’s royalties: one euro and fifty cents!

Originally a blog post

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