Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

Language Variety. Click for credits.

Second Language Learning

This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.

If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.

Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.

Reading for (Self) Improvement

Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.

1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.

2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.

3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.

4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.

[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we're not alone in this. Just check 'literature' out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]

Book. Click for credits.

What to Read

In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.

Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)

No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.

Old Books. Click for credits.

Writing. Style & Content

Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.

If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.

Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?

But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.


As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)

A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s (Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.

Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.


Related posts:

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger
Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Power of Reading
Guess What is Better than Prozac
Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head
Books, Multimedia and E-learning
Locking Horns with a Young Roman
Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

Locking Horns with a Young Roman

Locking Horns. Fair use

In an earlier post we had said that our writings are finding free inspiration in the technique of dialectics which involves a dialogue we carry out 1) within our mind, 2) among minds (mostly through books) and 3) with readers.

As far as point 2) since we are not important persons, hence not in a position to recreate at our place a circle with top intellectuals, this virtual Symposium is what is left to us.

Which involves a certain number of virtual guests, a virtual guest being “a quotation or just a reference to a book passage“. Id est, the ideas of an author, dead or alive, participate in the discussion thanks to the greatest invention of all time: writing.

A Roman Warrior?

I was trying to explain this whole “Virtual Symposium & Writing” concept to this young (and uncouth) Roman, some time ago.

We locked horns a bit, like males sometimes do, but the fight was worthwhile. Yes, I really think it was worthwhile, beyond a doubt.

Here is therefore the conversation we had on this topic.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“What??? – said this 22-year-old dear student of mine while he was reading my method post. “How horribly dull this whole thing is! Just intellectual masturbation!”.

Romans are blunt, no doubt. Understatement has no home here.

Being hit by what he had said, I played it cool and replied:

” You are entirely wrong, and I’ll prove it to you. People usually think that the Internet was one of the greatest revolutions, allowing for example almost lightspeed communication or e-learning.”

“I know it too well cazzo“.

Being a web programmer trying to learn ‘Operating Systems’ from me he started raising his voice (he’s such a good boy but he can get pretty emotional.)

“We were talking about intellectual masturbation, what the f*** has this to do…”.

“Wait a moment– I snapped – what I do mean is we forget a much bigger revolution. We forget the invention of writing. And why was it a major breakthrough? Because it allowed for the first time storage of human knowledge (accounting, math, inventions, manuals, encyclopedias, thoughts etc.). Storage of knowledge: think of it, per Bacco! What the hell would they invent computers for, if writing wasn’t there??”

I realised my voice was rising too. I can get pretty emotional as well. I saw he was starting to be sort of conquered, but people in their twenties have endless energy.

“We were talking about a Symposium. Where are you aiming at prof, eh?”.

“Be patient, I am sticking to the point”. My voice was getting pretty authoritative (although he was right, of course.)

Stonehenge. Fair use

“We know nothing about Stonehenge people – I said firmly – or about who invented fire. From the day writing was invented in Mesopotamia we know all, or enough, of what has happened. This miracle started roughly from the end of the 4th millennium BC onward, in the region where today are Irak and Kuwait, huge hard disks and server farms being only a simple consequence of this.”

He was getting nervous, I clearly felt it.

“Here in the West first came volumina, rolls of papyrus or animal skin. Later, in the II century AD, appeared the books we all know. People could read and learn what other people had thought from different parts of the world, even from different eras. This was the revolution. A big one. Humanity boosted forward. Experiences added incrementally. Reading the works of Plato in ancient Rome was a sort of Distant Learning, although nobody called it that way.”

I made a pause. He was quiet now.

“Another great invention was then added, printing, making the whole thing explode. When we think that printing was only starting in 1450 AD, but that around 1500 AD 40,000 books were already produced and catalogued, we have an exact idea of the effects that a further big technological leap like printing had added in the context of human culture: during only 50 years, more books were produced than those created during the previous 2000 years! Of course the big thing was writing, not printing, though printing added a lot of fuel to the fire, boosting the whole process tremendously. Did you get what I mean boy?

He was not nervous any more, he was actually staring.

“The process could not be stopped – I continued implacable. Napoleon kept Caesar‘s De Bello Gallico (or Homer’s Iliad) on his bedside table and became every day a better general. I am reading Just for fun by Linus Torvalds and delving more and more into Linux, leaving Microsoft behind. I will never meet this Linus Torvalds superstar, but is it that important? He has already told me the essentials of his mind”.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

I made another pause. Longer this time. I perceived he had started reflecting so much though he was trying to hide his feelings to me. Mine was a dirty trick, of course, since I know he’s crazy about Linux, although it is true I have almost finished great Torvald’s book. I sort of perceived he was conquered. A seasoned teacher always knows when it happens.

After some silence he said:

“You mean your symposium is communication among minds thru books, beyond space and time?”

“Yes, Massimo, exactly. I talk to people this way. This is my Greek Symposium: having great (medium or even small) minds interact with mine.”

Massimo was still staring at me apparently conquered although I somewhat underestimated the tremendous force deriving from youth, exactly like the Romans felt the barbarians were conquered, but they were not. He in fact abruptly backfired, in a style typical of male competition: it is biological, but there’s affection in these games.

“You comparing yourself with Napoleon eh? This is not the point though. You know what excites me about this whole thing Prof ? You know what?” he said.

“Tell me Massimo”.

I was starting to get a bit worried, though my voice kept calm and controlled.

“Well, since I guess most of these people are dead, it is like you having intercourse with corpses or mummies, isn’t it, Prof. Ah ah ah ah. Pretty macabre and pretty perverted, Prof, don’t you think? Ah ah ah ah. Pretty macabre and pretty perverted ah ah ah”.

Sometimes people from villages around Rome or in Latium love to repeat things twice.


Gosh was I stunned (though amused, I’ll confess.) His laughing was so crass. Romans can be so terribly crass, to tell you the truth. Additionally, he said this in such vulgar Roman slang (a bit closer to Latin than Italian) I do not dare to translate it here.

I soon had to tolerate his laughing loudly again while he was leaving classroom (time for a break), together with his ancient malicious look, which sort of hid a feeling of sympathy, which I clearly felt, not many doubts about it, type of man-to-man thing.

Holy S***! This new generation of Italians! Besides, another CSI fan?

I hate CSI. I really do. It corrupts youth. There can be no doubt about it. There can really be no doubt.


References. Antinucci, F. (1993) Summa Hypermedialis (per una teoria dell’ipermedia), in SISTEMI INTELLIGENTI / anno V, n. 2. (Francesco Antinucci is a valid Roman intellectual, psychologist and writer. We will talk about him again: see the post Books, Multimedia and E-learning)
Derry T.K. – Williams T.I., (1960), A Short History of Technology, Clarendon Press, Oxford (old though still an outstanding text on history of technology and its influences on human culture & education)


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