Language Learning as Skills Development

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” 

      -Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

“Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in the/your mind.”

      -Dale Carnegie

 

Do you remember the first time that you did something that you now do all the time, without even thinking about it? Do you remember the first time you rode a bike or drove a car? The first time you used a particular app or program? The first time you twirled spaghetti around a fork? Did you notice how the concentration of your first time turned into natural, automatic behavior after you repeated it enough? That’s how skills development works.

It might seem obvious, but we typically learn skills so that we can do things. Someone learns to drive a car, so that they can drive a car and go places. Someone learns to use a new app or program to help them create, organize or communicate. Development of a skill or ability is the objective. Learning is the route to achieving it.

Having someone explain or demonstrate how to do something is an important part of the learning process. But developing the ability to do something for ourselves is a whole different thing. It involves practice. We develop skills “by doing”.

So, actually driving a car is a crucial part of learning to drive. Cooking is part of learning to cook. Practicing the actual activity has to be integrated into the learning process.  If you ever go to a new dentist, hopefully your dentist’s education has not just been explanation and demonstration, but also a lot of practice. This is also true for surgeons, builders, hairdressers…

Language learning is also a skills development process.

We don’t learn another language to just “know” it. We usually learn other languages to communicate with other people. Sure, it’s necessary to develop knowledge of the language to do this, but this is not the end product, it is not the skill itself.

The end product is typically the ability to speak and communicate. But turning knowledge of a language into the ability to speak and communicate doesn’t happen by magic. It takes structured practice, and lots of it. With practice, things that were once hard to recognize and produce become natural and automatic. Speaking and communicating need to be integrated into the language learning process. They are both the objective and the means to achieving the objective.

I believe that language learning is about skills development. It’s about developing knowledge and the ability to put that knowledge into practice in real world professional and social settings. This is the basic principle that Fluent is based on. At Fluent, we want to help English learners become English speakers.

 

Welcome to Fluent!

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
“We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.”
-Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Hello! My name is Daniel and I’m the creator of Fluent.

After 25 years working in language learning and skills development, there have been a lot of influences on my thinking and approach. But the principles of seeing things from the learner’s perspective and viewing language learning as skills development have remained throughout. They came from a rather dubious beginning.

25 years ago I was a student in need of a summer job, so I talked my way into my first post as an English teacher. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting into but I thought “how hard can it be?” and jumped in. I quickly found out how difficult it could be.
I was in a room with a group of intelligent, diverse humans who didn’t really understand me or each other too well. They were tired of being herded through exercises in a textbook and they were frustrated by their inability to understand and express themselves. Worse still, they were looking to me for some form of leadership. My job was clearly to do a lot more than explaining grammar and vocabulary so I took the “radical” step of asking them what they wanted out of the class.
It turned out that, yes, they wanted to learn more English, but they also wanted to develop the ability to use what they knew. They wanted to have their minds engaged with subjects and activities that mattered to them. They wanted to be treated as human beings not language learning robots.
So, I experimented, focusing on what the students were actually doing, rather than what I was trying to explain. I looked for ways to get them to engage with English, learn and practice. It worked out well in the end. My students were active and engaged and they enjoyed their classes. They also made progress, (even if they probably taught me more than I taught them).
The principles of seeing things from the learner’s perspective and considering language learning as a skills development process have stayed with me ever since.

Working in language learning and skills development training has been an awesome experience. For the past 25 years I’ve worked as a teacher, program designer and director and have been able to travel, live in different countries and meet and work with some excellent and extraordinary people. I’ve enjoyed the personal and professional satisfaction that comes from helping people grow, develop and meet their goals. I’ve also managed to pick up a few languages and develop the ability to communicate (brutally) in Greek, Spanish and Portuguese.

Since my dubious beginning, I’ve learnt a lot about language learning. I’ve learnt from studying and from research. But mostly I’ve learnt from my own and other people’s experiences as language learners. I’ve learnt that although learning words, phrases and structures provides a necessary foundation, language learning goes far beyond that.

For me, language learning is about helping people develop the ability to communicate, express themselves and engage with the world beyond the boundaries imposed by their first language.
-It’s about building capability and confidence.
-It’s about creating a progressive, enjoyable learning experience.
-It’s about helping people stay engaged and motivated when the going gets tough.
-It’s about helping them appreciate how far they’ve come and how far they can go.
But probably most of all, it’s about helping people develop, grow and do things. It’s about helping them create new professional and social opportunities and achieve their potentials.