The Importance of Practice in Second Language Acquisition

Kenya, the cradle of civilization boasts immense natural beauty. What better place to learn a new language other than in paradise?  Learning a language as an adult in Africa requires a high level of self-awareness. Most Africans learn several languages as children. They learn the European language in school and spend a lot of time on grammar lessons in textbooks. They are exposed to the language for years before they ever have to use it to communicate.

Time is an important component in learning a language. One must spend time listening to the language, practicing the sounds of the language and developing comprehensible input.  To learn a language you must practice the language and make errors. The native speakers of the language must allow you to make errors in the language without excessive criticism or ridicule to encourage continual practice of the language. They must allow you to speak the language poorly because it is only through speaking the language poorly do you learn to speak it fluently.

Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds registers initially in the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. Neural activity is diffuse, because the brain has not learned the acoustic patterns that distinguish one sound from another. As exposure continues, the listener and the brain learn to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words. Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory (temporal) cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals. Continual exposure allows both the simple and complex circuits to activate at the same time and easier. The process exists for everybody, yet we tolerate this process more readily with children.  We expect children to take time to learn new words and to mispronounce initially. We expect adults to be proficient in this process –and they are in their native language but not if they are learning another language.

So repetition is a key component in acquiring language. In order to replicate the process of a child learning a language through natural dialogue of expressing needs and wants with a caregiver, I use technology. I have recordings of the language, which I listen to for hours each day. I use the book and recording to ensure the association, which allows for comprehensible input.

I repeat the greetings on the recording many times a day so that the sounds of the language become familiar and natural in my mouth.  I greet and quickly walk away. I don’t want a critique or evaluation of my pronunciation. The point is to simply speak and practice making the sounds. Pronunciation improves with practice.

The sounds of all languages are made in the upper respiratory system. Air enters the mouth and nose and passes through to the lungs and then is expelled from the lungs up through the respiratory system to make unique sounds. So the muscles in the lungs throat, mouth and nose must be trained to make the unique sounds of the target language. These muscles become proficient through practice. The flexible muscles of a child allows a child to make these sounds easier which gives the appearance that the children learns language faster. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because by pronouncing the words correctly people assume that you understand the meaning and thus less overcorrection.

This next component of the cerebral system underlying communicative competence is not associated with a particular anatomical area or functional system, but associated with all higher cognitive functions, the activation threshold. The neural substrate of any mental representation requires a certain amount of impulses to reach activation. Each time a (word is used, its activation threshold is lowered, making it easier to activate again. The activation threshold slowly rises when inactive, as reflected in recency, frequency and practice effects, and in attrition. So one must practice and practice consistently by speaking to activate recognition of the word.

Practice in communicative environments internalizes the grammar. Repeated exposure and use of sentences of a certain type, lead to the acquisition of the implicit computational procedures that eventually allows for the automatic comprehension and production of sentences in this form. Strong motivation may have the same effect as practice by lowering the activation threshold. So I practiced with salespeople in stores. They are much more motivated to communicate and respond.  So stores and craft booths became my communicative environment.

I had the responsibility to create an environment conducive to learning a language similar to the encouraging environment in which a child learns. I practiced listening to the recording of the Kiswahili with the book. I use my computer and mobile to practice with language learning games. I listen to the same words and practice the same words without extraneous and negative feedback. I listen to music in the target language and focus on recognizing familiar words. I practice reading and decoding in the target language to further expose my brain to neural activity, which is comprehensible.

After listening to a lesson on foods, I would go to a restaurant and practice asking about various foods. Since the waiter is only interested in me as a paying customer, s/he is less likely to be a language critic.  I practiced with children choosing the theme such as animals, numbers, objects in the environment etc. It is amazing what good teachers children can be and they don’t seem to need to lecture.

Overall, I think the Kiswahili people appreciated my desire to learn their language. I was treated very well in this country. They often reminded me that we were family and called me their sister. They showed me kindness, which I will always appreciate. They didn’t hesitate to translate for me and always communicate to me in English when I was confused or needed information. I bought lots of Kiswahili books and next visit I will be well prepared to practice more.  I heartily recommend paradise as a place to learn a new language. Kwaheri rafiki.



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9 responses to “The Importance of Practice in Second Language Acquisition

  1. Bart Dioquino

    That’s really a good and educative blog. As I went on reading your blog, I learned that we have to tolerate somebody’s grammar when speaking and learning a second language. It also implies that repetition in listening and speaking improves our learning capacity. Socializing and exchanging words with the native speaker. Thank you for that wonderful thoughts you’ve shared to us.

  2. Habari,
    Well, seemed you really loved this paradise and enjoyed everything about it.
    Am sure the Swahili people you interacted with also benefited and loved your stay with them.


  3. Great piece! Especially like the use of salespeople and your efforts to avoid teacher-style correction.

  4. Thank God for brain´s plasticity!

  5. jorge antonio alveldano

    Hi May God bless you my name is jorge and I read your letter and I want to encourage you to continue what you had been doing oneday you will I need receive you reward. I would like to ask what I need to do to participate in this program I love teaching and help other people to become better for the sociaty.

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