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Letters to the editor

Do write to us with your views about the English language and any questions you may have.

Dear Sirs

I started learning English many years ago when I was at school. I have a friend who is interested in learning English now but he is a complete beginner and he does not believe that it is possible to learn a foreign language from the beginning without being taught in his mother tongue (he would prefer to be taught English in Russian!) I have tried to convince him that this is not the best way to learn. Do you think I am right?

Yours faithfully

Vladimir Petrovsky
St Petersburg

The Editor's reply

You are quite right in trying to convince your friend to learn "English through English"; not by listening to a teacher speaking his mother tongue. Most people agree that, whatever we are learning, we learn by doing, not by listening to explanations about how to do something. This is as true of language learning as of learning to drive a car. In the past, teachers often used the student's mother tongue, but experience has proved that this method was not effective for people who wanted to learn how to communicate in the foreign language. It is vital that students learn the language, not about the language. We learn language more effectively by using it, not by talking about its structure.

Some people believe that it is useful to learn the grammatical rules of English in their own language. Again, experience shows that this is not effective and can cause great problems. People who have tried to learn a foreign language in this way often find it very difficult to communicate spontaneously. They tend to think about the rules before putting a sentence together. This means that they react very slowly and hestitatingly when people speak to them. They also tend to translate everything in their minds before speaking, and when they speak it does not sound natural. People learn a foreign language effectively by being exposed to the language and practising it.

Learning a language involves a lot more than understanding words and grammatical rules. It requires the ability to put this knowledge into practice, (that is, to communicate). This also involves understanding what people say to you. This is difficult if you have never heard the language being spoken!

So, encourage your friend to start learning. He will be surprised at how much he learns in a short time.


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