Every so often, I stumble across claims on the interwebs so outrageous that they immediately send me to the keyboard to write a blog post. As they say, the best way to complain is to create. One such example is the following statement I read on an education blog:

“Anything students need to know has to be taught, not caught.”

This sound bite seems logical to those who subscribe to traditional “sage on the stage” models of teaching, but it underpins a major misconception about language acquisition: the notion that languages can be taught at all.

The truth is that languages can only be acquired. Human language is a physical skill akin to walking. Parents and schools did not “teach” you how to walk; you figured it out through trial and error.

Language ability is much the same; you did not learn how to speak English because your parents or teachers taught you about “subjects” and “predicates,” the meaning of Latin or Greek word roots, or English case inflections. Many schools, educators, and parents have believe in the faulty notion that we have to teach children their language, when in reality, they will acquire the language around them automatically given sufficient input and chances to practice output.

The exception to this stance is writing, a human technology that does indeed need to be taught. Writing is a skill that requires massive amounts of reading input, and an equally massive amount of writing output. Having a teacher to give feedback on readability, mechanics, style, and writing conventions does help significantly.

One last thing: Perhaps the biggest reason grammar-based language teaching remains so common (despite disastrous results), is good old fashioned business. There is a lot of money to be made selling books, training teachers, running conferences, preparing students for tests, and selling cram school tuitions.

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