Is the "Natural Approach" to Language Learning Lazy and Ineffective?

Sep 27, 2023

I am a firm believer in the natural, self-directed, immersion-based approach to language learning. I'm not a "tattoo guy," but if I were, I'd get the word "IMMERSION" across the chest in big gothic lettering.

This is no armchair theory. My faith in this learning philosophy is the practical product of studying Linguistics in university, teaching languages to thousands of students, and reaching fluency in a few myself.

So what exactly is the "natural approach"?

In a nutshell, this language learning philosophy posits that humans acquire languages through exposure (input) and practice (output), not through academic study and conscious memorization.

Your immersion environment is your classroom. Authentic content is your teacher. The lesson plan is made up of podcasts, Netflix shows, and Kindle books you choose. I call this autodidactic approach "Anywhere Immersion," and it's not only more fun than academic study, but it's also more effective.

Given the existence of millions of unschooled polyglots throughout human history, this assertion should not be controversial. However, a quick dip into YouTube comments and online teacher forums reveals just how many people believe that the natural approach is not only ineffectual, but also a justification for laziness!

Serious learners, the "academic traditionalists" argue, need to do the "real work" of attending classes, studying complex grammar rules, and memorizing mountains of vocabulary. In their view, teachers and textbooks are essential, indispensable ingredients of successful language mastery. Without explicit language study and correction, they exclaim, language learners are forever doomed to sound childish, uneducated, and ungrammatical. The "scholastic approach," they assume, is the only way to master a language.

This is certainly a convenient position for those who profit from university tuition, cram schools, language classes, textbooks, and test prep materials.

Unfortunately for its proponents, the scholastic approach to language learning has the inconvenient side effect of being highly ineffective for the vast majority of learners.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the truth is that you can reach a high level of linguistic competence and grammatical accuracy without academic study.

As the polyglot Barry Farber put it, "You do not have to know grammar to obey grammar."

You did exactly this with your first language as a child and you can do so again in many additional languages as an adult.

Aren't there differences between first- and second-language acquisition? Of course. But the same basic principles and processes apply. And contrary to popular belief, adults can actually learn more quickly and efficiently than young children if they have the right attitude.

You may have learned to write in school, but you learned to speak naturally just by being surrounded by the language. Reading and writing are human technologies, but listening and speaking are innate, hardwired skills that all unimpaired brains will acquire with sufficient exposure and practice.

You may have learned the the names for parts of speech in 1st grade, but you learned how to use the parts of speech long before kindergarten. Sure, you mom or dad may have gently corrected your irregular past-tense verbs (*"I eated" → "I ate"), but it was repeated exposure, not overt correction, that finally led your brain to properly internalize the grammatical forms.

It turns out that the academic approach is not only unnecessary for fluency, but is often a major impediment.

Why? Formal language classes waste too much time on activities that don't build fluency. In most academic settings, a large percentage of time is spent:

  • Preparing for and taking formal tests. This leads to the well-known problem of "teaching to the test" and "curriculum narrowing." Some testing can be helpful since it leverages the so-called "testing effect" (i.e. retrieval improves long-term memory), but tests should be informal, low-stakes affairs that don't significantly impact one's grade.
  • Talking about the target language in one's native language. Too much emphasis is placed on "metalinguistic knowledge," and not enough on practice and practical application. The vast majority of class time should be spent listening, speaking, reading, and writing the language, not memorizing rules or studying how the language works.

While the occasional look at a grammar book or dictionary can be interesting, such conscious information is of little help during real-time communication. To understand and respond to rapid spoken utterances, your brain needs to have already internalized a wide vocabulary and the underlying rules of the language (i.e. the "grammar"). Such internalization is a gradual process that requires massive quantities of exposure to meaningful, interesting content.

In other words, fluency requires "unconscious competence" (the ability to automatically and rapidly understand and create the language without conscious thought).

At best, conscious academic study and memorization lead only to "conscious competence." This level of ability can be helpful in reading and writing (where you have time to think and look up words), but it's simply too slow and laborious for spoken communication. Memorizing the content of your language textbook may help you pass a written test, but it will not enable you to speak.

Getting the requisite quantity of listening and reading input to build up "unconscious competence" takes a lot of time, patience, and persistence. It is anything but lazy. It actually takes a lot of work. It just so happens that this work actually works.

Watching a Netflix series may be more enjoyable than forcing yourself through a dry textbook, but that doesn't mean it is easy or passive. Consuming authentic content and having conversations with native speakers takes courage, discipline, and consistent effort.

But the good news is that we have evolution on our sides. Our brains evolved to recognize, mimic, and repurpose complex linguistic patterns at a subconscious level if—and this is a big if—they get sufficient quantities of meaningful exposure and active practice. And that is precisely what the natural approach provides you.

To be clear, this is not a wholesale condemnation of language teachers or schools. I greatly enjoyed my time in academia and think the academy can play an important role in furthering our understanding of how the brain works and how we best acquire languages. In short, teachers and schools can help, but they are not required.

This is great news for the world!

The confluence of modern technology and our ancient, innate, natural language acquisition capabilities democratize language learning like never before. Fluency, and all the personal and professional benefits it bestows, is now within reach of anyone with an internet connection. Time and money are no longer the obstacles they once were. Not long ago, you had to jump on an airplane to immerse yourself in a foreign language. Now you can bring the language to you for free. It is not hyperbole to say that the 21st century learner can get fluent in any language, anywhere.

You still need to put in the time and effort, but that has always been true, whether learning in a classroom or studying abroad.

The choice is yours.