How to Master a Language for Life
Just as children depend on their parents’ corrections to continually improve their linguistic proficiency, foreign language students require corrective feedback to progress and attain mastery.
Students who fail to receive such feedback inevitably stagnate and settle into inaccurate modes of expression. That is one of the reasons adult immigrants sometimes make scant progress in a language beyond an intermediate level over many decades, while children and teens always progress quickly and generally attain native or near-native proficiency within a few months or years.
Immigrant children receive constant corrective feedback from school teachers and peers, while social dynamics often prevent adults from receiving similar feedback.
The critical importance of receiving corrective feedback can also be understood from the viewpoint of “deliberate practice,” an influential theory on the development of expertise.
A seminal paper on the topic, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, written by Florida State University psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson, was published in 1993.
One of the pillars of deliberate practice theory is that practitioners in any domain must receive immediate, expert feedback on their performance in order to improve continuously and attain high levels of mastery.
This concept applies perfectly to the necessity of foreign language students receiving in-class corrections while practicing speaking with an expert (native-speaking) teacher. Consider the following excerpts from Ericsson’s paper:
“The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. […] In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence the mere repetition of activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance […] deliberate practice would allow for repeated experiences in which the individual can attend to the critical aspects of the situation and incrementally improve her or his performance in response to knowledge of results, feedback, or both from a teacher.”
We have seen that speaking brings languages to life. The conversation should be the primary focus of language classes, since other skills can be efficiently practiced outside the classroom.
However, simply speaking is not enough.
Just as student writing must be corrected, teachers should regularly provide corrective feedback to their students during a conversation.
Students intuitively, or empirically, are well aware of the importance of corrections—often even more than their teachers.
In nearly 20 years of experience, I have never received a student complaint about a teacher correcting too much; by contrast, many times, students have requested a change because although their teachers engaged them in enjoyable conversation, they corrected mistakes too infrequently.
How should these conversation-based corrections be made? Natural trains teachers to provide efficient corrective feedback by following six principles. Students anywhere can use these principles to assess their teachers’ performance with respect to feedback.
- Correct often
- Time corrections according to student needs (they should be as immediate as possible, but not stifle the flow of student speech)
- Make corrections that are appropriate for students’ level (not too advanced)
- Encourage students to self-correct (thus enhancing metacognitive awareness and promoting deliberate practice)
- Be sure students understand and absorb corrections
- Make note of the most important corrections (using our Lessons App)
The sixth point is enormously important for two reasons. First, registering corrections allows students and teachers to track topics that should be prioritized for efficient and balanced progress. Second, appropriately documenting corrections allows for all-important review activities.
As I will detail in upcoming posts, assimilating, internalizing, and mastering linguistic content requires that students encounter it multiple times, and review activities based on personalized feedback constitute the most efficient means to this end.
Send me an audio file right now for free corrections!
You can put the theoretical understanding you have just gained into immediate practice by sending me an audio file of you speaking in whichever language you are working to improve: English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese.
It should be between 2 and 5 minutes long and have good sound quality. One of our native-speaking teachers will provide you with customized corrective feedback free of charge.
Just choose a topic (you can view homework assignments if you need ideas), pick up your phone, open a voice recording app, and speak spontaneously for a few minutes. You can send it as an attachment to the email firstname.lastname@example.org, or upload somewhere the audio and send us the link there.
 K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406.
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