Generic skills: For those about to learn English

Paul Johnson

January 6, 2020

     For those about to learn English – we salute you! My apologies to Australian hard rock group AC/DC for wilfully adapting the title of their iconic album released in 1981: For those about to rock (we salute you), but I share their respectful sentiment when it applies to people who wish to invest their time and often, their money, in learning English when it is not their rst language.

     Now, let’s approach the practicalities by considering two thought-provoking questions. Firstly, exactly how do you learn English, or any second language for that matter? For- tunately, there is an enormous amount of research in the behavioural science of language acquisition that can guide us in determining the answers and even better, experts to guide us through it all. One such expert is Steven Pinker, a well-known and highly re- spected cognitive scientist at Harvard University, builds on the approach initially raised by Charles Darwin and echoed by the linguist Noam Chomsky that language learning is a human instinct. Communicating in a language is instinctive to humans just as spinning a web is an instinct of spiders: neither specie needs to be trained as they are hard-wired to perform these functions. Professor Pinker contends that the instinctive behaviour of language learning can be thought of as an evolutionary adaptation similar to the human eye [2]. As young children, we learned our rst language from reading, listening to our peers, parents and teachers and we applied many of these techniques to learning further languages. As children we learned grammar syntax (the correct word order) from induc- tively examining phrases in spoken or written sentences. We began to deduce semantics (word meanings) from the context of a sentence. We started to categorise words and phrases for particular uses.

     For many of you, our second question may be more to the point; can an adult learn and master English, or is it too late? Here, we refer to the critical period of language ac- quisition in a person’s life. These are the years of our lives when the learning ability and ultimate attainment (or retention) of a language are at their peaks. The critical period has been very difficult to measure by conventional studies. However, recent research us- ing a web-based grammar quiz survey with 669,498 participants who also provided their ages at the time or participation and when they were rst exposed to English, found that learners who begin younger than 10 years of age demonstrate a consistent learning rate until late adolescence, marked at 17.4 years, when it declines steadily [1]. Yes, it is possible to learn English as a second language as an adult, but as the same researchers explain, you would need far longer than the statistical optimum of 30 years to approach a similar ultimate attainment to that of children who begin learning English during the critical period when they are aged 10 years or younger.

     Then we arrive at learning styles. Most older children and adults are aware of the way they prefer to learn because of a positive experience that improved their learning rate and retention. These stimuli are known to educators as auditory (listening), visual (seeing) and kinaesthetic (moving). A competent English language instructor who cares about the advancement of his students will strive to include, in each lesson, at least one activity that requires teams of students to make or do something that in turn, naturally stim- ulates a discussion – in English, of course! Educators call these multi-sensory activities because they cater to all three learning styles by creating sources of visual, auditory and tactile (touch) stimulation that our brains can interpret and associate with the concept we are learning [3].

     So, if you are either making the rst steps to learn English properly or you are rediscovering it after a long absence, then we at the Thai New Zealand Centre salute you because your commitment not only commands our respect and encouragement but also spurs our dedication to oer you the nest tuition available. But, don’t just take my word for it – visit us and see for yourself!

Key words

  • learning English
  • language acquisition
  • critical period
  • learning styles
  • stimuli
  • multi-sensory activities


[1] J. K. Hartshorne, J. B. Tenenbaum, and S. Pinker. A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177:263-277, 2018.

[2] S. Pinker. The Language Instinct. Penguin, 2015 edition, 1994.

[3] S. Wallace. Oxford Dictionary of Education. Oxford University Press, second edition, 2015.

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