Stephen Greene

Language Acquisition: Order and Progress

I am sure there is nobody reading this post who would say the following to a student:

“We did the past simple last month and you used it properly, why are you having problems with it now?”

The reason we wouldn’t say this is because we are all trained, professional educators who know that learning a language, or learning almost anything, does not progress in a nice straight line.  Just because we have covered something doesn’t mean we have learned it.  And just because we can answer questions about the past simple doesn’t mean we can actually use it.

Students, parents, inexperienced teachers and even some school managers, however, are more likely to make this mistake.  A common complaint I often hear from adult students when trying to explain why they failed to learn English while at school is “We had to do the verb ‘to be’ at the start of every semester when I was at school.”  Now there is a problem with packaging language in this way, but one of the reasons publishers include the verb ‘to be’ is the mere fact that it often isn’t used appropriately.  It might have been covered before, but it wasn’t learned.

This view of learning (whatever that loaded word might mean) represents a linear idea, one in which there is progress class after class, day after day, going up and up and up until we reach the heady heights of speaking just like a Brit, Aussie, Yank or any other so-called native speaker.  It’s almost like getting on the up escalator because all you have to do is stay on in order to keep going up.  As (good) teachers we know language learning looks more like a never-ending roller coaster with twists and turns and doubling back all the time.

And isn’t the roller coaster a lot more fun than a boring old escalator?

The fact that we constantly face this problem never fails to surprise me.  As a parent to a 3-year-old boy I can see firsthand how he learns something on Monday, has to learn it again on Tuesday, forgets all about it on Wednesday, performs it with masterful ease on Thursday and then is a complete novice all over again on Friday.  This tendency to have to revisit something many times before it is internalised can be seen in his language skills, motor skills and the number of times he has to sit on the naughty step because for forgetting he shouldn’t try to bite my hand off when I ask him to eat his breakfast.

And it isn’t just parents who get to see this chaotic acquiring of skills.  Anyone who has tried to learn to drive a car, play a computer game, knit, tile a kitchen or any other task you can think of, has undoubtedly had days when everything feels easy and falls into place, only to be followed by days where nothing works at all.

Personally, I try to be honest with my students from day one about the learning path they are on and asking them to reflect on other learning experiences.  I try to make sure they won’t be discouraged by the bad days and instead look forward to the good ones.  There will hopefully be progress in what they are trying to learn, but there probably won’t be very much order.

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Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at

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