Would the "natural" way of learning a language (the way we learn our mother tongue) be better even for acquiring second (and third, etc.) languages?

What I mean is:

The "natural" way to learn a language is:

0) You hear it (as a baby and toddler) understanding first tone and later meaning
1) You gradually learn to speak it (being immersed in the language, you acquire it "effortlessly")
2) You later learn to read and write it

The "forced" (usually it's you forcing yourself) way to learn a language is:

0) You try to read it
1) You try to understand it being spoken
2) You try to speak it

Are we (am I) doing it backwards? Maybe what we should do is first listen, listen, listen, and only later try to speak it, and then read and write it? I wonder if this would also make the acquisition of authentic accents easier (by first focusing on listening).

As a side note, I learned German half my life ago and am now learning Spanish. I find that learning Spanish is much more difficult for me than German was. My wife says it's because I'm older (I'm 56); my theory/hope is that it's not so much that, but rather the greater difference between English and Spanish than between English (a Germanic language) and German.

  • 3
    I feel like this would be better suited for like the Linguistic Stack Exchange, not the Spanish one, since it doesn't really relate to Spanish.
    – user67444
    Jun 24, 2015 at 21:54
  • 1
    I didn't know about that site; is Noam Chomsky active on it?
    – B. Clay Shannon
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:01
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    I don't think so, but I'm sure there'll be plenty of other qualified people.
    – user67444
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:10
  • Not all of whom will have a high regard for Chomsky's work. Jun 25, 2015 at 16:50

6 Answers 6


No, I don't think so. First of all, babies and toddlers are helpless and receive parenting and caring nearly 24/7. They literally have nothing to do except to passively absorb language. Second, humans are biologically designed to learn language earlier in life, just like geese imprint on their mother extremely early on during a "critical period." Adults can't learn language like babies and toddlers do because it's not supposed to be that way--that unique neurological ability to naturally pick up language is "intentionally" restricted to infancy. I can say "fui a la tienda ayer" to a new adult Spanish learner and act it out however I like--but the learner will absolutely not understand. The way babies associated meaning with words is through literally hundreds or thousands of instances of usage in different contexts and settings and environments.

You probably would need, therefore, some kind of intense immersion to learn a second language in your proposed "natural" way, and this is completely unrealistic for most learners. Without total immersion, structured, organized learning is the only option.

But the thing is, with babies and toddlers, when they are in their environment of immersion, they literally have no worries or needs that won't be taken care of because they don't fully grasp the language. An American can't go to Spain not knowing how to speak Spanish and then start crying when he needs to use the bathroom, which is what babies do. And I doubt he'll be able to pick up from simply listening and making repeated, frustrated attempts to express himself how to say, "Is there a public restroom nearby?" Therefore, it is necessary to teach such structured phrases and it is impractical to expect natural passive immersive absorption of language of an adult learner of a second language.

  • Good points, but what I had more in mind was: just listen to the radio for several months first (in California, it's easy - there are Spanish language radio stations up the Wazoo River) and THEN your acreage will have been tilled/prepared for planting. In fact, I think the radio is the best teacher of all (and tv, I guess, but I don't have time for that - I listen to the radio during my work commute) because you hear all sorts of different people talk and sing about all sorts of things - and not just 'formal' language, but slang, etc. It's very "natural" and "real-worldy"
    – B. Clay Shannon
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:20
  • which you don't often get with "book learning."
    – B. Clay Shannon
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:20
  • Obviously you want to expose yourself to colloquial language, but it has to be a supplement to structured learning.
    – user67444
    Jun 24, 2015 at 23:21
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    "that unique neurological ability to naturally pick up language is "intentionally" restricted to infancy" Is that a thing? I'd like to see some sources on that. Babies will acquire languages because that's what they do all day, adults learn a little and not even every day.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 25, 2015 at 15:30
  • @Alenanno: This post came from the Spanish Stack Exchange, so I don't have any linguistics training, but the widely accepted critical period hypothesis proposes that infants' minds, being tabulae rasae, are particularly sensitive to language acquisition. Children are naturally designed to pick up language, and it is generally accepted in neuroscience that neuroplasticity is highest in infancy.
    – user67444
    Jun 25, 2015 at 22:33

The problem with the way you state the issue is that you focus on the issue of spoken or written language first. But that is not really the problem. The question of natural vs. 'forced' learning applies to learning just the spoken language (or even just the written language).

This is a well known and well debated distinction in the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) literature. I have not seen the 'forced learning' term but people do talk about 'natural learning'. One of the best known (and influential in the 1980s) was Stephen Krashen's 'Natural Learning Approach' which started off with exactly the same assumption - we should learn second languages more like the way children learn their first language.

Building on the well-recognised 'acquisition' vs. 'learning' distinction, Krashen introduced a so-called monitor model that illustrated how learned material can slow down 'natural communication' and hinder acquisition. He also talked about the affective filter which in some ways could be labeled as 'forced learning' getting in the way of 'natural learning'.

Krashen's ideas were not new but built on foundations going back at least a hundred years. There are many other approaches that try to lower the affective filter and replace the monitor with more natural input going from 'Total Physical Response' to 'Suggestopedia'.

However, this approach did not really stand the test of time as singular catch all method. It made a lot of sense but the research to support it is sparse. In short, adults have many very useful cognitive strategies such as memorisation, system building, impulse control, metacognition, ability to read and take notes that can speed up their initial acquisition greatly when compared to children in a similar situation (e.g. attending a class twice a week). So, if they were to give up on those, they would forego a great advantage. However, you're still left with the problem of how they can transition from knowledge of the language to a more naturalistic level of proficiency. Here's where many of Krashen's (and others') ideas have taken better hold. I personally find his 'comprehensible input' hypothesis quite a useful way of thinking about success in learning. And many of the internet polyglots (probably knowingly) mirror many of Krashen's suggestions when describing their ultimate success.

However, the complete picture is even more complicated. You need to take into account learning strategies, learning styles, the individual's situation, etc. Which is why the current approach to SLA practice is one of eclecticism (for instance, when people speak about the 'communicative approach', it is an amalgam of many of the methods that came before).


I'm not sure your characterization of adult learning is accurate in general, but your basic intuition is right. It is not that case that the most efficient course for adults is infant-like, however; adults have entirely different mental resources, and "listen, listen, listen, and only later try to speak it" is probably too much passive exposure. Instead, adults benefit from communicative interaction in the language (however clumsy at first).

There are SLA curricula that already focus on this pattern of 'listen/speak and then read/write'. The truly old-fashioned approaches did indeed reverse this, focusing on written translation as the goal.

There is a broad literature addressing this question, and Wikipedia's entry for SLA has a number of references.


You just don't remember how hard it was to learn your first language. Babies don't just lie around, taking it all in, until a language system somehow springs forth, formed without any particular effort on their part. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry for Crib talk, which outlines the discovery by Ruth Weir that after they're put to bed, babies don't just drop off to sleep; they use the time to practice!


I tried 'purely natural' ways — terribly inefficient, and lots of mistakes (about the language) learned in the process! (Though, I didn’t spend months on it­ — I just couldn’t afford it.)
But on the basis of language facts learned in 'traditional' ways it worked better. However such combinative approaches are all included in methods of 'traditional' SLA, I believe.

BTW, your scheme of a 'forced' way is strange and unfamiliar to me.
A standard approach seem to be:
 0. phonetics (with a lot of 'how-to' instructions)
 1. an alphabet, basic spelling
 1. the simplest/'basickest' constructions
 1. oral/written practice
all above points together, mixed, with many repetitions

 2. deeper and wider into the language…

Hmmmm… Is it too different from a 'natural' way?


The idea of a "natural way" of learning a language in the way children do is a bit naive. That would necessitate a mother that learns you to speak, an environment where all the others and you speak this language, it would mean five years of training in this language, then ten years of school where you learn the finer rules of speaking, spelling and writing.

An adult person can't try to learn a foreign language in the way a child learns its mother tongue. An adult person has not the urgent necessity to learn language that a child has and children have by nature's programme an astonishing faculty to soak up their mother tongue. But about at the age of twelve nature shuts down this programme as if to say if you haven't learnt language by now I can't help you. Now other programmes are important.

When children learn a foreign language at school they have lost this astonishing faculty to soak up a language, and an adult has the same difficulties, unless he has learnt already three languages, then the fourth or fifth language is a piece of cake because such a person has developed an effective way of learning a language.

There are effective ways of learning a foreign language and ineffective ways. A lot of what is done in schools is, in my view, ineffective.

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