New research could ease second language learning

14 February 2017
Dr Shaofeng Li

Research by Dr Shaofeng Li could bring major changes to second language teaching and improve chances of success for those who fail in traditional classes.

Shaofeng is looking at the learning phenomenon that enables learners to pick up a foreign language through exposure and use of the language, not through challenging, conscious study.

He wants to identify the key to this type of learning and find a way to bring it into the classroom.

"Traditionally, we talk about people having an 'aptitude' for language, and what we mean is that they learn better than others under traditional methods," explains Shaofeng. "They are good at memorising words, analysing sentence structure and mimicking pronunciation."

What Shaofeng wants to do is identify and measure the aptitudes for learning language 'unconsciously' — that is, learning without being aware that you are actually 'learning' — and look at how this knowledge could be used in the classroom to complement traditional teaching.

His research has been awarded a $300,000 Marsden Fund grant and will start in March.

For a country of dedicated travellers, English-speaking New Zealanders have a poor record of language learning. Many of us have sat in classrooms with our verbs and tenses, stumbling over pronunciation and dreaming that one day we will know enough to chat easily with the locals on our travels.

Unfortunately, for most, dreaming is as far as it goes. The challenge of mastering another language is just too hard and so we remain monolingual. Apparently 80 percent of New Zealanders speak one language, and high school language take-up continues to fall.

"It is a fact that many people dread learning a foreign language," says Shaofeng, who is based in the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics.

"Taught consciously, it is challenging. It takes a lot of effort and time and English speakers in particular can be less motivated than people who speak other languages."

But, he points out, we all learnt the language of our birth effortlessly and efficiently so we know there is a natural ability within all of us. "Adults possess a similar ability, although it might be different from children's language faculty."

He is confident his research will identify where this ability lies and how it can be exploited for adults with the ultimate aim of making it easier for everyone to enjoy the benefits of fluency in a second language.

"Learning another language widens your vision and gives you another perspective of the world. It enables you to appreciate other cultures and deal with people in a way that is beneficial for your personal life and career development," he says.

English is Shaofeng's second language — he was born and educated in China and learnt traditionally, memorising words and perfecting grammar. His speaking skills, he says, came from living and working in English speaking countries — the United States and New Zealand.

"But maybe if I'd been taught differently, it would not have taken me 20 or 30 years to get the skills I have today."

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