In dating there are rules, in traffic there are rules, in math there are rules, now it turns out there are rules in learning a languages. And when you’re adult, you’re so much better at learning those rules.
When I trained as a teacher, it was hip to teach students in the implicit method. That means that students should learn English the way that young kids learn it. They acquire new vocabulary just by listening and practising. If you know any preschoolers, now you know why they prattle all day long. They’re learning.
There are many schools and teachers who make a method out of this for adults too. I used to teach at Berlitz a few years ago, and their system is totally built on the implicit method. They offer you (excellent) dialogues and lots of examples of usage to practise, but they make a point never to explain you the rules.
This ignores the way the human brain is wired, however, because after a certain age, when we stop to be young kids, we want to know why we’re doing certain things and why we’re not doing other things. So while I was a teacher at Berlitz, students would come up to me to inquire about grammar. When I told my manager about it, she said not to teach any grammar!
But it did it anyway; secretly. The students were happy! Of course they were: reading and listening to dialogues makes you tired, and it’s unrealistic to think that grown-ups are going to devote hours to practising their English when they hardly have the time to speak with their own families.
A few days ago, I read an article that should be giving you and other busy people hope. If you’re older than 7 when you’re reading this (which I hope), you don’t need to despair that you’ve lost your chance at learning English. You’re not too old. Your age is actually an advantage.
In recent research that compared children and adults learning, it turned out that adults or at least older children were much better at learning new language skills. This included grammar and pronunciation. This is because they’re able to understand its rules.
That is called explicit learning. But students are also capable of discovering rules by themselves, and probably that is preferable. If you give students some examples of language usage, let’s say sentences with “will,” they will figure out how to use “will” because they will formulate a rule for it.
It’s also what I found from my experience teaching English to students of all ages. It doesn’t mean that the teacher has to tell you the rules always, because if you are bright, you will figure them out for yourself. Older students are quicker to grasp a rule.
And maybe you recognize this in your own learning: once you understand a rule, you will feel good about yourself, and you start to enjoy learning. But without rules, you don’t feel you know what’s going on and, consequently, you get bored.
Here are two articles on the website of New Scientist that deal with learning languages: