What is Natural Approach really?

Posted on | August 29, 2009 | 3 Comments

Keith commented on my previous post, questioning on how SRS can fit into the “natural language learning” model. After all, it is not natural.

It seems to be me that different “language naturists” have different degrees of “naturalness” in their approaches. By all means, I am in favour of the “natural approach” as opposed to the conventional classroom-style “structural approach”, which uses artificial materials tailored for learners, and encourages memorizing grammar rules, declension tables, and mechanical drills, and emphasizes on test results. I believe in using authentic contents (materials targeted for native speakers), light in grammar, focusing on comprehensive input and vocabulary building, and delayed output.

To many language learners, “natural” means “learning like a child”. Under this definition, I don’t think I am a classified as a “naturist”. I believe that, as adults, we are smarter than kids, and we should be able to acquire languages more efficiently than them. You can read more on this in my past post.

As a matter of fact, children don’t learn languages completely naturally. They are immersed in the language environment from the beginning. They spend a lot of time absorbing the language passively, not being aware of the presence of any grammar or rules. This part is natural. But remember going on in parallel, the adults still teach them the language explicitly. They speak to them at their level in form of “baby-talks”. They give them readings with vocabulary suitable for their ages, i.e., materials tailored for the learners.

As for adult beginners, I can think of 3 approaches in starting a new language. They can do it “unnaturally” and spend their time on learner’s materials, or they can go “natural” with authentic materials right from the start, spending a majority of their time on “incomprehensible input”. My personal choice is to still go “natural” with authentic materials, but spend time studying them and making them comprehensible. This means I have to work on vocabulary building. This process has to be “artificial” since I don’t have enough existing vocabulary to infer the unknowns from context.

I promote the use of SRS, because I personally experienced the huge difference it could make. But then I am not as hardcore as others like Khatzumoto. I rarely spend more than 20 minutes a day on SRS, and this includes card preparation and organization. Steve recently suggested that we should spend no more than 5% of our learning on flashcards. I totally agree with him.

I believe that after reaching a certain level, we should be weaned from flashcarding and other kinds of deliberate vocabulary-building activities. At this point, we should be able to absorb new vocabulary naturally and efficiently. I stopped doing SRS on my French now, since I can understand on average about 90% of the authentic materials. I can infer about 5% and comfortably leave the other 5% as unknown. I only had about 1000 cards in my deck before I stopped. As for Spanish, I had about 750 cards in my deck before a recent mishap wiped them all out. Although I could re-import them from my LingQ repository, I chose to let them go and reset my deck.

I have recently started to have a crack at Koine Greek. I started by learning the Greek alphabets and skimming through the basic Greek grammar. I am only on verse 10 of the 1st chapter of the Gospel of John, and already I have accumulated 50 cards in my SRS. I also listen to those 10 verses again and again, and will move on when I get bored. To some, my approach is not “natural”. It is natural enough to me. The material is natural – the New-Testament written almost 2000 years ago. I also avoid deliberately memorizing declension tables, verb-endings, and cases. I am going to absorb them gradually and naturally as I go along.

Content-wise, I prefer going “natural”. But as for methodologies, there are smarter ways.


3 Responses to “What is Natural Approach really?”

  1. chris(mandarin_student)
    August 29th, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    As I commented in the last post, I think we can use tools and technologies to simulate a more natural learning environment, as long as we don’t overload the tools and so long as we are aware of the weaknesses.

    A true natural environment is unattainable for most.

  2. Robin
    December 3rd, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

    Children are quick in learning new languages only when they are in an environment where the people they get along speak particular languages. Even my children learn two other languages quickly while I was struggling to. But their way of learning is different from adults. Children do not care about grammar. Theirs is empirical approch :)

  3. Petra
    December 11th, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    Interesting article.

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