Knowing a language implies multiple issues which range from vocabulary or concepts comprehension to the skills a person needs to manage for communication.  When we learn a language as children, we acquire it from our environment; that is, every day, we learn unconsciously words, grammatical structures and meanings which become more and more complex as we grow up and interact with different people. This process provides us with a sense of correctness which is continuously constructed when we hear or read one or another word or expression and when we use them in different contexts. For example, when we are learning verbs, we hear the past of most regular verbs and assume that all verbs are conjugated the same way. Then, we typically make mistakes such as “drinked”, but step by step, we are corrected, when there is someone cultured and educated around, and we learn what’s right and what’s wrong. Nevertheless, even native speakers of a given language do not know all of the correct forms (perhaps the very educated ones who are still a small minority).

Simultaneously, we learn how to use these concepts in communication. We learn to speak and write and to understand what we read and what we listen to. Listening happens first; then comes speaking, then reading and writing both often at the same time. But mastering all of these skills happens only in very few cases; most of us develop one more than the others. We tend to foster listening and speaking rather than reading and writing, and in fact, do not give enough relevance to the latter.

As babies, we learn to communicate to satisfy our basic needs, and in the case of overprotective parents, sometimes this communication happens without words; a moaning sound or a cry is enough for the parent to offer a variety of possibilities for the child to choose from, so he/she barely has to think of the language to use. This factor, along with a permissive education from parents and teachers, often ends up producing individuals who can’t communicate clearly and coherently.

If this happens in our native language, can you imagine what happens when we are learning a second or a foreign language? Well, that may be one of the reasons why so many people try unsuccessfully to learn English in institutes and even traveling to countries where the language is spoken. The problem then is not the institute or the people you interact with in other countries. It is us and our disability to use the language properly.

So, how do people learn English and other foreign languages?

In many ways: by being born in the country where the language is spoken, by having bilingual parents, by studying in a school where the foreign language is the vehicle for instruction, by being very dedicated to studying the language, and perhaps in other ways that don’t come to my mind just now. Whatever is the way you learn the language, you will always develop the skills of speaking and listening. And the same way that we learn to communicate in our first language for basic needs, we do in the foreign language and tend to do it quite efficiently. This is especially evident when you travel to English speaking countries and can interact with others understanding them and being understood, in situations such as shopping, asking and giving directions, ordering a meal, checking in and out a hotel, etc.

But still, these functions of the language that most people achieve are basic and informal; let us say that a person who manages to use these functions possesses ’survival’ knowledge of the language. This language lacks the sophistication of other more complex registers of language use and here’s where my concern arises. Knowing the language is not the same as communicating with the language. As I mentioned above, most of us communicate and are able to use the language at a survival level. However, this level does not cope with the requirements of other higher registers of the language as the ones found in complex texts and speeches. Among these, we can encounter essays, scientific texts and complicated literary texts.

The basic or survival level of language does not suffice to meet the needs of higher levels of the language.

If the use people are going to give to the language they learn is just for informal communication, they don’t need to study grammar or literature and all the concepts related to these subjects. On the contrary, if the level expected is formal, or if the people want to really know the language, these two subjects are essential.

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