In Taiwan, people often blame lack of an English environment for students not learning English well. But have you ever wondered why some people, maybe friends or classmates, in Taiwan seem to pick up English effortlessly and make impressive achievements in English proficiency, while many others struggle without gaining a decent command of the language? Are the former people more talented or smarter?
My research shows that people reaching a high level of English as a foreign language have at least one thing in common: They all actively participate in English-related activities outside the classroom, such as reading newspapers and magazines and watching TV programs.
Stephen Krashen, a former linguistics professor at the University of Southern California, has said there is a difference between language learning and language acquisition. According to Krashen, "learning a language," which usually happens in a classroom, is aimed at developing a conscious knowledge of the language, especially grammar. "Acquiring a language," on the other hand, is aimed at developing ability in that language by using it in natural, communicative situations -- that is "picking it up." Acquiring a language is to subconsciously use the language for real communication; on the other hand, learning a language is to consciously know about it.
A person's capacity in a foreign language stems from acquisition that is supplemented with learning. For this reason, comprehensible input from teachers in classrooms is very limited in what it can achieve for students.
Of course, all language learning is limited to some extent, by time if nothing else, and if learning cannot be substantiated and complemented by acquisition, the effect of it is even more limited. This explains why some people who get good grades in English still cannot use it and why some people who attend English cram schools for years don't achieve fluency. They rely primarily on learning in a language classroom; however, they receive very little comprehensive input -- especially that which takes them beyond their current level of English proficiency, or their English "comfort zone" according to Krashen -- outside the classroom.
This is not to say that studying English is not important. Acquisition, however, is more important and natural than learning and is the main and more effective way to obtain ability in a second language. Thus, one of the most important goals in a second language classroom is to motivate students to get more language input outside the classroom.
English education in Taiwan has been criticized for placing too much emphasis on grammar. Reforms have been proposed: that textbooks should be rewritten to emphasize using English for communication, that Taiwanese English teachers should only speak English with their students and that conversation classes should only be taught by qualified native speakers of English. The list goes on and on.
I don't oppose any of these proposals. However, there is a more basic issue we have to deal with: how to motivate students to willingly and happily get more out-of-class English input. For this reason, teachers need to motivate students to obtain more input outside the classroom.
There are many ways to do this. For instance, teachers may show students how to make use of TV programs, movies and DVDs for aural input, as well as interesting newspapers, magazines and books for written input. Schools and parents have to do their best to help students access all the comprehensive input mentioned above.