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TESOL 101: How to Teach Language Acquisition

One of my favorite things to tell new classes is to stop studying English and to learn to use it. Of course, I say it in a nice way. But the reaction I get is humorous. People have a paradigm that to improve in a subject, they must study more. While that may be true for school subjects such as math, science, history, and the like, it does not work for languages.

Language is for communication, not to study alone. That is one reason why the old grammar-translation method lost its foothold once new approaches came on the scene. Yet a common mindset until today by both students and teachers is that English is still a subject.

I am also known for saying, put the books down, and let’s learn English. But what do I mean by these words? The idea being conveyed is this: Stop viewing English as a subject to be mastered by memorizing and studying endless rules. Begin to use English as it was meant to be—a language for communication.

Are we not living in a global environment where English is the main mode of communication? How then can one develop their ability to function in this environment? They will need to go beyond the books and pick them up.

What is Language Acquisition?

In a nutshell, language acquisition is picking up a language. Acquisition goes beyond rote, subject-learning, and brings a person to use the language. High levels of acquisition permit language learners (or language acquirers) to function in the target language beyond memorized scripts.

It is mastery of a language—using it when and where you need to, any time, any place, in any circumstance. When young children learn their first language, they pick it up. You do not commonly hear of mothers or fathers teaching their toddlers nouns, subjects, verbs, objects, or prepositions. The parents or caretakers model language and the child picks it up. As a father of my own two children, I can attest to that, which is why I need to be careful what I say around them. Children eventually go to school and learn the finer points of the language. But by the time they enter school, they already have a significant amount of vocabulary and know how to put it together into limited dialogue.

As they continue in school, much of what they learn they pick up from teachers and classmates (sometimes to the chagrin of parents). This is the idea of acquisition: picking up the real use of language.

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How does Language Acquisition Meet the Needs of Language Learners?

Most people we meet in our classes want to be able to ‘use’ English to accomplish something. They have a certain English goal. It means they need a ‘level’ of English that will help them accomplish their goals. The problem with that is they are focusing on the ‘level,’ when they should be focusing on gaining the language. Thus, English becomes a tool for them instead of a means—a means to get what they want.

You can pull out a large flathead screwdriver and attempt to repair a cellphone. Or you can use the proper tools to get the job done. It is the same idea with English: You can learn the language necessary to travel to another country, eat at a restaurant, catch a cab, etc., but what happens when things do not play out according to the dialogue they learned in class? What happens when situations require more detail?  If the flight is delayed or the boarding gate was transferred to another concourse, what will they do?  If the restaurant does not have orange juice, what will they order? A cab driver tells them he can only go as far as Main Street and they have to exit there. What do they say? You get the idea.

The following represent answers to questions teachers and students may have about acquiring English.

How does Language Acquisition Meet the Needs of Business Students?

Language Acquisition for Business PeopleHow can we help business students acquire the language? Place business students in role-playing where unexpected things pop-up. Ask the students what possibilities may arise in their particular business meetings and plan your lessons from there. These ideas could be anything from conversation topics to follow up questions about a product or deal. The teacher can then use these subjects as teaching points. Business English students can be better prepared for business when they are confident that they can respond to the unexpected.

How Does Language Acquisition Meet the Needs of Travellers?

Language Acquisition for TravellersIf you do not want to get lost, you better know the difference between End Street and the end of the street. A language learner may know the words, but not know their usage.

You can help travelers by preparing them for possibilities. Brainstorm with your class the things that could happen on a trip, list them, and address them one by one. It may take several classes to cover all the topics. You can create role-play activities to increase confidence. Your students will appreciate learning responses to real English situations and gain more confidence.

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How Does Language Acquisition Meet The Needs of Test-Takers?

Language Acquisition for Test TakersAs many readers know IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, even the OPI are not pass or fail tests. They measure a person’s ability to function using the language and assign a score. Therefore, they measure mastery of the language (acquisition), not components in isolation (e.g. grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, cohesion).

They combine each area to determine the overall ability to use the language. We can help students prepare for such tests by assuring them they are not passing or fail responses. They are just responses. As such, they can drop the packaged answers and be real. The people evaluating them are trained to spot canned answers and base their evaluations on the overall ability of a person to use the language to communicate their thoughts and make sense when doing it.

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English is not simply a subject to be studied anymore. It is used in the global environment of today. Language acquisition is going beyond memorized or canned responses to questions. Language acquisition takes the learner from the defensive to the offensive. It means they can go out into the English environment and be proactive instead of limited reactive. They can be better prepared to expect the unexpected and respond to non-scripted dialogue. Language acquisition helps learners in business interactions, in travel contingencies, and when taking tests to master the language. As teachers, we can help our students by facilitating the acquisition of the English language in the classroom.

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