Why learning English differs from learning maths and science

Why is learning English different from learning maths and science, and what impact does this have on how we manage learner expectations – and their motivation? How is English language acquired? The short answer to the question of how language acquisition happens is that it...


Why is learning English different from learning maths and science, and what impact does this have on how we manage learner expectations – and their motivation?

How is English language acquired?

The short answer to the question of how language acquisition happens is that it happens by encountering, and being confronted with, language. It’s about having the need to use that language in order to express yourself, to understand what other people are saying and to be understood. It happens through exposure; you need to be exposed to the language to do this. In the past, the stumbling block for language learning has been that you often learned the language from a book and were taught some grammar rules and some vocabulary, and then it was up to the learner to glue those pieces together. This has changed a lot, with a more communicative approach being followed. What is key is to find opportunities to practise speaking and listening. The Internet provides a wealth of opportunities – films, audiobooks, podcasts and peer-to-peer interaction, to name but a few examples.

Learning a second language differs from learning a first language because, for most people, there isn’t the same immediate need for communication using the new language. To make more efficient learners, we must create the need to use the language and opportunities for practice – emulating the way first language acquisition happens. That means providing positive feedback when people are learning, as well as helping them refine their skills. When a child says, “Mamma, ball!” the mother will say, “Yes, Mummy has the ball.” She isn’t criticising the use of language, she is encouraging it and providing a model of correct use, which the child will then acquire by this interaction with someone of higher ability.

Language is a different discipline

The key difference between learning a language and subjects such as science and maths is that you can learn a language across different dimensions. You grow and enhance your language according to your need – and people have different needs. Some people will develop their language using highly specific vocabulary and language. For example, if you work in the hairdressing industry you’ll need good spoken English skills and a particular vocabulary, which is different to someone like me, who works in language assessment and teaching.

If you are learning a science or maths, the knowledge elements build upon each other, whereas, in language, the knowledge elements are more parallel. You widen your use of language by broadening it, as opposed to just building it up. Of course, there is a lot of common ground. Just as, in science, you can’t understand biology properly if you don’t also know some chemistry and some physics, if you were to analyse 1,000 people for the 1,000 words they use most frequently, there will be a good degree of overlap.

There is also a deepening effect with language. The sentence, “Yesterday, I go to market, I buy some clothes,” will be understood by anyone who speaks English. But a teacher would correct this: “No, if it’s yesterday, it’s the past, so you have to say, ‘I went to the market and I bought some clothes.” To start with, ‘No’ is negative feedback. Like a mother, a teacher can give positive feedback, followed by a more correct model: “Oh, interesting, you went to the market yesterday and bought a pair of socks. What colour were they?” Generally speaking, the learner is communicating effectively and the teacher is helping them increase their precision, and therefore the efficiency, of the learner’s communication. This highlights another difference between learning a language and studying subjects like science and maths – within language there are differing levels of correctness, depending on what it is you’re trying to achieve.

Making more efficient and effective learners

Pearson’s focus on efficacy is about delivering on the learner outcomes we set out to achieve. This comes, in part, from knowing what the learners’ needs are and mapping out a personalised path to proficiency as a more efficient route to their goals (as Mike Mayor describes in this article).

One of the most immediate ways we can emulate the acquisition of a first language is by turning two common complaints from teachers – namely, that the class is too large for them to focus on all of the students, and that the learners differ widely in terms of ability – into benefits. If your class is large and there is a wide range of abilities, then ask the students to talk to each other. Getting students to talk in pairs or groups is a way of emulating the example of the mother and child I previously mentioned. So instead of the teacher talking to a class of 30 students, 15 pairs of students or six groups of five can discuss a real-world task that is independent of the language but which they should perform in the language.

While these group efforts will undoubtedly help those participating, it’s important to remember that, in the long term, the structure for language learning should come from the goals of the individuals – why do they want to learn the language? What will they be using it for? What specialised vocabulary will they need? Yes, learning a language is different to subjects like science, but we need to take a more scientific approach to discovering how best to benefit learners.

To find out more about the Global Scale of English Learning Objectives and see what teachers around the world have agreed it means to be at a level for reading, writing, speaking and listening, visit www.english.com/gse.

In this article