All of us have studied at least one foreign language. Was it easy? For some yes, for others, not very. Some people are naturally good at learning languages, they have something called ‘linguistic feeling’ which helps them assimilate the materials better and easier and recall them much faster than others. At the same time, they have a nice visual or auditory memory and can replicate the information they hear and/or see very easily. Others find it very hard to learn a language.
So, how can we make the learning process easier for everyone? By trying to put them into almost the same situation when a child is learning his/her first language — repeating and repeating. That leads to automatism.
What is automatism?
Automatism actually has its roots in law. Automatism is a legal term used to describe a situation where acts occurred without the volition of the accused. Interesting, isn’t it? So, how can this be understood in a language learning context and in developing fluency? Let’s think this over a bit.
The theory of automatism is probably not very widely spread among us, language teachers, as we favour communicative language teaching, where all 4 language skills need to be taught and practised with well, quite direct instruction even if we don’t like to think like that.
Automatism, on the other hand, has little to do with explanation and instruction. It rather has to do with repetition and habit formation. It helps the learners assimilate a specific structure through various repetitions in different situations.
How to make grammar automatic?
On 24th June Antoine Marcq presented a speech on the topic of building fluency and focused specifically on grammar. You can watch the recording of the livestream here.
Antoine says that deliberate practice is the best way to transfer the knowledge of grammar to a skill making it automatic. Deliberate practice is defined by Anders Ericsson, the author of «Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, the following way:
- it is targeted at something specific you want to improve;
- you should set specific goals;
- it is refined through repeated performance;
- you should devote time to constructive feedback and evaluation.
This is the type of practice Antoine Marcq always includes in his lessons and here how the stages of his lesson organized:
Let’s look at the procedure of deliberate practice.
- Prepare cards with questions on some specific grammar topic, e.g. questions in Present Continuous. Ask students to answer the questions at their own pace without time limits. At this stage, students need to feel safe and confident as the goal is creating a safe space.
- Shuffle the cards, set the time and ask students to answer the same questions as fast as possible. This time, students are encouraged to do it faster so the
- Challenge with three attempts to do it even faster. The goal here is to build reflexes. Challenge is the key to transfer knowledge to skill. The brain starts building the reflexes, automating grammar.
This «race» takes no longer than 10 minutes and you can practise it every lesson with any grammar. Antoine suggested an interesting variation to practise Present Perfect: on cards write a situation in present, e.g. I am happy. Students have to say 3 assumptions using Present Perfect: You have received a present; You have won a lottery; You have graduated.
If you want to know more about building fluency, join the livestream with Antoine Marcq on July 27.
So, this is automatism, helping students to form habits in the target language by means of repetition. As a result, fluency kicks in, as learners learn the language naturally as kids do in the native context, no one explains the rules to them in the beginning.