If we think of the period in our lives when we learned to speak our first language. The moment in which we started to make huge efforts to speak our second/foreign language we find significant differences. In the former case, we may have fond memories of what our parents told us; and in the latter, it suddenly becomes a frustrating experience that seems to bring imperfect results. For adults, learning to speak a new language is in many cases far from satisfactory simply because they feel they need to cope with many different aspects at one time. That seems to be impossible in real conversations. This is one of the effectively improving aspects of speaking skills.
I wonder if it is possible to acquire a high level of speaking proficiency in adults; I wonder if it is possible to make adult learners improve their speaking skills: how? This is one of the effectively improving aspects of speaking skills.
Learning at Infancy vs Learning at Adulthood
The first question we have to consider in order to reach a conclusion is whether learning at infancy is different from learning at adulthood; which are the circumstances that differentiate them and if those conditions inevitably lead to obvious and hopeless results. Only bearing in mind what we can expect of a particular type of learner, we can focus on how to improve their speaking skills. This is one of the effectively improving aspects of speaking skills.
It is obvious that there are marked differences between children learners and adult learners and that they cannot acquire the second language under the same circumstances. Consequently, the results will be also different. Concerning children and the early age at which they learn to speak, we can say that they enjoy certain advantages that make them outstanding learners.
They have surprising linguistic abilities due to optimal moment in which they find themselves for language learning, this is to say, at this moment their brain is characterized by a certain plasticity that allows some abilities to develop with ease during a period of time, after which it becomes really difficult for these abilities to be developed, or using Klein’s words ‘between the age of two and puberty the human brain shows the plasticity which allows a child to acquire his first language’ . Therefore, children are special learners for their natural and innate abilities to acquire a language.
Quality of Infancy
According to a theory, one of these special abilities is ‘filtering sophisticated information about language properties from birth’, in other words, children have an enormous ability to integrate difficult information in an easy and unconscious way from the beginning of their development. They are able to acquire and integrate complex data without being aware of it, whereas other learners, at other ages, would find it arduous to achieve.
Moreover, apart from this special gift children have for assimilating difficult information, we can mention some of their other qualities, such as their capacity for perceiving and imitating sounds. Some studies have showed that ‘young infants are especially sensitive to acoustic changes at the phonetic boundaries between categories’ (Kuhl, 2004: 832). This is one of the effectively improving aspects of speaking skills.
Finally, students also acquire the ability of ordering words within a sentence (grammar rules) unconsciously: ‘there is some evidence that young children can detect non-adjacencies such as those required to learn grammar’ (Kuhl, 2004: 836). All in all, we can say that children learn the language without being aware of it when they ‘are exposed to the right kind of auditory information’ (Kuhl, 2004: 836), this is, children learn the language through communication and interaction and thanks to that they acquire all the abilities they can potentially develop.
Classification of Learners
If we need to improve speaking skills we need to know which skills or which features learners need to develop. In that respect, there are several authors that stated different goals or different dimensions that speakers needed to achieve. Goodwin, for instance, established several goals for a proper pronunciation. She called them ‘functional intelligibility, functional communicability, increased self-confidence, and speech-monitoring abilities’ (Goodwin, 2001: 118).
She argued that learners should be able to speak an intelligible foreign language, that is to say, listeners need to understand the learner’s message without huge efforts; learners also need to be successful in a ‘specific communicative situation’ (Goodwin, 2001: 118); they need to ‘gain confidence in their ability to speak and be understood’ (Goodwin, 2001: 118); and finally, they need to monitor and control their own production by paying attention to their own speech.
Goodwin specified those abilities that learners need to acquire through certain linguistic features that can be practiced: Intonation, rhythm, reduced speech, linking words, consonants and vowel sounds, word stress, etc. These are concrete speaking aspects in which learners should be trained in order to improve their speaking skills.
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