For a country of dedicated travellers, English-speaking New Zealanders have a poor record of language learning. Many of us have sat in classrooms battling verbs and tenses, stumbling over pronunciation and dreaming of chatting fluently with the locals on our travels.

Unfortunately, for many, dreaming is as far as it goes. Mastering that new language just becomes too hard so we remain mono-lingual and rely on everyone else to speak English.

But that could all change with new research by a language teaching expert from the University of Auckland.

Dr Shaofeng Li, a senior lecturer of applied language studies in the Faculty of Arts, is looking at the learning phenomenon that enables learners to pick up a foreign language through exposure and use of the language, and not through conscious study.

He wants to identify the key to this type of learning and find a way to bring it into the classroom.

“Traditionally, we talk about people having an ‘aptitude’ for language, and what we mean is they learn better than others under traditional methods,” says Li. “They are good at memorising words, analysing sentence structure and mimicking pronunciation.”

What Li wants to do is identify and measure the aptitudes for learning language “unconsciously” – that is, learning without being aware that you are actually “learning” – and look at how this knowledge could be used in the classroom to complement traditional teaching.

He has won a Marsden Fund grant for his research, which began in March this year.

“It is a fact that many people dread learning a foreign language,” says Li, who is based at the faculty’s School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics.

“Taught consciously, it is challenging. It takes a lot of effort and time and English speakers in particular can be less motivated than people who speak other languages,” says Li.

But, he points out, we all learnt the language of our birth effortlessly and efficiently so we know there is a natural ability within all of us. “Adults,” Li says, “possess a similar ability, although it might be different from children’s language faculty.”

He is confident his research will identify where this ability lies and how it can be exploited for adults with the ultimate aim of making it easier for everyone to enjoy the benefits of second language fluency.

“Learning another language widens your vision and gives you another perspective of the world. It enables you to appreciate other cultures and deal with people in a way that is beneficial for your personal life and career development,” says Li.

English is Li’s second language – he was born and educated in China and learnt traditionally, memorising words and perfecting grammar. His speaking skills, he says, came from living and working in English speaking countries – the US and New Zealand.

“But maybe if I’d been taught differently, it would not have taken me 20 or 30 years to get the skills I have today!”

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