Today I want you to think about two verbs that language specialists use. The first verb is “acquire”; the second is “learn”. Acquiring a language is very different from learning a language. And if you want to improve your English, you should know the difference.

Acquiring a language is a natural process. It is the way we all develop our first language ability. It is automatic. It is subconscious (we don’t notice it). And it is the result of natural experience of the language. When we experience language that we understand – especially by reading or listening – we acquire (absorb or pick up) more of that language.

When we try to learn a language, we study and memorize rules about the language. It is a conscious process (we are aware of, or notice, it).

Why is this difference important? It’s important because scientific research tells us that most of our fluency (language ability) comes from acquired language, not from learned language.

Last week I read an article by Dr. John Truscott, a well-known professor who has looked at hundreds of research studies on language acquisition and learning. In this article, he makes it very clear that we do not have to consciously learn vocabulary or grammar. He says that we acquire language as a natural result of reading or listening for pleasure. Other experts, like Dr. Stephen Krashen and Dr. Jeff McQuillan, have said the same thing.

Let me tell you a story that will illustrate (show) what I am talking about. Mr. M is a retired Japanese high school English teacher. About three years ago, he came to my ESL class in southern California. He knew a lot of English vocabulary. He could identify the subjunctive. He had learned a lot about English. But it was very hard for him to converse (talk together) or write in English.

I never ask my students to memorize rules. And I only teach grammar occasionally, when it helps my students understand something better. We spend as much time as possible sharing natural experiences in English. In that environment, Mr. M’s English began to improve. And when he wasn’t in class, he looked for opportunities to talk to people who spoke English. Today his ability to converse and write is much better than it was when he came.

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Mr. M. In it he wrote a very simple message: “Thank you for teaching me a better way.”

Learn from Mr. M. Try a better way. Look for as much natural experience with English as possible. Read. Listen. Have conversations with English speakers. If you do, I think you will be surprised at how much English you acquire.