We all tend to rely on what we are comfortable with, on what works without effort. Is that laziness? Absolutely not! It’s a simple lesson we learnt from our survival in nature. Efficiency equals more success. Throughout history, all the tools we’ve created are aimed at better results for less effort. And languages don’t escape that rule. A language is a tool a society has developed to optimize communication between members of the society. So here lies goal: without effort. How do we make a foreign language obvious and effortless? It is our common goal as students and teachers of a foreign language.
One never knows really where the right insight will come from. Who could have guessed the field of behavioral economics could influence the field of language education. Initially, a team led by Daniel Kahneman set out to study the different ways people make decisions. The conclusions were mostly applied to psychology and to sales and marketing strategies. They point out to a distinction in the human thought process between what is automatic and instinctive and what is rational and logical.
Let us examine how that works, draw our conclusions in terms of learning a new language and, finally, draw out the founding principles of the E. A. T. methodology. In the end, we will have laid out the principles of a methodology that develops instincts in a foreign language. The speaker will only focus on “what” to say rather than “how” to say it in conversations in a foreign language and therefore speak fluently.
System 1 and System 2 Thought Processes
The human thought process harbors two distinct ways of analyzing information. They are called System 1 and System 2. This presentation
by Daniel Kahneman demonstrates the principles.
In a nutshell, System 1 thought process is basically everything we do automatically and instinctively. There are tons of decisions we make every day that are not based on logical or rational thinking. When we are hungry, we decide to eat. When we type on the computer, we rely on our instincts to find the right key on the keyboard. We often rely on our automatic responses when we are ill. Depending on our up-bringing, when we have a headache, we’ll either get an aspirin, some paracetamol or go see a doctor. That’s our instinct based on how our parents reacted to this symptom when we were children. It’s a conditioning. We want to develop the proper instincts because our survival depends on it. Thinking logically and rationally requires time and energy. Our minds have developed System 1 thought process in order to survive in the world, to be successful in our professional lives and to be happy in our personal lives.
System 2 thought process develops through time. We learn to think rationally and logically, to be unbiased and to thinking critically. This thought process requires time and energy. When we are considering what school or job to apply to, we are choosing a holiday destination or something to buy. We weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision.
If a language is to be obvious and effortless, logically we wish to rely more on System1 than System 2.
Learning a foreign language
What place does a language hold in our minds? Which thought process does it belong to?
A language is a means of communication between two minds that relies on codes and concepts. A language is a socially accepted standard of codes associated to concepts. Everyone speaking that language will recognize the concept based on the code communicated. When we speak, we should not have to logically think about which code is associated to the concept we wish to communicate. From birth, we learn to develop instincts in our language and to speak fast and instinctively. It is safe to assume then that System 1 rules the language function in our brain. If we do not manage to develop instincts in a language, communication will always be effortful and slow.
Our goal is clear: develop instincts and automatisms in the foreign language we are learning. How do we go about that? How do we develop instincts? For instance, do you remember learning to read time on a hand clock? It is now second nature to us. Or for example, how do we get children to look left, then right, then left again before crossing the street? Well, we explain the basic logic at the beginning. We tell the child that, as cars drive on the right side of the road (invert the logic if you are in a country where cars drive on the left), the first cars potentially in harm’s way will come from the left. Therefore, we first look left then we look right and then left again. The basic logic is not enough though. We want our children to develop a reflex: when you are going to cross a street, first look left, then right, then left again, and finally you can cross the street if it’s clear. We drill it and drill it, gradually increasing the level of difficulty of the situation. Every time we are about to cross the street with our children, we make them repeat with us. Gradually, we give them more freedom (still keeping a close eye on them) to test them. At an early age, we stay right next to them and hold their hand as they cross the street. Then, we’ll allow them to cross without holding hands. Finally, we’ll allow them to cross the street on their own. With time, children develop this instinct and will hold this instinct true all their lives.
The E. A. T. Principle
The E. A. T. principle applies the principles of these instinct-trainings we go through in childhood to language education. The methodology works by implementing 3 distinct phases to the learning process of any element of the language (vocabulary, grammar…).
Phase 1: Establish structure and basic logic
The first phase sets to establish the structure and basic logic. In this phase, your System 2 analyses the new information and accepts it as true. The key in this phase is to provide clear simple explanations and structure.
A student is learning Present Simple. The basic logic is we use it when something is done regularly. The structure is subject (“S”) with the verb in the first form (“V1”). For “he”, “she” and “it”, the verb takes “s” at the end.
|Basic logic: regularly|
|S + V1||He/She/It + V1 + “s”|
Most textbooks rely on this first phase for their exercises. It is recommended to do some simple exercises where you fill in the blanks with the correct form of the verb or where you make a sentence based on the words given. These two steps (presentation and exercise) establish the basic logic and structure. The new information is processed and accepted.
Phase 2: Automate
Once the structure and basic logic established, we look to automate our responses and use of this new information. Our goal is now to distract System 2 from operating and trigger System 1. The key is using the right context to create natural use of the language and the right distraction to prevent our minds from thinking logically how to say it.
Firstly, activities to automate the language should be only based on real-life situations when the language is used. Say you are learning 1st conditional, the context can be giving instructions, making plans, or even threats and promises.
Secondly, these activities need to create a distraction from System 2. The best forms of distractions are races and competitions. When in a competition, with yourself or others, System 2 will gradually give the reins to System 1 to optimize time and energy spent to win the competition. System 1 kicks in and starts forming instinctive patterns. These instinctive patterns will then be used when you are speaking. An example would be races where students need to answer questions in short answers. If you are learning Present Simple, train by answering a series of questions in Present Simple as fast as possible. As you do these over and over again, faster and faster, your mind will create automatic responses that will rely on the form of the question you hear. The “how you say it” is triggered by the form of the question, for example “do you…?” will trigger the response “Yes, I do” or “No, I don’t” and “does she…?” will trigger the response “Yes, she does” or “No, she doesn’t.” When you will be speaking in real-life, your mind will be free to think of “what to say” without needing to think about “how you say.”
Finally, it is essential to build up the difficulty as you learn more and more of the language. When you are studying Present Perfect, first do a short answer race with only Present Perfect, then move on to a short answer race with Present Perfect, Past Simple and Present Simple. Your instincts will develop in complexity.
Here is an example of a race for Present Simple.
|Do you drink coffee every morning?||Does she like sushi?||Does he drive well?|
|Do you like me?||Does she speak Chinese?||Do they work here?|
|Does he go to the gym once a week?||Do they often go to the restaurant?||Does the bank close at lunchtime?|
Phase 3: Test Instincts
Finally, the instincts formed need to be tested in real-life situations. The basic logic and structure have been accepted, automatic responses have been triggered. We now need to associate these automatic responses to more complex situations. Our mind will develop these instincts alongside other language instincts we have developed previously. This makes our speech more and more complex and fluent.
The key to creating productive situations is, once again, to focus on the difference between System 1 and System 2 thought processes. In real-life, we rely on System 2 for “what to say” and System 1 for “how to say.” Therefore, our situations need to be based on interesting and fun situations where we are motivated to use System 2 to resolve a task and achieve a goal. This creates a distraction, just like in the “Automate” phase so that System 1 is free to trigger automatic responses in the foreign language.
As pointed out earlier, the 1st conditional can be used when making plans, giving directions and instructions, making threats and promises. If one or more of these contexts are used in the real-life situation and were used previously in the “Automate” phase, then you will find yourself using new language without thinking about it.
These 3 distinct phases all serve a clear process in the map of our mind. The end result is you develop your skills in the foreign language you are learning steadily and effectively. Each element of the language you learn is like a cog of a machine. First, you study it independently; learn its structure and basic logic (Phase 1). Then you train your automatic skills and develop instincts (Phase 2). Finally, you test your instincts in real-life situations (Phase 3). This is the E. A. T. principle of our methodology. The results are clear: you learn a language by developing your instincts and fluency from the very first stage. The language becomes part of your reflexes. You are always understood and you always understand. You speak fluently.