Progressive Linguistic Retraining

the language barrier

In this post I would like to present you with a language learning method I’ve been working on for some time. For those who follow me on Quora, you’ll know that I’m a fan or progressive learning, do not believe in shortcuts, and tend to focus on ways to break the language barrier.

I will start by answering two general questions and then will move on to explain my method.

Why is language learning difficult?

Actually, it is not difficult for children, who acquire any language simply through exposure and interaction. The problem is that adults are not learning a language but relearning it. When you learn a new language, your first language reacts, and creates interferences. This is why breaking those mental patterns is important. The confusion comes when we compare the natural way in which children acquire their first language with the systematic way adults use to accomplish the same task.

What is the best way to learn a language?

The best way is during your early years. For adults there is no “best” way to learn a language. If there was, everybody would be using “that way”. You can learn a language deductively (focus on form) or inductively (focus on meaning), but not subconsciously. The “best way” is to choose the method which best suits your learning style. Ultimately, language learning is a combination of both deductive and inductive learning. The more you advance, the more you can rely on your previous knowledge to find out the meaning of new words.

What is progressive linguistic retraining?

Progressive linguistic retraining (PLR) is the result of my research and development of a language learning theory that provides a smooth transition from your mother tongue to the target language. As an adult you are not learning a language, but RElearning it. When you learn a new language your mother tongue reacts, creating a barrier. Transformation exercises help break this barrier and take you from known to new structures so that you can retrain your brain to the new system in a smooth way.

What is the difference between PLR and Audiolingualism?

PLR has been created with the objective of striking a balance between focus on form (FonF) and focus on meaning (FonM). Its differences with the audio-lingual method (ALM) are:

  1. Audiolingualism discouraged translation. PLR allows it, which makes learning more progressive. We need to take into account that the more inductive the learning, the more difficult it is for some learners.
  2. PLR gives a context in each transformation activity, thus turning “mechanical drills” into “meaningful drills”.
  3. PLR starts with transformation activities (FonF) and usually ends with a final translation activity (FonM). The idea is to help create new mental patterns in the new language through transforming, and put them into practice through more communicative activities. This combination of transformation and translation did not take place in audiolingualism.

Let’s say you want to learn how to express the present continuous in English. A grammar-translation approach (either online of offline) will give you explicit instructions and have you carry out several grammar exercises that can be later turned into conversation. This type of learning may be boring for advanced learners, but may be useful especially at beginner level and with a large L1-L2 distance.

Now imagine you want to learn the same concept through the direct method. You can either use inductive learning software (e.g. Rosetta Stone), go to the target country, or practice with a language partner until you find the corresponding pattern by yourself.

Learning through guessing is more fun, but also more difficult, especially with a large L1-L2 distance and difficult concepts like a different alphabet, subjunctive tenses, metaphoric language, pleonastic particles, etc. Besides, you need to make sure that you “guess right”. If you “guess wrong” you may end up speaking fluently, but it will be your own version of the language.

The audio-lingual method would focus on carrying out some drills until the new pattern is formed. Example: It snows. => It is snowing. It rains. => It is raining. This type of learning may be boring for some learners, unless it is combined with more communicative activities.

Finally, the communicative approach would suggest doing some task-based activity where you could learn the target structure in context practicing with a partner. This method is in reality “an umbrella term – a broad approach rather than a specific teaching methodology, and has now become the accepted ‘standard’ in English language teaching.” (Taylor)

PLR focuses on creating new mental patterns through transformation (TRF) exercises and then putting the new patterns to practice through translation (TRL) exercises. I call these exercises “audiocards”, and assign them a “type”, and a “subtype”. An audiocard focusing solely on transforming will be type “TRF”, and subtype “TRF”. A transformation audiocard containing emotional content will be type “TRF” and subtype “EMO”. But more on that in future blog posts.

Audiocards have little icons on the lower right hand corner so that you know the type of exercise you’re going to do. In the image below you can find examples of Translation, Transformation and Restoration audiocards.

audiocard types

Why is this method effective?

Because it is progressive and helps prevent fossilization. The main reason people make the same mistakes over and over again or have difficulties with a foreign language is not because of motivational or emotional issues – it is because of the interference of their L1. As Tomasz P. Szynalski says, “when you’ve been saying things like ‘He go away’ for the last two years, it’s not so easy to start saying ‘He went away’ all of a sudden.”

The more you break the L1-L2 barrier, the less fossilizations you will encounter. You can also break that barrier while talking, but it is usually more difficult, because during a conversation you tend to focus more on meaning than on form.

How can I try this method?

You can try this language learning method by signing up to and consulting the FAQ for instructions. Thanks for reading, and good luck on your language journey!

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  1. 20 January 2018 at 12:15 am

    Great work, Manuel.

    Wish that I was still in language teaching or learning. Your approach seems to be a solid compromise of a few methods.

    Good luck with it.

  2. 20 January 2018 at 10:25 am

    Thanks so much!

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