The title of this post is from the title for an essay written by Roberto Assagioli, the founder of the Psychosynthesis movement. Assagioli was born in Italy, and a contemporary of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. I reread his essay on language learning while researching current methods and theories of adult language learning, and I was surprised to find that he suggests various methods that have wide acceptance in current adult language learning theories and systems. What is interesting is that Assagioli was writing years, if not decades, before the modern studies, and his methodology is from psychology rather than linguistics.
Although the essay is undated, and I’ve been unable to find a date, there are a few clues as to when it was written. First of all, Assagioli died in 1974, meaning the essay was written before this. Secondly, he mentions that phonograph records and tape recording where increasingly being used, which I suggest puts it somewhere between the 1950s and 1960s.
This post will cover some of the main points in Assagioli’s essay. It is worthwhile reading the original, which is available here: A Psychological Method For Learning Languages by Roberto Assagioli.
Assagioli points out that there is “something basically wrong with the current methods of teaching languages” and that accepted methods essentially waste time and energy, and that “a revolutionary change” is required. The key for him was “the fundamental importance of the existence of the subconscious.” His evidence for this is “that memory, on which the knowledge of any language is founded, is a function of the subconscious.”
Assagioli listed three “facts” relating to learning processes in general, and especially applicable to language learning.
- Disagreeable and tiresome impressions tend to be forgotten or removed from the consciousness into the unconscious by a definite act of repression (Freud’s Verdrängung)
- Every effort is inherently more or less disagreeable and is very apt to arouse resistance, wandering of attention, lack of receptivity or fatigue. The greater the exertion, often, the strong is the inner opposition and the scantier the result. This is a psychological law which has been formulated by Baudoin as the “Law of Reverse Effort.”
- External stimuli which are not intensified by an active interest or by an emotion of a pleasant and positive nature, can make only superficial and dull impressions which are easily obliterated by others of a more vivid character.
Essentially, anything that requires effort, and/or is disagreeable, will negatively affect the results. Compare this with Dr Stephen Krashen’s Affective Filter theory, proposed in the 1970s, which suggests that negative emotions prevent efficient processing of the language input.
Assagioli’s solution to effectively learning of foreign languages was that we “become again as little children,” as a child learns through the subconscious, without deliberate effort, without ‘studying’ (academic study), and without worry or haste. He suggests that an initial phase of “mere receptivity,” which should continue until a spontaneous urge to reproduce sounds is felt. He notes the analogy between this method of language learning and Montessori system of education. It is a similar approach promoted by Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s Automatic Language Growth system, which attempts to reproduce the conditions that allow children acquire their first language, and also with the language acquisition theories of Krashen.
A summary of Assagioli’s the methods that Assagioli believed where most important follows:
- Vividness and Charm of Visual Impressions
Marketing experts use advertisements that strike the eye, and use attractive illustrations intended to make a pleasant and lasting impression on the view. Incorporating this strategy in lessons would make the task of learners easier and more pleasant.
- Association of Various Types of Impressions
Using a variety of different sense perceptions will create deeper and more easily reawakened mnemonic traces. The key is to deliver the perceptions in a leisurely way without concern or effort to remember words or phrases. The perceptions can be visual, auditory, and motor sensations. Using tangible objects, such as fruit or vegetables can that can seen, touched, smelt, and tasted, is something I’ve had recommended to me in when training as an ESL teacher.
- Repetition and Persistence of Impressions
Repetition builds lasting impressions. The two ESL training courses I’ve taken stress the importance of repetition, such as beginning each lessons with familiar material, before introducing new words and phrases.
Assagioli points to the teaching of deaf and mute students who are taught to imitate the teacher through close observation of her mouth. The process of unconscious imitation through such observation produces the ability to repeat the teacher’s movements. Assagioli suggests attending lectures, theatrical performances, and being present during conversations in the language you wish to learn. Of course, in modern times access to movies, music, online radio, podcasts, online chat, etc, makes this even more accessible. In line with Krashen and Brown, Assagioli suggests that “we can rely upon our subconscious to absorb and then imitate.”
- Synthetic Grasping
Assagioli suggests that “the spontaneous and natural way of grasping and retaining is by taking in the whole and not the part. … [T]he subconscious is synthetic and not analytical. … The process of synthetic grasping endorses the use of short phrases or even longer sentences without stopping to analyze their component parts and their grammatical peculiarities.” I have read, in several places, that it is counterproductive to teach single words. Always teach complete sentences and phrases. New words can easily be introduced in context, and often the positive of a word will give a clue to its meaning.
- Emotional and Aesthetic Factors
Using songs or poetry combines charm with rhythm, rhyme, and beauty, and makes a deeper and stronger impression than simple prose. “[P]oetry is easier to remember and more agreeable to the subconscious than dull phrases.” This therefore provides a practical starting point that lays a good foundation.
Assagioli is not against teaching grammar. However he suggests that grammar should only be introduced after a learner has acquired a “sufficient practical command of the language.” He illustrates this with a quotation by Herbert Spencer: “A language is spoken and many poems are written before grammar and prosody are thought of. One has not awaited the appearance of an Aristotle in order to reason well. As grammar has been compiled after the existence of language, it has to be taught after one knows it.” Assagioli summarises the process as “First direct experience, living contact and assimilation, then deliberate reflection and a clear mental grasp of the materials previously assimilated … first practice, then theory.”
While theories around adult language acquisition may have been further developed and updated, Assagioli certainly covered many areas that are still relevant today. If you would like to further information on modern theories of language learning then visit the websites below: