Language is one of the basic tools that we humans use to survive. As we are social animals we need language to communicate with each other and deal with the many complex tasks that come our way from day to day. This is why the study of language in the classroom is basically an unnatural activity. We learn our own language as small children: in some cases we may need to acquire two or more languages to deal with events in our everyday lives and this learning takes place through the process of real communication. It is through this practical daily use of language that our proficiency in it develops.
Herein lies one of the problems of studying a foreign language as adults. We really need to find a practical use for it in order to develop our linguistic skills. Speaking from the point of view of a Spanish teacher, I believe this is why many people drop out of class after the initial stages. In my courses, we always start with very practical things like “get-by” phrases, how to order things in a restaurant or buy things in a shop. The great thing about this is that my students can then go out and use the language they are learning straight away, and often come back to subsequent classes full of anecdotes about their successes or failures in communication. Once the level of the language gets slightly more complex, it is important that students continue to find ways of making use of what they are learning, for it to remain meaningful. This might take the form of a language exchange partner or joining in some social activity where new language can be learnt and practiced.
The same principle is applied in modern language teaching methods with children. Rather than forcing a child to memorise words and phrases that have no application, it is far more effective for the child to learn something else, a practical skill or even the rules of a game, using the new language as a vehicle of communication. This is also the principle behind bilingual education. As far as the child is concerned, the knowledge of a second language is incidental as they use it to develop their learning in other areas.
With all that said, as adult language learners it is of course very important for us to focus on the new language itself: to understand how it all fits together, doing language exercises and memorising new words and phrases, but we should never lose sight of the fact that our whole purpose is to apply the language to real situations, and it is in doing so that we will make genuine progress as we use language for what it actual is – a tool for communication.