Month: March 2014

Unicycles and language “learning”

Cynthia Hitz writes a great blog post about the difference between learning (rules, info etc) and acquisition (being able to use the language without thinking). She amkes the great point that you can “know” everything there is to know about _____ and still not be able to actually DO _____. Languages, unciycling, playing guitar…this is well worth a read.

Does accented input matter?

If you are using TPRS and you have actors, the actors will be speaking your target language in an accent.  At a recent presentation to the South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services E.S.L. teachers in Penticton, B.C., I was asked

“is accented input a problem?”

My answer– not really.  The person asking this mentioned that they had Punjabi and Mexican E.S.L. students.  The Punjabis will have problems with the “w” sound and word order (e.g. “Vat you are doing?”) while the Mexicans typically cannot say word-initial “s” not followed by a vowel (e.g. they will say “espaghetti” instead of “spaghetti”) and they will have problems with past-tense negatives (e.g. saying “I didn’t went to work”).

For the purposes of TPRS, we will use board-written dialogue to deal with grammar problems.  If you are teaching “went” you write “I didn’t go/I went…” on the board and if they can’t say it they read it.

Accent– as long as it doesn’t interfere with meaning– is not a problem.  It doesn’t matter if the Indian guy is hearing a Spanish accent or vice-versa.

First, we all teach accents anyway– English, Canadian, American or whatever we speak.  Second, there is almost certainly something to be said for students hearing the same message in a different variety of accents.  If they understand the message, they are acquiring.  It is quite possible that the novelty of hearing something in a different accent will “focus” them more on the input.  Third, this is probably good decoding practice (on a subconscious level):  it’s better for them to hear slow, simplified comprehensible input with an accent in class than for them to only hear “perfect sounding” native-speaker English in class and incomprehensible accented English outside.  And they WILL hear loads of accented English outside in our multicultural world.

Finally, in the case of E.S.L. learners, they will hear good English outside class anyway, so a bit of accent in class is not that big a deal.

Questions?  chris(dot)stolz(att)gmail(dot)com

Language Acquisition the EASY way!

I just read a really cool post by American ex-soldier Brad West about his language-learning experiences in the U.S. and Asia.  It’s worth a read.  Three parts of his story– which also recounts professor J. Marvin Brown’s experiences teaching foreign languages– are of particular interest.

a) Among Thai restaurant workers who are exposed to English, servants are supposed to listen to guests, and bargirls are expected to talk.  The servants’ English– both spoken and understood– was better than the bargirls’, despite that they rarely if ever spoke.

b) American foreign service students studying Thai are encouraged to speak Thai from their first day in Thailand, and attend Thai language classes.  Mormon missionaries, on the other hand, have a very different experience.  They do their missionary work in pairs, an elder with a junior Mormon.  The elder knows more Thai than the junior, and the junior is only there to listen while the elder preaches and explains to his Thai listeners.  Interestingly, the junior Mormons acquired much more Thai than the American service students, again despite not talking.

c) Brown studied what “drove” acquisition of Thai, and concluded that grmmar study was actually not helpful at all.  He ranked methods this way: 

worst = studying grammar.

bad = lots of grammar study + immersion. 

Better = less grammar study + immersion

BEST = little grammar study + immersion

This reminds me of a Spanish teacher I know who teaches Level One (intro) Spanish via pure T.P.R.S.  Her kids are staggeringly good when she finishes with them (most are 14 years old).  They can write a 500-word story in 3 verb tenses in 30 minutes at the end of the course and they can fluently have basic conversations where they aren’t pausing and going “uhhh”while their eyes roll up and right.

When they get to level 2, they are taught by traditional grammar and communicative teachers, and they get worse at Spanish.  Students report that it “feels hard” to write (or speak) in a traditional, communicative classroom.  My guess is this because (a) the teacher is explaining and having them practice grammar and (b) making them consciously focus on the language when they speak and write (corrective feedback etc).  They can now often explain gramamr rules…but they speak and write less. 

c)   Brad West finally learned Thai after ditching dictionaries and just starting to listen, and after enrolling in a program where he basically got a lot of comprehensible input.  He knew he was learning when he heard an announcement in a Thai mall and couldn’t remember if it had been in English or Thai.

Waldorf schools and T.P.R.S.

Rudolf Steiner, the great German philosopher and teacher, developed the Waldorf School system.  Waldorf schools emphasise imagination, creative play, moral agency and a whole lot of other ideas we don’t see much of (especially in the test-driven U.S.).  Interesting here are the connections between Waldorf schools and TPRS– fascinating– lessons for us here from the 1920s.

In this article from the Moon Child blog, a Waldorf teacher explains some of the steps used in early literacy. 

First, children are exposed to an enormous variety of oral language.  The kids hear folktales, nursery rhymes, stories, poems, and even simple news articles.  Original– not “dumbed down” or simplified–language is used.  The emphasis here is on getting loads of language–and its zillions of attendant ideas, grammar structures, patterns, sounds etc– into kids’ heads in a fun, meaningful and interesting way.  The teacher goes S-L-O-W-L-Y and clearly.

This oral language is taught in “circles” where there are lots of opportunities to discuss whatever is being read.  The texts are read aloud, sung, etc, several time.  Memorisation is ESSENTIAL: the kids will know dozens of songs, poems, stories etc by heart by the middle of first grade.  Steiner was very set on memorisation being important: repetition “reinforces” neural connections, and having a “data set” to play with– mental “objects,” so to speak– is an important element in developing any kind of thinking,

Letters come next– kids learn mnemomics where for example “M” stands for “mountain” and the kids draw anm-shaped mountain (or whatever).  This personalises their relationship with the lettters.

Writing begins not with copying letters and worksheets, but with the teacher reading a poem the kids know aloud, then writing it onto the board or overhead, and the kids then copy it down.  Because they “know” the poem– often by heart– there is little or no effort involved in writing and decoding.  The kids simply “get” that writing b-e-a-r is how you write down the main character in the fairytale they know. The word comes in the writing sequence in the same “place” it comes in the speaking, so it all fits.

Reading starts in the second grade…and involves only literature.  There are no “read and answer multiple-guess” questions activities, no worksheets, and no “book reports.”  Most of all, there are no “See Spot run!” kid books– Waldorf kids jump right into interesting, kid-complex texts.

It looks like Steiner did in the 1920s what it took Blaine Ray, Susan Gross and others from 1980-1990 to re-tool for the second language classroom.  In TPRS, we

(a) emphasise masses of oral language– comprehensible oral language– long before we start writing and speaking.

(b) emphasise repetition:  we want our limited (but interesting, because in story form) vocab “hardwired” into our kids’ heads

(c) begin writing with “copying” stories from what was spoken..and we later branch out into personalising that writing.

(d) read “real” literature– novels– (albeit language-level-appropriate ones) which use real situations and people.  We don’t use isolated bits of writing, or exclusively informational texts, etc.

(e) we personalise what we read– discussion, extension, etc.  If a character likes eating fish then we talk– who likes eating fish?  why?  why not?  (we can also talk about more complex ideas– if a character in a novel feels lonely even among his or her friends, we can ask who feels lonely? when?  why do we feel lonely with friends?  are we always lonely when we are alone?)

The main difference with TPRS and Waldorf language instruction appears to be that in TPRS we have to majorly simplify input, and we have to restrict input’s variety (because our kids recognise a ton less than native-speaker Waldorf kids do).  Interesting how Baline and Susan– fifty years after Steiner– basically “rediscovered” his method.