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.