Month: October 2014

Dumb gatekeeping

OK I’m feeling hyperbolic today, but you gotta agree, this is pretty dumb:

So my former colleague Polly, an innovative French teacher in the communicative tradition, told me about becoming a teacher.  She’d been a languages monitor in Quebec, had read a ton, been to France, yadda yadda– she was fluent in French– and then decided to become a French teacher.  When she applied to the University, she had to take a French “entrance exam” to make sure she was “good enough” at French to teach it.  Il faut pouvoir parler comme un francais and all that. Keep the riff-raff out of the profession etc. 

So she went to the French qualification test and the oral exam was, the examiner showed her a picture of a bicycle.  “Dècrivez la biciclette” said the examiner.  Polly did what she could– it’s red, it has two wheels, it’s a ____ brand, on l’utilise au Tour de France, etc, and then the examiner said “qu’est-ce que sont  ____?” and pointed to the cogs.  Polly had no idea how to say “cogs” in French.  The examiner proceeded to ask her more biciclette questions which she didn’t know the answers for.  Front forks?  Hubs?  Brakes?

She failed the exam and had to qualify as an English teacher.  Of course, when she was applying for work, the Abbotsford board– desperate as always for French teachers– hired her to teach French.  Polly would later go on to write Provincial curricula, mark Provincial exams, sit on a zillion committees, teach French at all levels, pilot texts, sit as a department head, etc.  Yet the University powers-that-be decided that, on the basis of not being able to describe a bicycle’s components, she was unqualified to be a French teacher.

Anyway, that’s the dumbest thing ever.  Bike vocab:  low frequency.  Describe an object not normally given much consideration by people other than roadies, hipsters and bike mechanics: linguistically infrequent.  Assessment of actual relevant skill?  Zero.  Thank God the real world found Polly’s mad French skillz useful, yo, and let’s learn from her experiences by

  • teaching high-frequency vocabulary
  • not asking kids to learn idiotic, seldom-used words
  • keeping assessment authentic

How do I mark writing? Blaine Ray’s ideas, slightly modified

Stephen B.– who after twenty years of traditional grammar teaching jumped headfirst into C.I.; how bad-assed is THAT?; writes

“Anyways, I had a question about grading speed/timed writings. I know Blaine says one point per word and he talked about scaling and not to mark it for accuracy. However, what does one do in this situtation: for example, if after a 5 minute speed write one students writes 85 words but is all over the place and makes several grammatical and spelling errors, and another student only writes 60 words but it is almost perfect, how can I give the former student a higher mark?”

Here is how I do it (with many suggestions from Adriana Ramírez, whose Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input text I am using this year). First, classic TPRS in a story cycle, with movietalk and picturetalk:

A) story cycle: establish meaning, ask story (with a few parallel characters), review, retell, read a couple of versions of story

B) have the kids create a comic of the story. Story must be “complete” but obviously not everything can be put into comic. Story must be coloured, look awesome, etc (clip art fine). Each panel must

  • have at least one Spanish sentence
  • have perfect alignment between Spanish and pictures
  • where there is no dialogue, “thought bubbles” in the first person
  • where appropriate, have dialogue

This will make the kids read, choose sentences, and clarify meaning via illustrating.

C) movietalk and picturetalk to support story structures (e.g. if you taught “wants,” movietalk and picturetalk a video where a person wants something)

Then, for assessment, I am doing the following:

1) when the “story cycle” (A-C above) is done, kids will do a five-minute speedwrite and a forty-minute relaxed write.

Their first speedwrite topic will be “describe yourself.”

The speedwrite is evaluated in 2 ways:

First, wordcount. Kids count the # of words in their composition (tell them no lists, or, if they want a list, they must describe all things in the list). End of year goal: 100 good words in 5 min. For their first speedwrite, they get a 40-word bonus. So if they write 30 words, their wordcount score is 70/100.

Second, they get a grammar mark out of 3, thus:
1– it’s full of mistakes and largely incomprehensible
2– it’s mostly comprehensible but has some “whaaat?” moments and “feels” junky
3– it’s fully comprehensible, has no “whaaat?” moments, and “feels” fluid and solid (but not necessarily perfect)

Multiply their grammar mark by 33.3 and they have a grammar mark /100.

Now, average the two marks and they have a spedwrite percentage.

For the 40-min relaxed write, I tell them “either retell the story, or write your own, and you must have 3 dialogues, but put changes into your version of the story.” The goal for the year: write an 800-word story in 40 min. For their first story, I’ll expect 70-150 words. I will assign a wordcount mark out of, say, 200 and give them a 50-word bonus. I will also give them a grammar mark /3 above.  Every time they write a story, the amount of words expected goes up and the curving bonus goes down. 

We average their grammar mark and wordcount: if Johnny gets 2/3 for grammar, and writes 90 words, his score is 66.6% (grammar) + 140/200 (70%) for wordcount = 69%.

After we do the second story of the year (and until the end of the course), we repeat the procedure, with a few changes

A) the speedwrite bonus drops by 5 words each time
B) the relaxed write bonus drops by 5 words each time and the “benchmark” goes up by 75 words. By end of year kids should be able to write 800 words in 45 min.
C) we use another topic for the speedwrite for the second time: describe a picture that you project onto your screen. This picture should support what was in your story. So, if the story had a girl who wants an elephant, your picture could be a boy who has an elephant.

D) for the third speedwrite, use topic #1 (describe yourself). For the fourth, use a picture. Keep alternating.  I use fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 (all verb tenses, subjunctive, etc) so the picture describing tests evaluate how well they can use present tense. 

The writing will improve during the year. As I write this after having done only two stories, wordcounts are WAY up and grammar is also improving.

A few notes:

— you MUST carefully restrict vocab. This has been my single-greatest problem with TPRS: adding vocab at random. If you don’t restrict vocab, you get fewer reps on each item…and worse/less acquisition.

— initially, the kids will generate pretty crappy stories. Later, word count goes up and grammar will get better. Some kids will re-write the story; most will start to improvise.

their “mark” at any given time is simply their most recent speedwrite and relaxed write mark, combined.  I also do exit quizzes for listening and reading (1 each/week) so I have a pretty good overall picture of how everyone is doing. 

PQA is super important. Adriana’s book has a list of “personalised questions.” The Blaine Ray books also do. If you are doing your own stories, you make them up. Personalised questions are super-easy: you basically ask the class the questions you ask the actor.

So if you narrate “the boy liked running,” you ask your actor “do you like running?” and he says “yes, I like running.” You then ask “do you like vomiting?” (something contrastive) and he says “no, I do not like vomiting.” Then, starting with your superstar, you ask the class members “do you like vomiting or running?” etc. Simple.

This is important because the kids need to hear the present-tense forms.

— Adriana’s advice was to make sure all the kids do the comic. This is because the comic writing is “deep reading:” it makes the kids re-read, choose, copy and write, etc. For the non-artists, translation also works: copy story, underneath it translate (diff coloured pen), leave a blank line to keep it clear. Here is a pretty good example of “Los Gatos Azules” turned into a comic (one of Adriana’s kids did this one):



Anyway, this is how I have organised the “units” of TPRS and how I assess. Coments, as always, welcome!

What is “sheltered subject matter teaching,” and does it work?

Susan Gross has said of T.P.R.S. that “we shelter vocabulary, not grammar.” This means we do not give our students tons of vocab items– we “shelter” them from a downpour of different words– but we do use whatever grammar we need right from the get-go (keeping it all comprehensible). This is what we call “sheltered subject matter teaching.” Today’s question:

Does sheltered subject matter teaching have a research basis?

The answer, it would seem, according to a new study mentioned in the Times, would appear to be “yes.” (I have emailed the author asking for a copy of the paper; forthcoming).

Background: there’s lots of evidence that poorer kids are exposed to– and pick up on– much less language than wealthier kids (Hart and Risley 1995 is the best-known study). So, people have suggested poorer kids need to be exposed to more language. The question, of course, is what “more” should mean.

Researchers studied parent-child language interactions and, long story short, found that

A) the number of words parents use with their kids does not significantly affect how linguistically capable they become in the future. In other words, super-dooper edumacated parents who went to one of them fancy Ivy League schools– and use a greater variety (and quantity) of vocabulary than do the less-educated– do not manage to make most of their vocabulary “rub off” onto their kids. While wealthier, better-educated people do end up with kids who know more words,this acquisition does not happen because the parents know, or say, a greater number or variety of words.

B) The article notes that “the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.” In other words, it is the type and quality of communication that matters more than the quantity.

C) Researchers “found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Sound familiar?

So…if older kids learn anything like their younger siblings, we can maximise language acquisition by

— reducing the variety of vocab we use. We don’t have to stampede through 1,400 words/year– as my Avancemos text demands– to get kids to learn a ton…we just really focus on using our fewer words quite clearly.

— using realia to to support meaning (props, wigs, costumes, actors, etc)

— using rituals– shared, repetitive actions– to support learning by providing context clues/prompts to clarify meaning. E.g. We begin stories with “there was a girl/boy…” Blaine Ray emphasises one specific technique– the teacher turning their shoulder to audience and facing the actor– about which I thought, “why bother?” initially. But now I get it: it’s a ritual signal to the audience that we are switching from narration to questions (and often from one verb tense to another).

— “saying it back” to students (part of the circling technique). If we ask “did the girl forget her giant purple dog at the nightclub?”, and the kids answer “yes,” we repeat back to them “yes, the girl forgot her giant purple dog at the club.”

— using “wacky voices,” baby talk and other prosodic tools to clarify meaning (Michelle Metcalfe is the goddess of this technique). These “other prosodic tools” include changing tone and volume, using accents, exaggerating question and exclamation intonations, etc. The more “shaped” language is, the easier it is to understand. If I exaggerate my question tone, the kids don’t need to devote mental bandwidth to wondering is Señor Stolz asking a question, or is he stating a fact?. Rather, they know that it’s a question, and can focus directly on the meaning.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that the kids understand.

Stories saving language: notes on learning & teaching Okanagan

I was presenting in Kelowna, B.C. on Friday and met a guy who’s saving a language. Tyler E. works for an Okanagan school district and is a speaker of the indigenous language Okanagan (spoken in southern B.C. and northern Washington State). Tyler this year has a full-time Oakanagan language class and his mission, basically, is to save Okanagan, of which there are few adult speakers left.

Okanagan– of which I got to learn a few words on Friday!– was largely made extinct by the racist genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government. It is written using English letters, with a few add-ons for the non-English sounds (like Vietnamese). Tyler has been majorly struggling with how to make the teaching work but he feels like he’s hit a pedagogical jackpot with comprehensible input.

I got to chat and acquire some Okanagan from Tyler after the workshop and interesting were some of the things Tyler said about what the native Elders– who have input into local education– have to say about what they want to see in Okanagan language teaching.

A) they want all Okanagan teaching to be done with stories. This is Native tradition and these people have been here for literally 13,000 years and they know what works for them.

B) they do not want the language taught via the grammar grind. There are still elders and many parents who had English (and French) literally beaten into them in residential schools (whose aim was “to take the Indian out of the child”) and for them grammar teaching basically feels colonialist. Abstract rules and examples are like the white man’s law: detached from local context, and used to enforce misery. As Thomas Pynchon’s narrator remarks, “it is not the name, but the act of naming” that enforces power. The Okanagan have told stories to their kids for 12,870 years longer than Canada has existed, they saw an alien language imposed on them in an alien way, and they are smarter than the white man’s Latinist-grammarian descendent teachers in knowing that stories– built on what kids know and experience– and not rules and tables, are the real teachers.

C) they want the language to feel alive to the kids. The TPRS practice of using bizarre names and details and situations works fine for these folk. They are not tied to any “cultural” agenda. They do not feel that they must be importing anything foreign into their kids lives, and because they live in two worlds– the Native and the modern– TPRS’ odd juxtapositions seem natural to them. Most important: kids like language. Least important: formal grammatical learning. Tyler tells me that traditional Native stories will work well with TPRS and he’ll be able to throw modern elements in there as well.

Native stories– and almost all traditional narratives, like folk tales, old epics etc– are full of the so-called “bizarre” stuff for which TPRS is sometimes– inaccurately– mocked. I mean, pick your epic, and you’ll find talking snakes offering women apples, clever crows stealing babies, Gods disguised as people…TPRS stories are a return to tradition, not a departure.  Magic realism, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez noted, is realistic because it’s magical.

After the workshop ended, we spent some time with Tyler practising teaching me by circling two parallel sentences– “the boy wants to swim” and “the girl wants to hunt.”

Here is how Okanagan is written:

in̓x̌ást iʔ pix̌m

x̌ast= like to

Some things I noticed from acquiring a bit of Okanagan:

A) it’s HARD to learn a new language if the teacher goes too fast. As soon as Tyler went too fast, I was lost. Ben Slavic’s insistence that the most important skill in T.P.R.S. is going s-l-o-w-l-y is 100% correct.

B) It’s EASY to pick up some new words if sentences are circled slowly.

C) it FEELS GOOD to “get it.”

D) I stopped noticing the “weird characters” after awhile. In the example above, the wiggly thing above the X is something like a “shh-w” sound. Once I got the meaning, that stuff just faded into the background.

How do we teach “advanced” grammar?

I got a great comment from Jody in México. I argued in a previous post that Blaine Ray (and any other solid comprehensible-input teacher, such as Joe Dziedzic, Susan Gross, Ben Slavic, etc) will use what Jody describes as “complex language (subordinate clauses, subjunctive, mixed tenses, etc.) with lower level students.”

Jody then pointed out that legacy methods (communicative and grammarian) teachers will generally say “How are kids going to be able to do that if we haven’t taught them the the other tenses first? They don’t know enough language to be able to handle those “advanced” tenses and constructions. The idea is ridiculous!”

Jody then asks “How do we respond to those teachers? […] HOW [does] a teacher make[…] complex language comprehensible (orally) so that its complexity and quantity don’t overwhelm the student ? [How does a teacher ] KNOW that this kind of instruction is actually working with her/his students? What if your students are just not getting it? Is it them/Is it me? What do you do?”

So…today’s question: “How do we teach so-called advanced grammar?”

First, there is, technically speaking, no such thing as “advanced” grammar in the sense that some things are “harder” to learn. My definition for “advanced grammar” is “grammar used not as frequently as other grammar.” I say this because the less we hear/read something, the harder it will be to acquire. Now, some sentence structures are more complex than others, true. A sentence such as Blaine Ray’s “the boy wanted a cat who had a blue iPhone” is more complex than “I like cats,” but in terms of grammar, really, they’re all the same…and, in some cases, apparently “simple” grammar is less used than “advanced” grammar. For example, in Spansh, according to word-frequency lists found here

— “used to be” and “was” are used more frequently than “you are.”
— the subjunctive form for “s/he is” and “s/he was” are used more frequently than the word “good”
— the formal future tense for “s/he is” is used more frquently than the word for “three”

Even a University-educated Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish native speaker who has acquired English– like my Mexican friend Emanuel, or my climbing partners Polly and Teresa– will often not acquire the third-peson -s until way after they have acquired much more “complex” structures such as the past conditional. (Polly, from China, has two degrees from English universities, a few million in the bank, has bought and sold a few businesses, has been living and working– and reading– in Canada for twenty years, and still says “I hope he run with me tomorrow.”)

Yet, in a typical textbook the words for you are, good and three are introduced– and practised– WAY before such “advanced” forms as the past subjunctive. So textbooks get it wrong.

But the question remains: how do we teach such supposedly complex structures as the subjunctive?

a) you keep it 100% comprehensible
B) you provide loads of repetitions, and
C) you don’t expect the kids to internalise whatever “advanced grammar” rule you are teaching right away.
D) if it’s aural (listening input), all the above apply, and include written support to boost comprehensibility

For example, the Spanish “quiero que seas mi novio/a” (I want that you be my boy/girlfriend) is– in traditional terms– “complex.” It has a subordinate clause and the subjunctive.

If I am teaching a story, I’ll throw that in there as dialogue. I’ll have “quería que fuera” with translation on the board. I narrate “Rochelle quería que David Beckham fuera su novio” (Rochelle wanted that David Beckham be her boyfriend). I then ask my actress (in present tense) “¿quieres que sea tu novio DB?” (Do you want that DB be your boyfriend?) and have her respond with “Sí, quiero que sea mi novio” (yes, I want that he be my BF). I’ll also include dialogue where Rochelle meets DB and says “David. Eres muy guapo. ¡Quiero que seas mi novio!” (You are very handsome, I want that you be my BF!)

I will also ask the class comprehension questions: “when I say quería que DB fuera su novio, what am I saying?” and I’ll circle the sentence. I’ll also ask my actress lots of questions: “¿quieres que George W. Bush sea tu novio?” etc and when I do this, I’ll ask the class “what am I asking Rochelle?”

Now, note carefully:

A) the kids have NOT acquired the subjunctive even if they can retell the story, or properly use the sea constuction in a sentence. But they have acquired a “piece” of it and feel— somewhere in their heads– a fragment of the rule that “infinitive minus r plus a or e equals desire/possibility.” And they also have something useful— the word sea is in the top 300 or so Spanish words and they can use the word in at least one situation.

B) I am not grammar-geeking out. Hell, I don’t even tell the kids about the subjunctive, the rules, etc. All I say is “sea means ‘might be’.”

C) Once I have used sea in this story, I can re-use it everywhere and anytime. In my next story, maybe Fahim wants a blue cat, and tells the cat “quiero que seas mi gato.” (I want you to be my cat)

D) When I throw imy next subjunctive statement into a story– “¡No me gustas! Quiero que te vayas.” (I don’t like you! I want that you leave)– I also keep it 100% comprehensible and the kids– subconsciously– are getting reinforcement on the subjunctive a/e pattern.

Now, when legacy methods teachers say “they don’t know enough language to be able to handle those advanced tenses” (e.g. the subjunctive), I would ask them about their Level 4s and 5s, to whom the text says “you must now teach the subjunctive”:

— are your students appropriately transfering their sudden new explicit knowledge of the subjunctive– rules, endings, irregular forms, etc– into every part of their speech and writing?

— if you taught the subjunctive as part of a topical/thematic unit (e.g. as part of a unit on work– “el papa quiere que su hijo tenga un buen empleo” (the dad wants his kid to get a good job), do the kids actually use the subjunctive when talking/writing about something other than work?

— do the kids use the subjunctive appropriately and automatically in speedwrites and unrehearsed speech? Or are they mainly “good” at it when they have time to look through their binders and notes, and when they are doing worksheets, or textbook exercises?

I’m gonna bet the answer to all three is “no.” It sure was when I taught “communicatively” from a rigidly-structured text.

So does T.P.R.S. have an advantage, in terms of teaching “advanced” concepts such as the subjunctive? Yes. Mainly because, as Susan Gross argues, people acquire grammar rules on their own schedule, when they are ready for them, and not before. It follows from this that, as Gross says, we should provide rich, interesting, totally comprehensible and multidimensnal language right from the get-go, so that the kids are constantly getting everything, and will pick up what they are ready for when they are ready.

If we hold off on “advanced grammar,” what happens if a student isn’t ready to acquire an allegedly “simple” grammar rule? They will get input that only provides a part of what they need! If you restrict input to X, kids will only only have the chance to acqire X…for which they may not be ready, and what they are ready for, they won’t be getting.

On top of that, there is no way of knowing what kids are or are not ready to acquire. And, even if there were a way to know that, how could you possibly design teaching around 30 different stages of acquisition? You can’t.

So what do you do? You provide rich, interesting and comprehensible language all the time, and you– and the kids– are good.

Are these 17 statements about language acquisition true? Answers from the research.

Here’s a list of popular assumptions about language learning and teaching from Lightbrown and Spada (2006).  I found this on leaky grammar, which is well worth checking out.  I’m responding to these statements based on research from Stephen Krashen, Wynne Wong, Bill VanPatten, and of course the stuff in Lightbrown and Spada’s 2013 text, which everyone should read.

1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation  

No.  While obviously there is imitation– especially from children– the research is clear: most language learning comes from receiving aural or written comprehensible input.  At much later levels in the L2 acquisition process, some explicit feedback– especially for writing– will help things along.

2. Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors 

Depends.  Some do, some don’t, some sometimes do.  There’s no evidence to show that this practice works.

3. Highly intelligent people are good language learners 

What does “learning” mean?  Research shows that people who traditionally test high on IQ tests (which have well-documented biases) are pretty good at doing things like remembering and consciously applying grammar rules.   However, many illiterate people– who would massively bomb any IQ test– have acquired many languages.

4. The most important predictor of success in second language acquisition is motivation 

No.  While motivation may keep students “tuned in” to instruction– they will listen/read much more (i.e. receive comprehensible input) if they want to learn– all the motivation in the world will not overcome ineffective methods.  A teacher who is providing incomprehensible input, or boring tasks, will eliminate motivation in all but the eggest-headed of students, or, even if those students stay engaged, will be unable to ‘reach’ them.  Krashen has declared motivation less than important.

Related:  motivation to what?  Most students don’t especially care about Spanish, French, etc.  I sure didn’t…what I did care about was being able to meet and talk to people in Mexico, read Paz in the original, order food, meet Colombian women, etc.

5. The earlier a second language is introduced in school programs, the greater the likelihood of success in learning 

Depends.  Canadian data on French Immersion supports this theory.  However, if a language program doesn’t follow brain rules– it provides incomprehensible input, it’s boring, it scares learners, etc– more instruction is not a good idea.  We also know that adults, under the right conditions (good comprehensible input), can massively out-pace Immersion learners and kids in acquisition.  Some estimates are that 1,000 hours of comprehensible input will build functional fluency.  Immersion and early exposure do one thing MUCH better than later exposure:  get rid of accents.

6. Most of the mistakes that second language learners make are due to interference from their first language 

No; only a very few are.  Many are interlanguage.  As Lightbrown and Spada show (in their 2013 4th edition), many errors made by second-language learners do not reflect their native language.  Indeed, studies show that many interlanguage errors are common across cultures and languages.

7. The best way to learn new vocabulary is through reading. 

Yes, provided the reading is comprehensible and interesting enough that learners will do a lot of it.  Some studies suggest that over 75% of a literate adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.

8. It is essential for learners to be able to pronounce all the individual sounds in the second language. 

Essential for what?  To acquire the language?  No.  There are plenty of cases of learning that happen without speaking.  I learned some Mandarin in 1995.  I couldn’t speak it for the life of me, but after working with my Chinese boss for 6 months, I could understand sentences such as “go to the back and grab the cleaning cloth.”  However, eventually, people will want to “roughly get” pronunciation because  saying “I have a big deck” wrong can make you sound like, uhh, well…

9. Once learners know roughly 1000 words and the basic structure of a language, they can easily participate in conversations with native speakers 

Generally.  BUT: conversational success also depends on

  • whether or not the native speaker can slow down and simplify enough for the L2 learner
  • what they are talking about– a native-speaker engineer talking engineering will be incomprehensible to an L2 learner who doesn’t know anything about engineering
  • what “know” means.  “Knowing’ grammar rules and vocab lists alone won’t work– the L2 learner must have had their 1,000 words presented in meaningful, comprehensible ways, over and over.

10. Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time, and learners should practice examples of each one before going on to another. 

No. Grammatical rules are acquired at the learner’s own rate; some rule acquisition– e.g. use of negation in English–  follows predictable patterns, while some is piecemeal (i.e. appearing to be acquired, disappearing, reappearing etc).  Presenting rules in sequence will also make for much less compelling input (see the ¡Díme! texts for an example).  Best practice:  present a comprehensible and interesting variety of multidimensional language so that whatever learners are ready to acquire is there all the time, as Susan Gross has said. VanPatten says that verb “[t]enses are not acquired as “units,” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

11. Teachers should teach simple language structures before complex ones. 

No.  The classic example is the third-person -s ending in English.  It appears simple, elementary, etc, yet is often very late acquired.  What is a “simple” structure anyway?  In Spanish, children often acquire such supposedly “complex” grammar as the subjunctive before they properly acquire the present tense.  In French and Spanish, there are supposedly “complex” verb tense items–  from the imperfect and preterite tenses– which are much more frequently used than some present tense verbs.

12. Learners’ errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits. 

No.  There is no evidence to suggest that this works.  Error correction may actually slow acquisition because, let’s face it, it’s not fun to be shown “you’re wrong,” and, as it has been well-documented that happy secure learners = better learners, the self-consciousness that comes with error correction may impede acquisition.

13. Teachers should use materials that expose students to only those language structures they have already been taught 

This is 95% true…but learners can, and do, use metacognitive strategies to figure out new words or grammar, and/or often do so unconsciously.  While it is important that about 95% of language be 100% comprehensible, some “new stuff” is essential to growth.

14. When learners are allowed to interact freely (for example, in group or pair activities), they copy each others’ mistakes.

No.  They often make the same mistakes, but these are generally not from copying each other, but from interlanguage processes.    While language in a communicative classroom is typically impoverished– learners provide other learners with their by-definition low-level output– this does not generally cause errors.  The communicative classroom– which features lots of student talk– is, however, a bad idea, because students are not giving each other quality input.

15. Students learn what they are taught. 

Mostly, depending on the quality of instruction. In a comprehensible input language classroom– done properly— students will acquire most of the vocab and grammar that is presented, and will pick up a lot of things that are not consciously and deliberately presented.  However, if grammar is taught via the rule-then-practice method, or vocab is taught by list memorising, students will acquire much less than “what they are taught.”  Acquisition = how much repetitive, compelling and comprehensible input students get.  Students will not necessarily acquire what we teach when we teach it, as Long (1997) notes.

16. Teachers should respond to students’ errors by correctly rephrasing what they have said rather than by explicitly pointing out the error. 

This will feel better to the students than explicit correction, but there is no evidence it aids acquisition.  My view:  corrected output errors in a T.P.R.S. class are necessary to some extent because they provide better input for other learners.

and finally,

17. Students can learn both language and academic content (for example, science and history) simultaneously in classes where the subject matter is taught in their second language. 

Yes, absolutely, provided the language is 100% comprehensible.

What do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences? (❤️ and one heartwarming TPRS story ❤️)

Every year when I start with beginners, I ask the kids, how come you chose Spanish, as opposed to Punjabi, French or any of the online options?    The responses are revealing. Note:  at our school, I get Spanish kids as beginners (level 1) who are generally in 10th or 11th grade.  Before that, they have done one of the following (some at our school and some elsewhere):

  • Core French (regular classroom French– 75 minutes/day for a five-month semester-long course) in 8th & 9th grade
  • Core French in 8th grade, then they dropped it and didn’t take a language in 9th grade
  • no language, because they are/were E.S.L. from another country originally
  • no language because they had learning support
  • Punjabi or Hindi as a heritage language (they already speak it, so basically learn reading & writing)
  • they come from another school, and I have no idea what they took there but most likely a bit of French

Today’s question: what do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences?  

  • “We learned a lot of rules but they were hard to remember.”
  • “I could remember the rules but not what they meant.”  I asked this kid more and she said “like you can remember to [conjugate a verb] but you don’t know what it means when you do it.”
  • “It was boring”
  • “I liked the language but I couldn’t speak it.”
  • “I liked speaking it but I couldn’t write it.”
  • “I didn’t like talking.”
  • “It was confusing.”
  • (from a very bright kid I have in English 11, who still takes French): “In grade 8, I could speak a bit of French after like two months.  But they just keep adding rules.  You have to remember all these rules when you talk and write. Now in Grade 11 I am constantly thinking how I should talk.  So I can only talk when I practice with my partner.  But then she [the teacher] puts us with a different partner and you have to rewrite your dialogue.”

We have to also remember that the kids I get are the ones for whom grammar or traditional communicative teaching doesn’t work.  A lot of kids keep on with French, Punjabi, German, Chinese etc and the teaching works well enough for them.  We also need to remember that teachers (at least all of the ones I know and work with) are incredibly hard-working and caring.  I spent 11 years going to workshops, often with my colleagues, and I can tell you that 95% of teachers (and all of my colleagues) work their butts off.  My colleagues are constantly revising, fiddling, etc.  These are not phone-it-in teachers using twenty-five year old lessons.  So we must conclude that methods don’t always work even if the teachers are working super-hard.

Now TPRS won’t solve all the problems, but it will address some of them.  How?

a) we don’t force kids to remember and regurgitate rules.

b) we focus on meaning, not grammar; we discuss grammar only to clarify meaning

c) We use stories– which have suspense and weirdness– and personalisation to keep things interesting

d) we don’t expect speech from beginners, or from those who are self-conscious.  Speech from kids is like, you’re on your way to buy an nice espresso in the morning, and you find a $2 coin on the sidewalk: it’s great, we love it, but we we don’t expect it and we’re grateful when it happens.

e) we immediately clarify all ambiguities, because we know, from forty years of research (and that awful feeling we get in our get when we are confused) that acquisition stops when we don’t understand.

f) we restrict writing (and speaking) to only what we have taught (a.k.a. sheltering subject matter).

Now, I’m definitely the world’s worst T.P.R.S. teacher.  I totally suck.  I mean, on a scale of “sucks a bit” to “sucks a lot,” I’m so far off the scale I can’t even see it.  I have screwed up PLENTY.  I have introduced too much vocab.  I have assigned grammar-based homework.  I got reluctant beginners to talk during P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers).  I have sometimes not stopped to clarify meaning.  I have built stories around grammar.  If a T.P.R.S. mistake can be made, I have made it.

That said, for me, T.P.R.S. is working better than Juntos (communicative) or ¡Díme!(grammar-grind) teaching, because I am slowly bringing my work into line with research and the classroom practices that Blaine Ray, Ben Slavic, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Susan Gross and others have developed, and I am sucking slightly less every year.  I get increased enrolment, zero management issues, happier kids, MUCH better output of all kinds, plus class is fun, all marks are higher, and the weakest kids can succeed.  Mostly, I attribute this to what T.P.R.S. lets us do:  stay in the target language most of the time.  The kids hear probably 20x the Spanish they used to– and they listen and read more.

❤️ Now, here is something heartwarming.  ❤️ When I finished teaching my first semester of TPRS, my student Jack K.came and thanked me for switching from the grammar grind to TPRS.  Jack had my awful trad teaching in Level 1, and TPRS for level 2.

I told him, thank Blaine Ray, not me.  So, Jack wrote to Blaine.  Here is their conversation:

“My name is Jack K., I am a 17 year old student at Tamanawis. And for the last two years I’ve been taking Spanish classes, I’m glad to say I did quite well because of your program.

The first year I arrived to Surrey from my native Quebec, I was offered to take Spanish class (because French was too easy) which I accepted. The class was very different but i enjoyed it thoroughly because I love languages. The only problem is that it didnt feel natural, it felt like a struggle, regardless of my teachers efforts, I found it hard to approach as did everyone else in my class, Mr Stolz had been teaching languages for years, but hes approach seemed rough edged, so the first year I did average getting around 70% , when I totally knew I could do better, because French is very similar to Spanish and I really wanted to progress.

The next year I took Spanish class again, but this time something was very different, Mr Stolz’s whole approach on the subject was different, it felt natural, and as the semester progressed I learnt way more then I ever thought I would, to the point where I was forgetting basic things in both French and English. So the second time around was just great, it went very smoothly, I did very well In the end, which sparked interests in languages I didn’t know I had. and literally on the last day of school, I spoke with Mr Stolz for a while and the topic of your program came up, (he spoke about your program quite often) and I told him how easy it felt the second time around, and I was really grateful, because I now want to get a minor degree in Spanish later on (which I didn’t want to do at first). Mr Stolz insisted on me thanking you personally for your program, because it actually helped a lot of people including me. So thank you so very much dude.”   — sincerely, Jack K.

Then Blaine wrote back:

“Thanks for your wonderful email. What a great response. I am so grateful that you were able to learn this way. What a great thing that you are now planning to minor in Spanish. Thanks so much for sharing.” — Blaine Ray

So I hope that when I hand my kids off to their college or Uni Spanish profs, they are happy with what I tried to give them.

Thematic & topical units: not so fast…

So here are a couple of  requests from a language teachers’ forum.  WHat do they have in common?

Yup– they are “grammar topic” focused.  We also regularly see requests for “units” or stories about shopping, clothing, body parts, etc.  This brings up the question of the day: should language be organised around either grammar or topical vocab?

My answer:  generally no, with one exception: if you work somewhere and you must do the “shopping unit” or the “body parts” test, you do it to save your job, bla bla.  But if you have control, avoid grammar-foc used or theme-focused units.  Why?

First, definitions. For languages, most curricula– with the notable exception of Blaine Ray’s original TPRS– are organised into topics. Typically it will be a grammar concept such as a new verb tense, plus a bunch of vocab on one topic– food, the environment, recycling, shopping– often organised around a cultural idea/place. My Avancemos book, for example, in its first chapter, has a setting (New York), a theme (introductions), a set of grammar ideas (the verb to be) and a bunch of vocab: hellos and good-byes, numbers, days, months, age etc.  ¡Juntos! did its imperfecto “unit” on childhood, as does my colleagues’ French courses.

I actually have never seen a non-T.P.R.S. text that wasn’t topically organised. Texts are done this way because, well, I dunno, as we shall see.

So…why are grammar or theme vocab units a bad idea?

A) Topics are boring. In a typical classroom, where, say, the restaurant unit is being taught, students will typically “do” stuff with the vocab. Match words and pictures. Act out a diner-and-waiter skit. Ask each other what they want to order. Make up their own restaurant and menu, etc. Write about eating out. The problem here is that after the initial interest– if any– of learning new vocab wears off, things are going to get boring because what can you actually do with all this vocab?. You are basically saying and hearing the vocab over and over…for what? How interesting is it to hear “I would like French fries” over and over? While the vocab may be useful (for kids who know they are going to France or Quebec someday) this stuff isn’t inherently interesting.

If you don’t see why, ask yourself this question: when was the last time you spent three weeks talking about one subject– food, say– in one verb tense, using one or two new grammar tricks and say forty words? Never? Why not? Cos it’s totally BORING, that’s why not!

This brings up the, uhh, interesting question “what is interesting, anyway?” I’d say a solid mix of novelty, repetition and control works.  Something is interesting when we don’t know what will happen and we want to find out, and I could be fooling myself here, but doesn’t that make stories the most interesting teaching tool ever?

B) Topics distort authentic language. Ok, I know, people are going to say “well we always use non-authentic (i.e. simplified, learner-suitable) language in a classroom, so who cares?” But by “authentic language” I mean something like “multidimensional.”

Here are two examples. First, from Avancemos Uno, Chapter 6, here’s a sentence from one of the telenovelas:  “I like cats more. Cats are nicer than dogs”

Second, this is from the 5th chapter of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk:  “Caden knows that there are many gorillas who dance poorly, and so he doesn’t want any old gorilla, but rather one who knows how to dance well.”

The text sentence is tied to the chapter’s objective– teaching comparisons– and so it’s one-dimensional and boring.  Now, the problems with this aren’t the sentence itself (or the many others in the chapter that are just like it).  The problem is the idea of a theme or topic.  If your topic is a grammar point– in this case, comparisons– you are massively restricting yourself with what you can do with the vocab.

Imagine this:  you want to write a short story in English but the only thing you can use– outside of nouns and a few basic verbs– is comparisons.  The story would look something like this:  “There is a boy named John.  He is taller than his sister.  He has as much money as his sister.  He wants more money than his sister.  So he goes to meet a man who has more money than John does.”  OK, we get it, we are bored, it’s two-dimensional…but at least it’s a story.  What are you going to do with it if you don’t use stories?  Have them point to pictures and tell their partner “the girl is taller than the boy”?  Write a paragraph– cleverly disguised as a Facebook status update– about why your favorite actor Channing Tatum is more ______ than Ryan Gosling?  Boooooring!

Ray’s sentence, on the other hand, has two subordinate clauses, the subjunctive, it’s compound, and it’s interesting. Dancing gorillas? Cool! Where? How many?  In T.P.R.S., we don’t have one grammar objective per story, because we use all grammar all the time. The kids are always getting something like authentic– multidimensional– language.  When Ray wants to teach a grammar concept– e.g. comparisons– he’ll just pick one, make it comprehensible, and throw it into the story.  The point is the story, and the language, properly speaking, is incidental…but it’s also more authentic than the impoverished, one-dimensional stuff in texts.

C) Topical units tie grammar to vocab and decrease “transfer” from one theme or topic to another.  Years ago when I taught using a “communicative” program– ¡Juntos!— one problem repeatedly came up. Unit 5 taught the pretérito using school vocab. Unit 7 taught reflexive verbs using daily routines. Unit 9 or whatever taught the imperfect using childhood memories. The problem? Even when these “worked”– and they generally didn’t– at the end of the year the kids could only talk about childhood using the pretérito, daily routines using reflexive verbs, etc. What they should have been able to do was use everything everywhere.

A Spanish sentence such as cuando me desperté ayer, estaba cansado, y no había café en la cocina (“When I woke up yesterday, I was tired, and there was no coffee in the kitchen”) is totally normal. It also uses two past tenses and a reflexive verb (in the past). My kids could never have produced a sentence like that, because the text didn’t offer exercises or reading where these things were mixed together.

Much more effective: use a bit of [non-Englishy grammar item/vocab] in Level 1, and keep on using it all the time.

When I saw the amazing Joe Dziedzic this year at IFLT in Denver, he was rocking a Spanish story with level 2s and using every grammatical structure that exists.  He had 2nd year kids understanding things like “si hubiera ido, hubiera estado más feliz”  (if I had gone, I would have been happier).  Joe’s kids, as a result of his classic (but free-form) T.P.R.S., won’t “see” or “cover” immense vocab lists, and probably couldn’t tell you what exactly an -ar verb is.  BUT…over four or five years of very good C.I., they will hear complex, authentic Spanish that covers most of the grammar etc from Day One.  As a result, this stuff will be “wired in” in a much deeper way than if it were taught sequentially, and when/if the kids ever get to college Spanish, or Mexico, the input they’ll get, combined with having the “mental platform” of all the grammar, will mean much faster comprehension, better output, and quicker learning.

D) It’s harder to remember similar vocab items together. Here is Paul Nation’s paper, and here is Rob Waring’s (thanks, Eric Herman, you deity of rounding up research) which show us that when you have to learn a bunch of similar stuff together– e.g. a big list of food items, or of clothing, or of, say, reflexive verbs– they are harder to remember. Ideally, we should be learning a mix of really disparate things together because– as with the visual system, where it’s much easier to see interlocking patterns when the patterns are each of very different colours than if they are of similar colours– differences = contrast = memorability.  I remember teaching communicatively and oh my God did I ever suck when I gave the kids 40 food items to memorise.

Blaine Ray’s technique– teach, say, only two adjectives and two verbs in a story– is brilliant. This allows for massive numbers of repetitions (= acquisition), and makes sure that, since there are only a limited number of items, they will each “stand out” in memory better than if a massive list of items had each item only used a few times.

E) Topical texts do not follow frequency lists. As I have noted elsewhere, frequency lists– how often a word is used– should guide teaching. If 85% of all spoken language is 1,000 words, and 95% is 2,000 words (as Nation & Davies show) we should teach the most-used words first. Now in my Avancemos book, goodbye is one of the first words taught, yet it is in about 350th place in terms of frequency!  There are 349 more-used words than goodbye. So why does the text teach this before the 349 other more-used words? Avancemos also starts off with days of the week, yet many of these are in 1,100th place! Most texts do a unit on clothes, fashion etc within the first 2-3 years. A word such as T-shirt is in about 4,400 place.

F) Topical and thematic units disregard the order of acquisition.  Basically, people’s brains soak up the grammar they want on their own schedule.  Things like the third person -s in English which appears to be a “basic rule’ is actually late-acquired; in other languages such as Spanish, “complex” grammar” like subjunctive is nearly as frequently used as, say the present tense, and is in any case much easier to soak up with a lot of exposure over time than if it is “presented” late.  As soon as comprehensible input starts coming in, the brain starts “figuring out” grammar…so it is best to introduce it ASAP to maximise processing opportunities.

As ought to be clear by now, thematic texts are introducing too much similar vocab at a time, much of which is not worth learning right away.

Legacy methods use themes to tie language together; the right way to do it is to use stories (or something else that is inherently interesting) which uses all necessary grammar.   Here’s a broader=picture view of this question:

Suggestions for avoiding the topic trap:

use a mix of everything all the time (vocab, grammar, etc)

do not stick to only one verb tense, or grammar point, or whatever, in a story. With true beginners, you may have to do a few present-tense-only (or whatever) stories at the start to get them feeling comfy in the target language. After that, however, do not restrict yourself (Papa Blaine sure doesn’t).

— if you must have a “theme” or “topic” for a story– e.g. you want to teach vocab for ordering in a restaurant, and food items– restrict the amount of new vocab and make the story wacky and fun.

Here’s an example for a food story:

  • ordered
  • returned
  • brought
  • was very _____
  • adjectives,
  • a couple of food items.


What would you like?
— I would like…

Would you like to return it/send it back?
— Yes, I’d like to send it back, because it is too _____.

(Mary) was hungry and went to ___.  The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Mary went to _____. The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Finally, Mary went to McDonalds.  She ordered ____.  The guy behind counter was _____.  The food was delicious!  But oh no, the waiter was so (negative quality)/Mary had explosive diarrhea, Mary (lost her appetite/threw up/ etc).

Note:  while the food items are, well, food items, everything else is totally transferable.  E.g. you can order something online, return an ugly sweater, and one will always need to use “I would like.”

pay attention to the frequency lists. Some low-frequency items will be necessary for a good story, but go easy on these. If you must bring in low-frequency items, use cognates.  The Blaine Ray books are great for this.

recycling is your friend. If you’re worried that, oh my God, my kids didn’t master the blablabla vocab in unit one, just throw that stuff into subsequent stories. E.g. you do a restaurant story where you target a few food items and orders. If the kids don’t acquire orders in that story, have characters in subsequent stories stop in at restaurants or a taco stand and order something.

— don’t do entire units on  boring stuff like numbers, weather, etc.  Here’s how to make boring stuff slightly less boring.

What are traditional methods, why are my colleagues using them, and should I say anything?

At a department meeting the other day, I was talking to one of our student teachers. She’s doing French and Art, and was telling me about her  University methods professor– the person who teaches student teachers “how to teach French.”

her Uni has a system where the student teachers get a general intro course, then do a short practicum, then get more methods, then do along practicum, then get a mega-methods class. Sometimes, depending on intake, the order is scrambled (e.g. the STs will get long methods then practica, etc). Anyway, she was telling me that her methods professor– a French woman with a Ph.D.– was all about

A) immediate grammar correction
B) explicit grammar teaching and practice
C) grammar homework
D) lots of “oral practice,” etc

I told here “all that stuff is junky, because it’s not supported by the research.

This brings up two good questions:

A) what are “traditional practices”?

B) why do people still do them?

B first. I wrote about traditional practices and why there are so few comprehensible-input teachers here

So what are “traditional practices”?

Traditional practices– a.k.a.”legacy practices” (not my term, and a term I’m no longer using, because it comes off as judgmental) are old methods of doing things. In language teaching, to put it crudely, traditional practices are things that teachers do which are not supported by research. In languages, this (now) means things tried before Krashen began gathering the data that supports the comprehensible input hypothesis. Tradiional  methods include

  • asking for output in the first stages of acquisition
  • using learner-created output with other learners (especially in early stages)
  • explaining grammar rules for any length of time
  • making people copy down grammar notes
  • giving grammar-focused assignments (fill in the blanks, conjugate the verb, etc)
  • assessing grammar knowledge
  • basing assignments around output
  • organising curriculum around themes

We know that talking isn’t necessary for acquisition, that there are limited (and short-term) returns on grammar instruction and practice, that there is no way to ensure that acquisition follows a textbook, etc.

At the early 20th century, Latinists influenced language teaching, and thought, rules plus practice = acquisition (see the scene near the start of  The Dead Poets’ Society where the Latin teacher is having his kids decline agricola, the Latin word for “farmer”). Skinner– drill, baby, drill for rewards– seemed to reinforce this. Chomsky, who is not only the most quoted but the most misunderstood researcher, put the boots to Skinner but seemed to reinforce the “rules plus practice” formula (he didn’t). Grammar, plus audiolingual (listen then talk) was all the rage for awhile, partly because of the U.S. Army’s insistence on audiolingual methods. It was not until the late 1970s that people began experimenting with the communicative-experiential approach (broadly, using realistic language in communication-gap scenarios, plus grammar practice, to develop acquisition).

While the C-E approach must have been a breath of fresh air compared to the grammar grind– it was for me in high-school German–, we now know that forcing people to talk makes many uncomfortable, is unnecessary, and deprives people of the rich, quality L2 comprehensible input that drives acquisition.

So what do you do when your Department either a) just doesn’t like comprehensible input or b) refuses to read the research and change methods, or c) both?

You speak your piece. As Michael Fullan says, without the difficult conversations where people confront their biases, outdated practices, etc, there is no progress in schools. When in our languages department questions come up– we have been “directed” by admin to come up with inquiry questions to guide departmental practice– I will base my conversation around research and fact, and not what “I like” or “what I believe in.”

I was criticised, called “out of line” for my suggestion that some of my colleagues’ use of legacy practices was not appropriate practice.

Well…we teach in a public school, we answer to the public, and we had BETTER be able to justify our methods. I can. I know the research, I have demonstrable results, I’ll share everything I know– and I’ll come and demo in any of my colleagues’ classes, in any language I know. I will not sit there and discuss the question “how can the languages department implement project-based learning?” if the research on acquisition does not support that. I do not want the departmental budget directed toward “the French café” (the crêpe wagon comes and kids can say 3 words in French to buy a crêpe) because this is not helping acquisition. (I wouldn’t support the taco stand or the samosa wagon either, FWIW). I don’t want to waste time on discussing which textbook to buy, because we know– from research– that textbooks don’t follow the acquisitional “brain rules.”

In short, it is the comprehensible input/T.P.R.S. teacher’s job to advocate for activities, policies and materials which reflect current research, and not to go along with legacy practitioners’ outdated practices. Gonna do T.P.R.S.? Get ready to have some tough, but very rewarding, discussions.

As of 2016, I have reflected on this post from two years ago and I have realised one thing: personal bridges come first.  People will generally only listen if you develop a bit of a bond and it generally does not help to start a conversation with arguing.  So I have had to start being/appearing less confrontational.  (interesting side-effect of this: a communicative/grammarian colleague–despite her protestations that TPRS is weird etc– is becoming a C.I. teacher!  She has ditched the worksheets, started doing novel reading, tells stories, etc…)

To someone who has never seen T.P.R.S. in action, and/or who hasn’t (or won’t) read the research, or who refuses to experiment, or who “believes” in his/her legacy method, T.P.R.S. can sound like craziness.  No grammar notes?  No practice dialogues?  No grammar tests?  No vocab lists or discrete-item testing?  Madness, or at least, eccentricity.

But hey!  Remember what Bertrand Russel said: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Input – output = acquisition!

I did a workshop yesterday at Simon Fraser University and one of the standard questions came up:

    Can people learn to speak a language without “practising” speaking it?

The answer, as forty years of research and 100,000 years of evolution show, is “yes,” but sometimes stories speak louder than data. So, today, two cool stories about acquisition without output.

First, here’s a great blog entry by Trisha Moller about language acquisition. She writes:

“Recently one of my administrators shared a story with me that illustrates what using comprehensible input and repetition can do.

My administrator was teaching English in Africa to small children before he became a Social Studies teacher here in the States. He taught very young children and used fairy tales to help them to acquire the language. For months he was reading and illustrating these stories. He read The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, etc. He saw no indication that they were really understanding and they produced little language.

One day, one of the little boys was misbehaving and he was asked to stand outside the door for a moment as a consequence. It was hot outside and this lad did not want to be there. After the door closed he began to bang at the door and the teacher heard the following: “If you don’t open this door I’ll huff and puff and blow the house down!” My administrator was floored as that was the first English he had heard. It was spot-on for usage and the child showed that he knew just how to use it. It gets better though. Just after this, another young girl came up to the teacher and tapped him on the arm shaking her head no and said “this house is made of bricks.”

So, if you still think that TPRS/CI is not working, do not lose heart. It will take hold. Your students [if they are getting compelling comprehensible input] will acquire whatever language you are trying to teach them.”

The second story concerns my climbing partner Teresa. She’s Brazilian, raised in Brazil. Her Mom is Brazilian and her Dad is Mexican. When they were kids, Teresa and her brother heard Portuguese from Mom (and the rest of Brazil) and Spanish from Dad. Dad spoke Spanish to Mom, and Mom spoke Portuguese to Dad. They understood each other but never formally learned each others’ languages.

When Teresa was 8, her parents split up, and her mother married an American. Her stepfather spoke functional Spanish (to Teresa’s Mom). Her Mom, however, decided that the kids should learn some English, and so it was decided that stepdad would only speak English to the kids. So Teresa and her brother heard English, Spanish from their Dad on weekends, and Portuguese, but spoke only Portuguese. She and her brother also had a steady diet of American movies (variously subtitled into Spanish and Portuguese) and Spanish movies (also subtitled, mostly into English). She and her brother often also turned on the captions for English films as they found it easier to read English dialogue than to understand it in spoken form. They watched classic Disney films and Pixar movies over and over.

During childhood and adolescence, she had loads of input in two foreign languages, but no output: “both my Dads understood Portuguese even though they didn’t speak it much, so I heard a lot of English and Spanish but I never spoke it.”

When she got to high school, Teresa was put into advanced English and Spanish classes. She decided to go to Canada at aged 19 to University. She told me “when I arrived I could understand everything no problem. Speaking was really hard though. But one day about a month after I arrived, I was asked a question in class, and without thinking I answered in English. And after that speaking was no problem.”

Teresa got a job as a Youtube channel manager for Latin America and now uses lots of Spanish in her work. She speaks English (and Spanish) with an accent…but also with basically perfect grammar.


— comprehensible input– and interesting repetition thereof– works
— talking is the result of acquisition, and not the cause. These kids learned without having to produce.
— later-acquirers will have accents…but having an accent does not matter
— no formal grammar instruction is necessary to acquire a language
— there were no expectations placed on Teresa and her brother to speak, write, etc– they just listened and watched
— they were never made self-conscious by way of correction of grammar or accent, or by being forced to speak

Cool, huh?