What We Don’t Know About S.L.A….

…is as important as what we do. I mean, if Donald Rumsfeld and Noam Chomsky agree…

Here’s my list of S.L.A. “stuff” we don’t know.  Note that
a. just because we don’t know that ____ works does not mean it doesn’t.  All this means is, nobody has investigated it and figured it out (yet).

b. science doesn’t prove anything…it makes predictions and (where possible) explains mechanisms, and if these are accurate, data will repeatedly confirm these predictions.

1. How many repetitions does it take for a student to “acquire” something?  I’ve read one study which got implicit mental representaion after ~160 input reps…but we do not know for sure.  We also don’t know if aural or “read” repetitions work better (although we do know that reading helps language acquisition a lot in the long run, and probably because readers can slow down, re-read, etc).  VanPatten et al got mental representation of Japanese word order in learners of Japanese after exposure to 80 Japanese sentences…but this is far from acquisition in its fullest sense.

Bottom line: students need many, many reps in many, many contexts.

2. In a second-language classroom, what is acquisition?  Blaine Ray’s definition is something like “being able to automatically spit the item out quickly and properly.”  But it’s well-known that the thing the kids “master” on Tuesday seems to go out the window in a week (at least temporarily– TPRS works very well in the long run). Bill VanPatten says acquisition has two components:  having gut-level, automatic recognition of the item or “rule” (and of errors), and being able to use it in real time.  However, in a S.L. class, we can often get a lot of recognition and less production (which is normal)…so it could be “partly acquired” so to speak.  What about various verb tenses etc?  A kid may spit out juego al baloncesto without thinking, but could fumble the past tense version.

Bottom line: mental representation of vocab, grammar “rules” etc improves over time with repeated exposure.  We will likely never produce “perfect” or native-speaker-like acquisition in a second-language class.

3.  What is the order of acquisition of ____ language?  We know bits of it– e.g. when in English the third person -s comes online, or how using negation in sentences is acquired– but we do not have an overall picture.  We do know that it can’t be changed (see VanPatten, Keating & Leeser, 2012).  We also know that while vocab is under the teacher/environment’s control, grammar is not.

Bottom line: students should probably be exposed to a variety of grammar from Day 1 so that when their brains are ready, they can pick up what they need, in the same way that children hear only natural language (albeit “rough-tuned” to their level of understanding) from their parents from Day 1.

4.  Does instruction in metacognition– knowing how to learn/acquire and being self-aware enough to use this knowledge– aid acquisition?    Metacognitive skills include things like

  • being aware when meaning breaks down
  • knowing– and using– strategies to repair meaning (asking for help, repetition, etc)
  • knowing how to figure out cognates
  • predicting and checking for confirmation of meaning of words, what happens in plot, etc
  • visualising

While we know that better learners of all kinds have— and use– metacognitive skills, the role of the effectiveness of teaching these to improve S.L.A. has not been explored (to the best of my knowledge). There are also strict limits on the effectiveness of metacognition in second-language instruction, namely, that nothing is going to help if the meanings of words are not clear.  And I have not seen research showing that metacognitive interventions improve language acquisition.

Krashen’s guru, UVic’s Frank Smith, has noted that the relationship between reading and metacognitive skills (or language skills) may in fact work the opposite way we imagine. Rather than having these skills make us better readers and language acquirers, it is likely that these skills emerge as a result of reading and acquiring language.

Bottom line: Students should be explicitly taught some strategies (eg look for cognates, slow down, pause and reflect, ask questions, etc) to up comprehension.  These won’t hurt and will probably help.

5. Is teaching with sheltered (restricted) or unsheltered (“everything at once”) grammar more effective?  I have not seen research either way.  We do know that competent C.I. practitioners get good results either way but there’s no data (that I know of) on this.

6.  Is massed or distributed practice best in a language classroom?  We know from practicing music and baseball, and from various kinds of studying, that you are best off learning something by practicing it a bit at a time over many times (distributed practice), rather than practicing it a zillion times/for hours once (massed practice).  

In other words, if you need thirty minutes to master that Bach partita’s 39th bar, or that Irish jig, you are best off spending five minutes a day over six days than you are doing thirty minutes at once.  I have not seen research suggesting one or the other is best in the language classroom.

Bottom line: this doesn’t really matter in a C.I. class, where recycling– a.k.a. scaffolding for those who like edubabble– is constant, provided the teacher is organised enough to shelter vocabulary.

Well that’s my list of don’t-knows.  Feel free to comment!



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