Part One: The Basics
My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model. Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness. I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga. Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things
- Everybody should have basic cardio fitness. A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it. You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
- We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things. This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
- If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
- You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.
On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year. It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy. I did it for a few months. I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.
And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room. I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength. My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.
The results have been remarkable (for me). All my weights have gone up. I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another. I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid. Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.
I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored. The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.
Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).
Can you see where we are going with this?
a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.
The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training. But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff. Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.
If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.
b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”
Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together. A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down. A vertical press engages everything from the waist up. Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.
In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning. It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.
Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.
Bill VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together.“
Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language. The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.” Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning. Kids often don’t, though. The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy. And Bill VanPatten notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once. They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time” (2013).
You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.” But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.
So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!
(Totally random side-note: Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter! He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)
Part Two: Planning and Feedback
So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class? Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?
Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.
Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do) doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).
Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma. Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained. To stay in shape, he climbs a lot. But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!). He tried and tried, and failed and failed.
So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained. Circuits. 4x4s. Hangboard workouts. Weights. Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works. And…filmed feedback. His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.
He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).