Month: September 2017

The Grammar-Teaching Question: a Simple Explanation

Despite demonstrated mega-gains from C.I. which always beat traditional methods, many traditional-method teachers still insist, the students must learn and know and practise grammar rules to use the language.  But do they?

Here is a simple answer to this comment:

  1. We ask Mr or Mrs Grammar, which of the following sentences sounds better:  “I like to run,” or “I enjoy to run”?  They will say duhh, “I like to run” sounds better.
  2. Ask them, why?  They either won’t have an answer, or they will think for a bit, and then say something like well the verb enjoy requires a gerund or a noun.
  3. Say, right, then ask them, how did you use that properly without consciously knowing the rule?  The only possible answer is, I heard it a lot when I was growing up.
  4. Ask your colleague, have you taught [common basic grammar rule in whatever language, eg how to use gustar in Spanish]?  When they say yes, ask them do they still make mistakes [eg saying “yo gusto como”]?  Your colleague will say yes obviously.

And here is the point: if we can accurately produce L1 language feature X in real time despite not knowing the rule for it, but in L2 we cannot produce language feature Y in real time despite knowing it, it is clear that the conscious mind and the implicit system do not have anything to do with each other.

Your colleague may then bust out the “skill building” argument:  that they have not “practised” saying/writing language feature Y enough, or havn’t memorised their grammar notes or whatever. But this begs the question: they acquired X perfectly without any “practise” at all, so why assume that knowledge or practice of Y will help?





A Simple Subjunctive Trick

Here’s a super-simple trick for using the allegedly “advanced” subjunctive from Day 1 in Spanish class.

When you are creating a story– or an Invisible, or an OWI– you ask the kids for suggestions.  All we do is, we restate suggestions in the subjunctive, which is appropriate.

So, if this is “classical” TPRS, and our character has to go somewhere, we ask ¿adónde va la sirena? We solicit three suggestions and as each one comes up, we say es posible que la sirena vaya a Nueva York, then también es posible que vaya a la casa de Barack Obama, and finally es posible que vaya a San Diego.

We do our five-second pop-up by saying we say “vaya” instead of “va” because it’s not certain (yet) where the mermaid goes.

We can also do this with tener, querer, ser, etc: es posible que tenga un perro, es probable que quiera tener menos tarea,  and es posible que el hombre sea malo, etc.

If we are doing a Slavic-style OWI, we must first figure out how many characters there are.  We get suggestions, and we restate them, saying es posible que haya tres chicos or es posible que la chica tenga tres perros.

For teachers who are using fully unsheltered grammar — ie past tenses from Day 1– you can also use the past subjunctive, eg fue posible que la chica hiciera su tarea or ¿fue probable que el profesor no diera mucha tarea?

We aren’t “teaching” the subjunctive to students who are expected to “master” it as a “unit.” We are just using it appropriately and meaningfully where it is necessary.  If we do this all year, the kids will develop a basic feel for it, which is really all they  need.

Eventually, after enough input, the kids will start using the subjunctive.  While they don’t, don’t worry: you can communicate just fine in Spanish without using it, and you don’t have to have a conscious explicit understanding of it to get the point. We know from research that a thing like mood is less important in the hierarchy of acquisition than is meaning, so learners will pay attention to word roots– eg. that hable  has to do with “talk”– before they tune into “oh, that e must mean incertitude or desire.”

Bill VanPatten recently called the Spanish subjunctive “peripheral,” meaning that while native speakers use it, it is not necessary for functional communication.  So…let’s use it and not worry about it.



Stuffies Monday Story

So I have Spanish 1s and today, Monday, Briana brought our stuffy dog 22 Savage and our monkey Dexter back from their wild weekend.  She sent us five photos which told 22 and Dex’s weekend story.

Here are the photos, and some of what I said about them.  This is early days so I have to keep it very simple.  If you want to do this, it is easy:

  1. Send a stuffie or two home on Friday with a kid.
  2. The kid takes 4-8 photos of the stuffie (and him/herself) which tell a story.
  3. They send you the photos Sunday eve.
  4. You project them in class, and you make statements about them that tell a story.
  5. I use wacky voices to add dialogue.
  6. I ask a few comp questions along the way.

1.  The letter.


22 Savage was at home. A letter arrived.  When the letter arrived, 22 was happy.  He was happy because he had an invitation!

2. The invitation.


22 said to Dex: We have an invitation!
Dex answered: We have an invitation?  To what?
22 said: We have an invitation to a party!
Dex said: I like parties.
22 said: I like parties too!

22 and Dex went to the party in Dex’s purple limousine.

3. Drinking Coke

When they arrived at the party, there was Coke.  Dex and 22 were happy because there was Coke.  Dex likes Coke. 22 also likes Coke.  Dex drank 3 Cokes, and 22 also drank 3 Cokes.  They were happy because they both like Coke.

Dex said: I like dancing.  I want to dance,
22 said: I also like dancing. I also want to dance.
Dex said: There are beautiful girls dancing
22 said: I like dancing with beautiful girls.

4.  Dancing with the girls.


Dex and 22 went to dance.  The girls danced.  Dex and 22 danced.  Dancing was fun. Dex and 22 danced with the beautiful girls.
Briana said: Dex is handsome!
Eisha said: 22 is also very handsome!
22 said: Dex, do you like Briana?
Dex said: Yes, I like Briana.  Do you like Eisha?
22 said: Yes I like Eisha.

5. Getting tired!


Dex and 22 danced a lot.  They enjoyed dancing.  They danced a lot and they were tired.  Oh no! Dex and 22 fell asleep!  They did not fall asleep in the house– they fell asleep outside! Briana saw them outside.  Briana was sad because they fell asleep. Briana wanted to dance with Dex more!


Input – Output = Acquisition (2)

Do we need to “practice talking” to learn to talk?  Nope.  Here’s a few more stories about acquiring language without producing it.  Those kids in your class who don’t talk much, or who don’t like talking…they’ll be fine. Here is another post about acquiring without talking.

First, from Judith DuBois on C.I.Fight Club:

I talked to a man raised in a family where his parents and older brother spoke Italian to each other and French to him, thinking they were helping him, since school was in French. When he tried to speak Italian they made fun of him for his “French” accent, so very early he stopped speaking Italian, but could understand it when people around him spoke it. He went to Italy a couple times as a child, and relied on his mother to tell people what he wanted. He thought that he could not speak Italian because he hadn’t spoken it as a child. But when he went to Italy as an adult with his French wife and there was no one who spoke French to be his interpreter, he discovered that he could actually speak Italian fluently. He says he has a slight accent and makes a few mistakes with genders, but has no trouble communicating.

Second, from Stephen Krashen, who in an excellent paper lists a fascinating bunch of case histories of people who acquired language largely via input:


A reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked me to meet Armando, a 29-year-old
immigrant from Mexico who had lived in the United States for 12 years. Armando, who
attended school in Mexico up to grade nine, worked in an Israeli restaurant in Los
Angeles nearly the entire time he has lived in the United States. While Armando speaks
English quite well, he says he speaks Hebrew better.

According to the article in the Times (Silverstein, 1999), Armando picked up Hebrew
“by observing and listening to co-workers and friends,” through interaction and
conversation, occasionally asking for the meanings of unknown words. According to the
“patriarch” of the family-owned restaurant, Armando “speaks Hebrew like an Israeli” (p.

Armando’s experience

I interviewed Armando, in English, at the restaurant where he worked. Armando told me
that it was two or three years until he was comfortable in conversation even though he
heard Hebrew all day on the job. He said that he never forced or pushed himself with
Hebrew, that his approach was relaxed. He also informed me that he had a very friendly
relationship with the other restaurant staff, with the owners, and enjoyed chatting with
Hebrew-speaking customers. Armando’s good relationship with speakers of Hebrew was
confirmed by Times reporter, who noted that Armando formed “close friendships” with
the family that owns the restaurant, his Israeli-born co-workers, and many customers.
When Armando was seriously injured in a car accident in Arizona, several members of
the family visited him in the hospital, there were calls “nearly every day,” and prayers
were said for him at nearby synagogues.

Armando told me that he had never learned to read Hebrew, never studied Hebrew
grammar, had no idea of what the rules of Hebrew grammar were, and certainly did not
think about grammar when speaking. He said that he received about five corrections a
day, but none of these were aimed at grammar; it was all vocabulary.

An informal evaluation

I conducted an informal evaluation of Armando’s Hebrew competence. I tape-recorded a
brief conversation, somewhat contrived, but the best that could be done under the
circumstances. (It would be have much better to obtain some completely unmonitored
speech, recorded when Armando was not aware it was being recorded; [but] this, of course, would hardly be ethical.) At my request, Armando chatted with a native speaker, an Israeli friend of his, about what he did the day before (it was the Sabbath). The
conversation lasted about five minutes.

I played the recording was played the next day for four adult native speakers of
Hebrew: two employees of the Israeli consulate and two employees of the Israeli tourist
office in Los Angeles. I did not indicate who the speaker was but only asked them to
listen and evaluate Armando’s Hebrew. The judges listened to about two minutes of
Armando talking about his activities on Saturday. The listening was done in a corridor in
an office building (because of tight security in the consulate), and the recording was not
of high quality. The judges were not told anything about Armando until after they made
their judgment.

Here are the results: One judge felt that the speaker was a native speaker of Hebrew,
had no accent, and made no grammatical errors. Armando’s language, however, was
judged to be “unsophisticated.” The second judge felt that Armando was a long time
resident of Israel and could have been born there. He thought that Armando might speak
Hebrew as a second language and speaks another language at home. Armando’s Hebrew
was “not quite standard” but was acceptable. This judge guessed that Armando was
Moroccan, which is quite interesting, because the owners of the restaurant are from
Morocco. The third judge decided that Armando was not a native speaker of Hebrew, but
felt that he was very good: “He can clearly say anything he wants to say,” but shows
“some hesitancy.” This judge guessed that Armando had lived in Israel “perhaps one or
two years” and has had lots of interaction with Israelis. The fourth judge thought that
Armando was Ethiopian. She felt that he was not a native speaker of Hebrew but is
clearly very good, clearly fluent. He is, she felt, obviously “comfortable” in Hebrew and
speaks like someone who has lived in Israel for a few years. He uses slang but uses it

The range is thus from “very good but nonnative” to native.

The case is quite consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis and shows that
“acquisition” alone can lead to impressive levels of competence in a second language.
An additional interesting aspect of this case, in my opinion, is the support it provides
for the notion of club membership, the idea that we “talk like the people we perceive
ourselves to be.” (Smith, 1988, p. 4; see also Beebe, 1985). Armando, it can be
hypothesized, made the extraordinary progress he did because he had comprehensible
input; but his progress was greatly aided because he joined the club of speakers who used the language. (Note that the “club” in this case was a circle of friends, not a national or ethnic group; Armando has not converted to Judaism.)  

Of course, Hebrew was not comprehensible for him right away. His great
accomplishment was due to patience, being willing to acquire slowly and gradually with
a long silent period (or period of reduced output). With a “natural approach” or TPRS
language class Armando would have had comprehensible input right away and would
moved through the beginning stages more quickly, and real conversational Hebrew would have been comprehensible earlier. I predict that a traditional class focusing on grammar would not have had this effect.

Armando’s case also shows us that one can do quite well in second language
acquisition without living in the country in which the language is spoken and without
formal instruction. The crucial variables appear to be comprehensible input and having a good relationship with speakers of the language.

From my experience:

This summer, my parents got new neighbours, an Irish couple.   I was one morning sitting at my parents’ on the porch, practising mandolin, and the very blonde Irish wife waved at me from the fence, and in the thickest of Kerry accents, said that’s a lovely chune yer playin’ there, would that be The House of Hamill?

I told her it was, and she told me, she was a flute player who regularly attended Irish sessions.  We spoke for about twenty minutes.  When I finally got around to asking her name, she said Agnieska (I think that is how it is spelled), and I said, well that doesn’t sound very Irish.  She said, it’s not, I’m Polish.

Agnieska had moved at age 17 from Poland.  She had studied German and Russian in school, but had no knowledge of English.  She moved to Ireland in 2001, to stay with a cousin who understood some English but didn’t speak any.  She lived in Dublin in a building with mostly Polish people, so she heard no English at home and in her social life.

Agnieska got a job in a pub doing dishes and cleanup in evenings.  Agnieska’s cousin  worked for the pub owner.  The pub owner liked her work ethic so got her a cleaning job in a friend’s store.  She would work evenings, first cleaning up around the end of the store’s day for a couple of hours, then walk over to the pub and work there.

The pub had Irish music sessions a few nights a week, so Agnieska heard a lot of Irish music.  She had played a bit of piano in elementary school, but had never played Irish music.  One day when cleaning up she found a cheap tin whistle under the table.  When no musician claimed it, the pub owner gave it to her, and she took it home and started experimenting with it. Over the next two years, Agnieska worked at the pub, cleaned the store, and fiddled with her tin whistle.

Agnieska told me that initially she had been shown a few basic things to do in the store and pub, and had been given a few basic instructions, like “first, sweep, then vacuum” and so on. Many of her interactions were minor variations on routine: in the pub, customers would say where’s the bog? or where’s the bathroom?, or what have you got to eat? or what’s there to eat?  In her first years working, she mostly listened to co-workers and customers.  She asked her cousin what the English meant (and was told in Polish).

Agnieska said that after about two years, she felt good enough with spoken English that she went to adult school to get English-language high-school equivalency. This is when she began reading in English (a lot of what she called “trash,” as well as newspapers).  She ended up in University, where she met her Irish husband.  They moved to Kerry, where they had two kids, and then on to Canada.

She also told me that she had managed to figure out some basic scales on the whistle within a few weeks of picking it up– it’s an easy instrument– but had not done much with it other than playing radio hits and random things.  However, one evening when the pub was slow, she was bringing the musicians some pints, and got to talking to a whistler.  When she mentioned that she too owned a whistle, he offered her one of his, and said give us a chune.  She said I didn’t give it a single thought, I just played and– to her surprise– banged out a jig.  She bought a used flute later, liking the sound more, and started sitting in on sessions.

Agnieska basically learned the English language and Irish music by listening.  With English, there was high repetition and comprehensibility, and (relatively) little variation in what she heard (and to which she had to respond).  With music, she heard the tunes over and over– tunes are typically played from three to six times in a row– on a variety of instruments, in two octaves.  Repetition in slightly varied contexts in both cases, and in both cases mostly input.

Anyway…you can pick up a ton without “practice.”

























Ben comes out swinging: homework, and some generalisations 

Well, Ben Slavic never pulls his punches (which is what I love about him) as you can see below.  Ben does implicitly raise a question, however: is it worth tarring all one’s colleagues with the same brush?  See Ben’s post, and my comments.

Well, my dear Mr Slavic, I would respectfully suggest that there is waaaaay more to the homework question than this.  So, Ben, what about these points?

What about teachers who have to give homework? Required in some places.  Are all these teachers mean, afraid, in need of approval, boring, or incompetent?  Generalise much?  It is a much better idea to look at a specific practice than something like “homework” which is so vague it could mean almost anything.

What about good homework? Things that I send home with kids– making simplified cartoons from asked stories, or Textivate sequences, or translations of short passages from L2 into L1– all deliver good C.I., are easy, and do not take much time.  I tell my kids, budget 15 min/week for Spanish homework.  Hey Ben, do you think my homework mean, or coming from fear, boring or pointless?

What about finishing up class work? My policy– in all classes except English, where there is simply not enough time to read novels in class– is, if you don’t get it done in class, it’s homework.  Would you recommend something else, Ben?

Your kids “don’t do it anyway.” Why?  Was the homework pointless, too much, too hard, infantile, or what?  Does what works (or not) with your kids apply to me and mine? 90% of my kids will do my homework if it’s not unreasonable.

Homework “seems insulting.” I’ve never heard or felt this from kids.  I have heard, it’s too much/hard/boring though. The reality in schools, with languages, is that most students  do not get enough exposure to the language (comprehensibly) in class, even with great teachers, to get anywhere near mastery in 2-4 years.  A bit of enjoyable and not too difficult reading or listening outside of  class is going to do what all comprehensible input does: boost acquisition.  How we mark hwk etc will vary across contexts, but the “insulting” tag seems, well, pointless and unclear.

Homework “is a national sickness.”  It would be much more accurate to say, stupid homework is a national sickness.  And by stupid homework, I mean more or less what Alfie Kohn means: things that do any of “building work habits,” or which unnecessarily repeat what was done in class, or which don’t work (in our world, grammar stuff etc), or which cut into family/leisure or personal interest or sports time, etc.

I don’t make decisions for my kids based on other people’s dumb ideas…I make them based on what’s going to help my kids pick up Spanish.

Anyway, my dear sh*t-disturbing Ben, you havn’t offended me.  But then, I don’t speak for everyone.