Month: July 2018

But They Can’t Conjugate Verbs!

Image result for angry spanish teacher

(I looked for an image for upset Spanish teacher and this was all I got)

Here is a comment from the SPANISH TEACHERS IN THE US page on Facebook. Here, Dan brings up a classic argument between a more traditional language teacher and a C.I. practitioner

Here is a response to a discussion about whether or not C.I. delivers better results than does the textbook:

My first question to Dan’s interlocutor– the teacher who has inherited some C.I.-taught kids who can’t conjugate saber— is, what do you mean by “conjugate?”

If we mean, can we tell the kid “conjugate the verb saber in the present indicative yo a.k.a. first person form” and can they do it?, the answer might well be no. This is because consciously knowing

  1. what an infinitive is
  2. what conjugating is
  3. what first person is
  4. the rule

is what we would call conscious knowledge– Bill VanPatten calls it “explicit knowledge” and Krashen “Monitor awareness.” Neither of these have anything to do with the subconscious linguistic system where language is acquired, processed and stored. We can successfully use a variety of grammar “rules”– such as saying “I am” instead of “I are,“, or “I enjoy running” instead of “I enjoy to run“– without knowing (or even having been taught the rule).

As Bob Patrick says, conjugate the verb to run in the pluperfect passive third person progressive. Can you do this? Really?  You mean you can’t say the race had been being run on demand?

Knowing the “rules,” and how and when and where to apply them, does not guarantee successful production of language.

As Jason Rothman (2008) write, “Variation in language use is simply a fact of all output, native and non-native. As a result, any given linguistic performance does not always accurately represent underlying competence.”

My second question to Dan’s interlocutor is, can textbook-taught kids produce this– or any other verbform– on demand better than C.I. taught kids? Maybe. It’s possible that Johnny’s Spanish teacher has hammered away at verb tables bla bla bla and Johnny, that eager beaver, has spent countless hours studying, and can now say “right, —er verb, first person, irregular, lemme see, uh, sé.”

The real question, however, is do they do it without being asked to do it, ie in real-time, unrehearsed communication? If my experience of 12 years with the text is a guide, no, absolutely not, and the same goes true for writing. Kids taught with textbooks and a focus on grammar rules memorise dialogues, and they do not produce very much (nevermind very much good) written language spontaneously.  Here is an example of just how grammatically accurate kids taught with C.I. can be.

My third question to Dan’s interlocutor is, what cost does an obsession with perfect grammatical output carry? If Johnny’s Spanish teacher gets the kids to obsess over verb tables, that means they won’t be either “practising” other grammar, or– worse– getting input. There will also be a cost to students’ enjoyment of Spanish: reading/watching good stories is way more fun than doing tedious grammar stuff, correcting one’s writing, etc.  And this means that students who end up in grammar and textbook programs drop out more, as Grant Boulanger has thoroughly documented. It also means that, in the long run, students will not do as well in a textbook/grammar program as they will in a C.I. program (see Part Two of Boulanger’s work here).

My fourth question to Dan’s interlocutor is, if you put a C.I.-taught kid on the spot and get them to meaningfully communicate, can they do it well? My answer: generally– if the task is developmentally appropriate— yes, they can. We have to be realistic about what we can get done in a language class.  Babies get 4,000-5,000 hours of input before they start saying single words; at age 6 (after ~14,000 hrs of input), kids are still making errors with irregular past-tense verbs in English. They are, however, communicating just fine.

My fifth question to Dan’s interlocutor: when C.I.-taught kids use sabo instead of sé, how much of a problem is that? My answer: a Mexican or a Spaniard who hears a kid say “yo no sabo donde está el baño” is going to know exactly what the kid is trying to say. This is like a Chinese kid asking you “where bathroom?” Mandarin doesn’t have “to be” the way English does, and the Chinese kid obviously hasn’t “studied hard enough,” as a grammarian would say, but we get it. When a Mexican asks, “did he went to the bathroom?,” we understand just fine.

Finally, I’d point one thing out to Dan’s interlocutor: When Johnny gets to Spain or Bolivia, he is going to hear more– and better– Spanish in 6 days than he will in class in one year.  Input will ramp up so much that Johnny’s errors will inevitably get corrected by the epic amounts of Spanish he is hearing.

 

 

 

Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

It is a lovely Sunday, work is over, but sadly my climbing partner Tiff has decided to chase boys instead of vert, and so here I am reading SLA papers, in this case Jason Rothman’s “Aspect Selection in Adult L2 Spanish and the Competing Systems Hypothesis: When pedagogical and linguistic rules conflict” (2008).

Rothman in this paper hypothesises that conscious learning of grammar “rules”– in this case, the distinction between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish, for L2 learners of Spanish– will interfere with native-like acquisition of those “rules.”

There is a standard explanation of the preterite and imperfect that we Spanish teachers give: the preterite is a snapshot of the past, and the imperfect a movie.  Finished past action vs habitual or ongoing past action, etc. Now this is not wrong, but it is far from complete. Which of the following (from Rothman, 2008), for example, is correct?

(11) Siempre que  fuimos a la universidad, estudiamos en la bliblioteca.
(12) Siempre que íbamos a la universidad, estudiábamos en la biblioteca.

Both are, obviously, but the meanings do not follow the ongoing-vs-completed template of instruction. Both mean more-or-less “when we went to the Uni, we ended up studying in the library.” Both are generalisations, but 11 connotes an accidental (unforseen) generalisation, whereas 12 is a foreseen generalisation.

Rothman took three groups of people who knew Spanish: native speakers, those who had studied, and those who had acquired Spanish “naturalistically,” i.e. on their own, largely through TV, radio and interactions with native speakers. All did the same two tasks.

They sorted the students to account for Spanish knowledge etc etc, so they got three groups who were functionally similar (ie all could read Spanish about equally well).

Task One was, read “Goldilocks” in Spanish, and choose the correct of two forms of the verb (preterite or imperfect). Task Two: read a paragraph with blanks, and generate the right form of the verb (again, the choice was between preterite and imperfect).

Now, this was a “Monitor” task. The students dealt with writing, and had time to employ the conscious mind, rules, declarative memory etc. Rothman hypothesised that, because conscious learning and rules couldn’t capture the subtleties of the p-vs-i distinctions, students who had acquired via these rules would underperform others.

The results?

1. Native speakers all overwhelmingly made the same and correct choices.

2. The “taught” students of Spanish made a wider variety of errors, and many more of them, than did the native speakers.

3. The “naturalistic acquirers” of Spanish made significantly fewer errors than did the “taught” students, and their error patterns were more native-like than those of the “taught” students.

Rothman’s hypothesis was therefore confirmed: acquisition of the aspectual (tense) system of Spanish was significantly slowed by conscious learning and speeded up by exposure to input. As he puts it, “pedagogical rules of oversimplification can result in L2 performance variation, perhaps indefinitely.

Rothman points out that if teachers wanted to meaningfully and beneficially “explain” the p-vs-i distinction, they have to do it in significantly more complex ways than they– we– now do. There is, in other words, way more going on than the “photo vs movie” metaphor.

And the old problem of mental bandwidth here arises: because, as Bill VanPatten notes, we have limited “room” in our heads for explicit information, the more explanations we get, the less “sticky” they will be in our memory. In addition to this, some of these explanations about why we would use one verb tenses or the other– are not particularly student-friendly. Do you want to explain about adverbial quantifiers, semantic distinctions, and accidental vs foreseen generalisations? Could kids understand these? Would they care?  

There are obviously also about 1,000,000 more “rules” in Spanish– or any other language– and so we would rapidly hit a wall if we had to teach using rules.  No time, little student interest, and no way to keep all those rules in your head (or access them in real time tasks, such as speaking or listening).

Luckily, there is a way out. One major implication for teachers, which Rothman notes, is that “the only compulsory variable is sufficient access to quality input.” This is exactly what Stephen Krashen predicted forty years ago: providing input beats anything else, and there is very limited benefit to learning grammar “rules.” Krashen’s dry comment that the relative clause is less than compelling also merits note: nobody other than classroom teachers really cares about grammar.

People who have to teach to stupid, grammar-focused tests take heart:  loads of C.I. is way more fun than studying the stupid textbook, and it works much better!

The moral of the story: input gets the job done just fine. Stories ahoy– carry on!