Getting Rid of a Big Buuuuut

Image result for bottle of wine

This is a decent bottle of wine. It’s also a bet. I bet you this bottle of wine that nobody can refute what follows. Go on…take  the bet! (Mormons and other teetotalers, we can do a bottle of Portland’s finest kombucha, how’s that?)

We all know that C.I. works for language acquisition. Actually, we know that C.I. is the only thing that works. As linguist Bill VanPatten put it on his show, “the benefits of grammar-focused teaching are purely incidental.” That is, when we give students worksheets, or force them to talk/memorise scripts, or memorise lists of words or grammar rules, or whatever silly thing the textbook preaches, they pick up (a wee bit of) language not because of these activities, but despite them.

We have research to support these claims.  Yet, we still have colleagues, Headz, Adminz, Faculty Adjunctz, Evaluatorz, some Parents, and even some students, who say a version of “buuuuut…C.I. doesn’t work, because _______.”

That’s a biiiiiig buuuuut, and nobody’s pedagogical self wants to walk around dealing with THAT, sooooo…TPRS Questions And Answers is proud to present, Getting Rid of a Big Buuuut, aka “the short n sweet for the haters.” Some people don’t like, can’t or won’t read, or don’t “believe in” science. This is for them. Here goes. Thank you: BVP, Robert Harrell, Terry Waltz, Blaine Ray, Bob Patrick, Tina Hargaden, Eric Herman and others for many of these ideas. Note: these work. But you have to tailor them to audience, etc.  As always, YMMV.

  1. “…buuuuut people need to talk to acquire language.” 
    Robert Harrell: OK, so you need to talk to learn to talk. Right. What language would you like to learn?
    — Uhh, Urdu.
    OK, let’s start by speaking Urdu.
    — But I don’t know any Urdu

  2. “…buuuuut we need to [consciously] know grammar rules to speak a language.”

    Me: Which sounds better, I like to run, or I enjoy to run?
    — I like to run.
    — …
    Who taught you that “rule”? Did you practice that “rule”?
    — …

    Terry Waltz: *takes out phone and turns stopwatch on*
    Terry: Say three sentences about what you did last night.
    Uh, I cooked dinner and ate with my kids.  Then I watched the news. Later my husband put the kids to bed.
    OK, now, say three sentences about what you did last night, but don’t use the letter “s”.
    I, uhh, cooked dinner and I ate with my uhhh children. Then I watched uhhh TV. And my hu– er, partner– put our ki– err, children– to bed.
    Terry: Your first took you 4 1/2 seconds. Your second took you 16. How easy is it to speak when you have to think about your own language?

  3. …buuuuut if your kids don’t know how to conjugate verbs and fill in the blanks, how are they going to be ready for [high school/middle school/Uni]?”

    Vice-Principal in a Portland school: Riiiiight, good point.  Let’s have a look at State/provincial standards. Hmmm. I don’t see anything here about our curriculum preparing students for any specific subsequent classes.  Could you show me that?
    Colleague: …

  4. …buuuuut they still NEED those skills.”

    Tina Hargaden: Suuure. Let’s have a look at State standards.  There is going to be something in there that says, “students will be able to conjugate verbs and fill in worksheets.”
    *looks up the Oregon World Languages Standards re: what
    Novice High students should be able to do.*
    Tina and colleague: read that students at this level “understand, exchange, and present information about familiar topics in everyday contexts using a variety of rehearsed or memorized words and phrases with attempts at creating simple, original sentences and questions.”
    Tina *shows colleague examples of how students can read and write stories in, and understand spoken Blablabian*
    Tina: sooooo those verb conjugations.  Where do the Standards mention them?
    Colleague: …

    Note: if you can find ONE State or Provincial language curriculum that includes verb chart filling out, pronoun-placing etc work as an objective, that bottle of wine is on me cos you, uh, “win.” Go on, get your Google on!
  5. …buuuuut students need to know all the words for food if they will ever survive in France.”

    Terry Waltz: I’m a certified, professional Mandarin-English translator and I  lived and worked in Taiwan for years. I still don’t know all the words for the food I typically eat there. Neither do the people who live there. And when we don’t know, we just point, and say I’ll have that.

  6. …buuuuut students must know all the numbers from 1-3,998,231.6, all the location words, all the colours, the alphabet, all the basic body parts, and the words for clothing.

    You (in your head): ya right cos when I go to Taiwan, I’m gonna need to say “I need 87 pairs of blue pants to wear on my legs A and B under the raincoat.”
    You (actually; thanks Eric Herman): Why?
    — Well, these are the basics of language.
    You: What do you mean?
    — They are used a lot. Basic. Also they are in our textbook as the first units and they are on the exam I have been giving for the last 45 years.
    You: I wonder.  How about we look at frequency lists to see what’s most used?
    — Sure.
    You: *show them the Wiktionary Frequency Lists*
    You: *press CTRL F to search the list.*
    You: OK, let’s see whether or not “yellow” is in the top-1000 most-used words in Spanish.
    You: *type in amarillo. Nothing comes up. Type in sea (“is” in the subjunctive form, typically taught in Level 4 or 5 in textbook programs). Sea is the 150th most-often-used word in Spanish.*
    You: Hmm that’s weird, well I guess we better ditch colours in Level One and start teaching the subjunctive.
    — …

  7. …buuuuut when *I* was in school, WE learned Latin by memorising verbs and lists of other words.

    Bob Patrick: You took Latin in high school?
    — Yeah, and I got 91.358%.
    Bob: Quid agis hodie?
    — …
    Bob (s.l.o.w.l.y.): Quid agis hodie?
    — …
    You: It’s normal for any student to forget some language over time. But you had trouble understanding me asking you how are you today? in Latin.
    — …

    Note: Kids, don’t try this in parent-creature int– err, I mean, student learning reflection conferences. And if you do, let me know how you did it politely.

  8. …buuuuut that input stuff doesn’t work, because students aren’t learning grammar.”

    Blaine Ray: I believe the best thing a department can do to show who is learning the language and who is not is to share timed writings. If departments required teachers to bring all timed writings from their classes, then it would show who is teaching well and who is not. Teachers wouldn’t be able to pronounce that their students are learning. They would show what their students have learned by bringing in writing samples of all of their students.”

    You: That’s possible.  Why don’t we see? I propose this: let’s you and I choose a picture of, I dunno, a boy walking his dog. We’ll each project that in front of our classes. Students will have five minutes to write about the picture.  They can’t use phones, notes, dictionaries, etc.  Then, we’ll compare.
    — ….

  9. …buuuuut [C.I. instruction, using stories and other interesting materials] is too teacher-centered.”

    Bill VanPaten: The [C.I.]  classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.

    …buuuuut [C.I. classes are] too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”
    BVP: Entertainment is a valid form of communication.

    …buuuuut [C.I. classes are] too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”
    BVP: [C.I.] is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning in a given context.

    …buuuuut teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”
    BVP: What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.

    …buuuuut in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations.”
    BVP: Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.

10. Colleague/Head: “We all have to use the textbook, common assessments, etc, because we need to make sure everybody’s students have covered the same material, so if one teacher’s kids go to another teacher next year, they will be prepared.”

(Ideally, read Mike Peto’s response and try that).

You: such as?
— well in level 1 students learn food vocab, to eat, regular present tense verbs, pedir, etc
You: does it say that in the State standards? Is that a level 1 outcome?
— well no, but, we need some kind of framework
You: I agree. Let’s base it on State/ACTFL standards, and not textbook units.

K folks, have at it.  Refutations = you get a bottle of wine!


  1. I’m not convinced. These statements just follow a Krashian line of thinking without questioning the initial premise. For example, have you read the research by Nick Ellis -“Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity.”

    I’ll take the red 🙂

  2. Here is a link to the published material from chapter for Patrick Rebuschat (Ed.). (2015). Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Click to access Implicit_AND_Explicit_Learning_EllisPreprint.pdf

    Instead of implicit/ explicit we might simply speak in terms of “noticing”. I might also mention that the issue of “noticing” was something the founder of ALG, James Brown, wrote about. Different schools of thought tackle this issue in different ways: AJATT/MIA proponents use some explicit grammar to PRIME the implicit acquisition. TPRS folk do a light version of this with grammar pop up. ALG folk try to avoid noticing at all, but even Brown found this difficult without amazingly compelling input to distract his adult mind. Children don’t have these issues – leaving aside the fact they also utilise both left and right hemispheres of the brain up until 4 yrs and also receive an astonishing amount of both comprehensible and semi-comprehensible input. In addition, an adult learner has amassed so much life experience that “experiences” are not as “fresh” in the way they are for children. So, we have a choice – use mostly implicit approaches and, in addition, try to negate the adult tendency to “notice”, or use this “noticing” to prime further acquisition and learning. This also explains why people who do some focused pronunciation training can prime their listening- they still need heaps of input to get the mental representation of the language but it strengthens their implicit acquisition which is also greatly effector by their L1.

    Ofcourse, the scales lean towards implicit learning/ acquisition, however it need not be implicit versus explicit. Rather, implicit AND explicit.

    1. A few things come to mind here.

      First, Ellis is a cognitive psychology researcher. Much of what he cites (eg people “noticing” language patterns which are more frequent) isn’t language per se– it’s general cognitive architecture.

      Second, his definition of language (insofar as there is one) is pretty much conscious (explicit).

      The noticing hypothesis has been investigated and there isn’t support for it. Yes, people do notice language features. This noticing however has nothing to do with whether or not the language feature has been acquired. We could look at it another way: ppl have enormous implicit competence in eg their L1 of which they are utterly unaware.

  3. Perhaps I need to be more explicit. I realise the points you raise are within the context of those hostile to CI based approaches, and moreover, the limitations of classroom/ schooling environments. However, as I originally stated, I’m not convinced. You imply that those who don’t subscribe to a fully fledged Krashian perspective are like “Some people [who] don’t like, can’t or won’t read, or don’t “believe in” science.” People have been acquiring multiple languages well before linguistics or endless pedagogical theories arrived. Science is very useful, but it is still a very limited domain.
    That being said, one of my concerns, is that consciously or not, you perpetuate Krashen’s dichotomous language to make your points; Acquisition VERSUS Learning, implicit VERSUS explicit …and why are we still perpetuating that horrible mechanistic metaphor of input-output, filters etc as though we are computers…hardly the most elegant metaphor? Implicit is this language is that these dichotomies are normative. They are not. They are highly contested. Schmidt’s and Ellis’ body of work have had a great influence on the field of linguistics (1990/2002). If you read Schmidt carefully you will see he refined his position and several other scholars took up from him, and recent use of eye tracking technology is heavily interested in his work. Usage based theorists like Ellis also side with Krashen on implicit learning but also counter that “Language acquisition can be speeded by explicit instruction” (Ellis 2002). Anecdotally, several prominent polyglots and language communities attest to a certain PRIMING of implicit learning through carefully utilised explicit awareness/noticing etc. I think we need to keep an open mind.

    You may argue that there is no proof that learning can encourage or become acquisition , but nobody has proven that it can’t – it’s an assumption! Show me the literature that proves that learning can NEVER become acquisition, that Never the Twain shall meet. I don’t necessarily agree with Ellis or Schmidt’s views, just as I think the term “comprehension” doesn’t do justice to the full breadth of what is happening when people acquire language/s. My point is, Krashen has done a great service by popularising and lending credibility to CI approaches. However, I’m not convinced that such polarising views are either accurate or productive. CI does work, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    1. Scientifically speaking, one can’t prove that X does not Y. We can’t prove that explicit learning cannot become implicit acquisition. What we can do is test the hypothesis that (in this case) “explicit learning leads to implicit acquisition.” We might get data to support this; if we don’t, we can say ‘there is no evidence for this hypothesis.”

      BVP and others have looked into this question. Their conclusion: the only thing explicit teaching can do is affect meaning. G I say to you “Juan no es alto” and tell you that this means “Juan/John is not tall, and es means is and alto means tall.” Anybody’s brain can pick this up.

      However, if I tell you “Spanish word order bla bla bla no comes before verb bla bla,” you can only “apply” this “rule” under Krashen’s conditions (you know it, you know how to apply it, you have time to apply it). Research suggests that this “rule”– no before verb– won’t be acquired implicitly until loads of input has happened.

      VanPatten and co. showed this. Have you read this entry? There is a link in it to the original paper.

  4. Thank you, yes I have read this study. However, have you read “Suzuki, Y. & DeKeyser, R. (2017). The interface of explicit and implicit knowledge in a second language: Insights from individual differences in cognitive aptitudes Language Learning, 67, 747-790.” ?

    It concludes:

    The present study set out to empirically explore the interface issue between explicit and implicit knowledge to better understand explicit and implicit learning systems in adult SLA. The body of literature on the interface issue suggests a facilitative role of explicit knowledge for the development of implicit knowledge, but no empirical investigations had been conducted due to methodological limitations (e.g., lack of valid and finely-tuned implicit knowledge tests). The present study addressed this gap and provided supporting evidence for the major claims regarding the facilitative role of explicit knowledge (e.g., DeKeyser, 2015; N. C. Ellis, 2005; R. Ellis, 2008; Hulstijn, 2002; Krashen, 1985; McLaughlin, 1987; Paradis, 2009). The present findings thus contribute to the understanding of explicit and implicit learning processes in adult SLA: Automatized explicit knowledge, fostered by explicit learning mechanisms, influences the acquisition of implicit knowledge.

    Still waiting on my bottle of red 🙂

  5. I enjoyed your examples of how to respond to the “but” remarks. My research (Baker, 2017) studied teacher experiences using TPRS. Of course, in my study, there were several TPRS teachers who encountered some obstacles from people who made similar “but” remarks. I applaud the way you responded with good quotes from people who understand the importance of comprehensible input. I wanted to mention that I also have attended a session that you and Krashen presented. Keep up the good work, never give up! — Richard Baker, in PA.

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