Month: August 2021

Should I Use Word Clouds?

Word-clouds look really cool. Here’s one in Spanish:

Somebody asked, should I use word clouds in Spanish? My answer: it depends. Here are bits of the conversation and comments.

First, it seems to me that if you need “support” to write, you havn’t fully acquired the language you are using. This raises the question of what exactly one is assessing. Second, using written prompts for oral output…this won’t help acquisition, but— for the kids who actually bother doing it instead of chatting in L1 to their friends— it might boost confidence. Third, for the music, there is no meaning processing going on, which means no acquisition.

If somebody gives me the Blablabian word “gerfzl,” gets me to listen to a song by Blablabian singer Zpfl, and I hear Zpfl sing 🎶 gerfzl 🎶, I have completed a task that I could do without knowing the meaning of what I am hearing. And not only am I not necessarily processing the individual words, but I am almost certainly not processing Zpfl’s meaning at the sentence & verse level.

I pointed this out, and got the following response:

I’m not sure what is meant here by “recognition.” I do think demonstrating comprehension is a good idea though. The second writer’s comment again raises the problem: this activity can be done without processing meaning.

Another person chimed in with the following:

If you didn’t take more than a minute to show the kids how many words from the cloud they know, great. But again…processing isolated words means students are not processing grammar, or sentence-level meaning.

The final comment— using word-clouds to see what ppl know and don’t— is mayyybeeee not a bad idea. But it raises the question, why in a c.i. class are people processing or working with non-comprehended vocab? As somebody who follows TPRS dictae— comprehended, or stop and circle/review until comprehended— I wouldn’t use anything non-comprehended.

Another question here is, what will you do with the info regarding which words are comprehended or not? If we find students know most of the vocab, great. If they don’t? Well, you have to “review,” and we know how poorly the “hear it once and try to remember” approach works.

I think a much better way to show kids vocabulary that you want them to use would be…in a story. There, they get “whole” language where the words are used in context.

We should remember one thing: acquisition occurs when comprehended input is processed for a purpose in a communicative context. And “communicative” means meaning-based. An activity that has students “recognizing” words, or putting words into blanks (cloze), or reviewing meaning (basically a test) is not communicative. And if the purpose is “learning” or “reviewing” vocab, this is also not meaning-based in an interesting way.

How interesting would you find it if your _____ language teacher said “ok here is a lis— er, cloud— of words. Tell me which ones you don’t know, and I’ll tell you their meanings”? 😉

There Are No Shortcuts

It has been oft-observed that no matter what your first language is, your brain acquires additional languages in the same way (ie via comprehended input, in stages, following a set order, etc).

One study looked at L1 German and English speakers acquiring L2 French. It was found that both Germans and English made the same mistakes with subject-verb inversion during question formation, despite German having the same “rule” as French.

This should be comforting to language teachers, who often see “errors” persisting seemingly forever. Why can’t the kids just use plural verbs?, ask Spanish teachers. What is so difficult about the fartitive arricle? whine our French-teaching colleagues. Well, here is a story that may shed some light.

I’m a native German speaker who learned English starting in kindergarten, French in grade seven, and Spanish at age twenty-two. I acquired a lot of Cantonese from neighbourhood kids around age three, but I forgot it.

In Spanish, when you say I wash my hands, you don’t say lavo mis manos. You actually say me lavo las manos, which literally means something like “for myself I wash the hands.” The me makes it clear that these are my and not somebody else’s hands.

This “rule” took me forever to acquire. Like, years. And then it hit me.

In German, we have exactly the same “rule” as Spanish. To say I wash my hands, you don’t say ich wasche meine Hände. You say ich wasche mir die Hände, or “I wash for me the hands.” (The only difference between Spanish and German is where the reflexive pronoun me/mir goes.)

I had to acquire the same “rule” in Spanish that I had already acquired in German, and I had to acquire it the same way that I— and anyone else— acquires it: from the input.

So if your kids are taking forever to say eg estoy bien instead of soy bien, or whatever, relax. Even if their L1 “rule” is like the L2 “rule” they are acquiring— and equally so if there is no similarity— they still have to work through ordered development.

And if there is one lesson here, it might be, resist the urge for grammatical explanations, or cleverly-disguised “practice”, or God help you worksheets, when your kids’ emergent grammars raises your teacherly hackles. Patience, my good sir and madame— there are no shortcuts.

How Not To Start The Year

It’s August, which means I’m going climbing and my poor American colleagues are thinking about The First Day of School, the poor things, and writing about How To Start The Year.

Well here at tprsquestionsandanswers, we take a different tack. We here provide a list of what not to do, and why.

1. Don’t discuss proficiency levels. Nobody benefits. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. And omfg is this ever boring. The time to do this is roughly mid-year, when people have enough language in their heads that rubrics and descriptors and giant farting sounds make sense.

2. Do not assign target-language names. Do you even know your kids’ actual names yet? Do you think it might be, uh, stereotypical to provide a list of French (or whatever) names? Do your kids want Spanish names? What actually is a “Spanish name,” anyway? I know Spaniards named Desirée, Pedro, Mandeep and Ahmed.

3. Do not show a video/play a soundclip in the target language that your kids don’t understand. Teachers who do this say this shows students how it is going to feel during the beginning of class and while traveling to the country where ____ is spoken. Well, DUH, Johnny signed up for Intro Blablabian because he doesn’t know any Blablabian, and believe me, he knows what he doesn’t know. I cannot see the point of this. And if it’s a C.I. class, they are supposed to understand when you teach, because you make it comprehensible.

4. Do not do icebreakers, or “get to know,” or “find someone who ____”- type activities. Dunno if you know this, but most people of all ages haaaate icebreakers. If you are doing a “find someone who ___” activity in the target language, a lot of L1 is going to be used, most adolescents don’t really want to talk to strangers, and people find these activities silly (especially people who have spent years in school together, and who know each other).

5. Do not do “goal setting.” This is one of those stupid ideas that comes from the mix of psychobabble and corporate wankguage that is common to North American workplaces. There can only be one goal in a language class: learn the language (and hopefully a bit about the peoples who speak it). What are you going to do if a kid has a silly goal? What if a kid has been put into your class and hates it already? And, above all, does goal setting have anything to do with acquiring the language?

If you must do goal setting, the proper time for this is about 1/4 of the way through the course, when people have some language in their heads, some ideas about how acquisition works, and hopefully an interest in the language and its attendant cultures.

6. Do not play a game on Day 1. Especially with pure beginners, they have basically zero language in their heads, and games typically involve things like name-guessing/remembering, or one-word answers. This is impoverished input. Also, we want people to see what class is actually like, and if you don’t play a lot of games…

7. Do not “go over the syllabus” on Day 1. It’s boring. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. You probably won’t even look at it again 😂😂. The way to “go over the syllabus” is when you need to address a specific point, eg marking, management bla bla. As teacher Wendy-Ann Alisa says, “just dive in and show them what a true lesson in the class looks like. Then, you can go back and do the necessary things to get everything set up in the days/weeks to come.”

I mean, Day 1 is First Impressions Day, and you better show kids what is going to happen and how much they can easily learn.

8. Do not administer a “placement test.” Placement/“level” tests might show you that a kid is placed way above/below their level…and so? If you can’t move the kid into a more appropriate section, what are you gonna do with the info?

Placement tests (for 80% of students) feel like a judgement, serve no purpose (unless the kid can get moved), and waste time. If you have a split/multilevel class, don’t stress, we gotcha.

9. Do not make people learn and orally repeat the alphabet, numbers, or anything else. Chanting & repetition can be done without knowing what one is saying, and therefore isn’t teaching anyone anything (it’s not communicative). And it’s silly. Yes, students will eventually have to learn boring crap…here is how to make that process less painful.

10. Do not avoid using the target language on Day 1. We need to get kids processing easy input ASAP, because we only have 100 or so hours. Card talk works. So does a TPRS story. Whatever you do, get them processing a limited number of words (in sentence form) which deal with an interesting idea and which can be repeated over and over.

11. Do not discuss metacognition. It’s boring, nobody cares, nobody will remember, and you cannot really reflect on the implicit linguistic system. After a few weeks, sure, ask your class what is going on in our class to make Blablabian easy to learn? and discuss from there.

So, what should we do on Day 1? Here’s my routine:

  • collect phones into the Hoteléfono when kids come in
  • make a seating chart, hand out the syllabus, & take attendance
  • tell them I’m Sr Stolz. To acquire Spanish, pay attention, ask questions, and don’t interfere with me or other kids.
  • Grab a kid and start asking a TPRS-style story.
  • Do a simple exit quiz

Happy teaching! I’m headed to the Valhallas.