Complicated Grammar

Should I do Word-For-Word Translation?

A recent Facebook group post asked about whether or not teachers should do word-for-word translation.

Word-for-word is not necessarily the same as direct translation, though it can be.  For example, in German we say mein Nahme ist Chris (“my name is Chris”).  In this case, the two languages use the same word order.

Here are some more examples of what word-for-word translation looks like:

In Spanish, a grammatically good sentence is estudiar no me gusta, which literally means “to study not me pleases” but an English speaker would translate this as “I don’t like studying” or “I don’t like to study.”

In other languages, things get weirder: some languages don’t (always) use pronouns.  When I acquired a bit of Mandarin years ago working for Taiwan-born Visco in the camera store, some of the sentences in Mandarin were something like “go store yesterday” which translates into English as “Yesterday I went to the store.” In other languages, like French, you can’t just say “no” or “not:” you have to wrap the verb with ne…pas.  In some languages in some places you do not always need a verb.  E.g in German, if somebody asks you Bist du  gestern nach Berlin gegangen? (meaning “Did you go to Berlin?”), you can answer with Nein, gestern bin ich nicht nach Berlin (literally “No, yesterday am I not to Berlin”).

I think we should generally not use word-for-word translation.  Why?

  1. WFW unnecessarily confuses the kids.  The point of direct translation is to clarify meaning.  You want to waste as little time as possible and having them think through weird word order is not doing much for meaning.  Terry Waltz calls this “a quick meaning dump,” by which she means the point is to get from L2 to L1 in as simple and easy a way as possible.

2. WFW turns on the Monitor.  In other words, when we do this, students start to focus on language as opposed to meaning.  We know that the implicit (subconscious) system is where language is acquired and stored, so there is little point in getting them to focus on language.  Both Krashen and VanPatten have argued (and shown) that conscious knowledge about language does not translate into acquisition of language.  Monitor use is at best not very helpful so why bother?

3. WFW can cause problems for people whose L1 is not English.  In my classes, we have lots of kids whose first languages are Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog etc etc.  Some of them are fairly new to English (they speak with accents and their English output has errors).  For example, a classic South Asian L2 English error I hear/read in my English classes all the time is “yesterday he had gone to the store” instead of “yesterday he went to the store.”

What these L2s need, more than anything, is not just grammatically good L3 but also gramamtically coherent English.  We tend to forget that, say, the Ilocarno-speaking Filipino kid who is in our Spanish class is also learning English in our Spanish classes.

 

Powerhouse Spanish teacher Alina Filipescu writes

I tell students what “ME LLAMO” means word for word, “myself I call,” then I add that in other words it means “my name is.” Since I’ve switched to this instead of just telling students that ME LLAMO means “my name is” like a textbook says it, I’ve seen a lot less errors. I now rarely see students make the mistake “ME LLAMO ES John.” When students do volleyball translations, then I have them do translations that make sense and not word for word. I do it word for word as a class so that I can control where it goes. I also like that students can “feel” what the syntax of the sentence is in the language that I teach. Just like Blaine always says, if there is something better than I will try it and adopt it. This is not written in stone for me, it’s what I do right now because it made sense when I heard/saw somebody else do it.

Filipescu makes three good points here.  First, students should know that you generally cannot translate most things WFW and have it make sense.  We all know what happens when legacy-methods assignments demand output beyond kids’ abilities:  Google transliterate!

She also says that she gets less *me llamo es (“myself I call is”) as a result.  I don’t doubt it…but she raises the interesting question of why and under what conditions?  Was this compared to when she used legacy methods?  Or compared to when she started C.I. and just did general meaning translation? I too get a lot less me llamo es and other such errors, but I think it has more to do with C.I. allowing me to spend way more time meaningfully in the target language than anything else.

Third, Filipescu translates me as “myself” which is correct…here.  However, elsewhere me means “me,” rather than “myself,” more or less like in English, eg me pegó means “she hit me.”  Now if we obsess over WFW (not that Alina does so) we are going to focus the kids on two different meanings “anchored” to one word.  Which I could see being confusing.

Filipescu’s post also raises the interesting question of under what conditions the kids write.  I have found that the more time they have, the more they screw up, because when they have notes, dictionaries, etc, they start thinking, and thinking is what (linguistically speaking) gets you into grammatical trouble.  One of the reasons C.I. uses little vocab and LOADS of repetition (via parallel characters, repeating scenes, embedded readings, etc) is to automatise (via processing, and not via “practise” talking) language use.   The less time they have to write, the less they think, and the more you get to see what the students’ implicit (subconscious) systems have picked up.

Anyway, overall, I would say, point out the weirdness of word order (or whatever aspect of grammar is different) once, then stick to natural, meaningful L1 useage for translation.  Mainly, this is to keep us in the TL as much as possible, and eliminate L1 distractions.

What We Don’t Know About S.L.A….

…is as important as what we do. I mean, if Donald Rumsfeld and Noam Chomsky agree…

Here’s my list of S.L.A. “stuff” we don’t know.  Note that
a. just because we don’t know that ____ works does not mean it doesn’t.  All this means is, nobody has investigated it and figured it out (yet).

b. science doesn’t prove anything…it makes predictions and (where possible) explains mechanisms, and if these are accurate, data will repeatedly confirm these predictions.

1. How many repetitions does it take for a student to “acquire” something?  I’ve read one study which got implicit mental representaion after ~160 input reps…but we do not know for sure.  We also don’t know if aural or “read” repetitions work better (although we do know that reading helps language acquisition a lot in the long run, and probably because readers can slow down, re-read, etc).  VanPatten et al got mental representation of Japanese word order in learners of Japanese after exposure to 80 Japanese sentences…but this is far from acquisition in its fullest sense.

Bottom line: students need many, many reps in many, many contexts.

2. In a second-language classroom, what is acquisition?  Blaine Ray’s definition is something like “being able to automatically spit the item out quickly and properly.”  But it’s well-known that the thing the kids “master” on Tuesday seems to go out the window in a week (at least temporarily– TPRS works very well in the long run). Bill VanPatten says acquisition has two components:  having gut-level, automatic recognition of the item or “rule” (and of errors), and being able to use it in real time.  However, in a S.L. class, we can often get a lot of recognition and less production (which is normal)…so it could be “partly acquired” so to speak.  What about various verb tenses etc?  A kid may spit out juego al baloncesto without thinking, but could fumble the past tense version.

Bottom line: mental representation of vocab, grammar “rules” etc improves over time with repeated exposure.  We will likely never produce “perfect” or native-speaker-like acquisition in a second-language class.

3.  What is the order of acquisition of ____ language?  We know bits of it– e.g. when in English the third person -s comes online, or how using negation in sentences is acquired– but we do not have an overall picture.  We do know that it can’t be changed (see VanPatten, Keating & Leeser, 2012).  We also know that while vocab is under the teacher/environment’s control, grammar is not.

Bottom line: students should probably be exposed to a variety of grammar from Day 1 so that when their brains are ready, they can pick up what they need, in the same way that children hear only natural language (albeit “rough-tuned” to their level of understanding) from their parents from Day 1.

4.  Does instruction in metacognition– knowing how to learn/acquire and being self-aware enough to use this knowledge– aid acquisition?    Metacognitive skills include things like

  • being aware when meaning breaks down
  • knowing– and using– strategies to repair meaning (asking for help, repetition, etc)
  • knowing how to figure out cognates
  • predicting and checking for confirmation of meaning of words, what happens in plot, etc
  • visualising

While we know that better learners of all kinds have— and use– metacognitive skills, the role of the effectiveness of teaching these to improve S.L.A. has not been explored (to the best of my knowledge). There are also strict limits on the effectiveness of metacognition in second-language instruction, namely, that nothing is going to help if the meanings of words are not clear.  And I have not seen research showing that metacognitive interventions improve language acquisition.

Krashen’s guru, UVic’s Frank Smith, has noted that the relationship between reading and metacognitive skills (or language skills) may in fact work the opposite way we imagine. Rather than having these skills make us better readers and language acquirers, it is likely that these skills emerge as a result of reading and acquiring language.

Bottom line: Students should be explicitly taught some strategies (eg look for cognates, slow down, pause and reflect, ask questions, etc) to up comprehension.  These won’t hurt and will probably help.

5. Is teaching with sheltered (restricted) or unsheltered (“everything at once”) grammar more effective?  I have not seen research either way.  We do know that competent C.I. practitioners get good results either way but there’s no data (that I know of) on this.

6.  Is massed or distributed practice best in a language classroom?  We know from practicing music and baseball, and from various kinds of studying, that you are best off learning something by practicing it a bit at a time over many times (distributed practice), rather than practicing it a zillion times/for hours once (massed practice).  

In other words, if you need thirty minutes to master that Bach partita’s 39th bar, or that Irish jig, you are best off spending five minutes a day over six days than you are doing thirty minutes at once.  I have not seen research suggesting one or the other is best in the language classroom.

Bottom line: this doesn’t really matter in a C.I. class, where recycling– a.k.a. scaffolding for those who like edubabble– is constant, provided the teacher is organised enough to shelter vocabulary.

Well that’s my list of don’t-knows.  Feel free to comment!

 

Second Language Acquisition Quotes

I’ve been asked a bunch of times for these so here we go: brief quotations about what we know about second language acquisition research.  Many of these, as usual, were compiled by research rounder-upper God Eric Herman, with contributions from Terry Waltz, Stephen Krashen, Beniko Mason, Diane Neubauer, and many others.

These are broadly representative of consensus among S.L.A. researchers.  To see actual research, read this.

Missing something?  Missing or incorrect attribution?  Have something to add?  Put it into the comments or email me.

Organisation of quotes:

1. Acquisition
2. Grammar
3. Compelling Input
4. Attitude
5. Output and Correction
6. Classroom Research
7. Foreign Language Benefits
8. Curriculum
9. Time
10. Reading

 

1. ACQUISITION

“Comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  — Lightbrown and Spada, 2014

“Language acquisition is a subconscious process; while it is happening we are not aware that it is happening, and the competence developed this way is stored in the brain subconsciously.” – Krashen

“We acquire language when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read.” – Krashen

All cases of successful first and second language acquisition are characterized by the availability of Comprehensible Input. – Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991, p. 142

“(T)here is a consensus among second language researchers that input is an essential component of second language acquisition.” – VanPatten, 1996, p. 13

“Language is acoustical, not intellectual.” – Berty Segal

“In underdeveloped 
third world countries,
where bilingualism or
 even multilingualism 
is the norm rather than
 the exception, a second
 (or third) language is 
ACQUIRED without any 
reference to conscious 
learning or to written
 material.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“[N]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice”– VanPatten, 2013

“SLA history is not 2,000 years old but almost as old as human history and that throughout this long period, people have acquired rather than learned L2s, considering the rather short history of linguistic sciences.”
– Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“[T]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” — Long, 1997.

“Even after puberty, the brain is elastic enough to internalize a second (or third) language basically in the same manner it picks up the first. However, since muscles regulating the articulators are somewhat fixed after a certain age, attaining a native-like accent may not be possible for some adults.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“Learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.” –VanPatten & Wong, 2003

“The amount of input necessary for L1 acquisition
to take place is expressed in thousands of hours of auditory input. We shouldn’t blame our students for not being able to speak when we provide them with so little comprehensible input.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“If someone cannot properly perform a rule that he consciously knows, his performance must be based on a non-conscious knowledge system.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“Real language acquisition develops slowly, and speaking skills emerge significantly later than listening skills, even when conditions are perfect. The best methods are therefore those that supply “comprehensible input” in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are “ready,” recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.” – Krashen, 1982

“Most important, the input hypothesis predicts that the classroom may be an excellent place for second language acquisition, at least up to the “intermediate” level. For beginners, the classroom can be much better than the outside world, since the outside usually provides the beginner with very little comprehensible input, especially for older acquirers (Wagner-Gough and Hatch, 1975). In the classroom, we can provide an hour a day of comprehensible input, which is probably much better than the outside can do for the beginner.”
– Krashen, 1982

“There is no need for deliberate memorization; rather, firm knowledge of grammatical rules (a feel for correctness) and a large vocabulary gradually emerge as language acquirers get more “comprehensible input,” aural or written language that is understood.” – Krashen

“Our goal in foreign language pedagogy is to bring students to the point where they are autonomous acquirers, prepared to continue to improve on their own. . . an “autonomous acquirer” has two characteristics:

● The autonomous acquirer has acquired enough of the second language so that at least some authentic input is comprehensible, enough to ensure progress and the ability to acquire still more language.

● The autonomous acquirer will understand the language acquisition process. The autonomous acquirer will know that progress comes from comprehensible input, not from grammar study and vocabulary lists, and will understand ways of making input more comprehensible (e.g. getting background information, avoiding obviously incomprehensible input).

This is, of course, the goal of all education – not to produce masters but to allow people to begin work in their profession and to continue to grow.” – Krashen, 2004

“In the end, acquisition is too complex to reduce to simple ideas. There are no shortcuts.” — Bill VanPatten

 

2. GRAMMAR

“[T]he brain processes syntactic information implicitly, in the absence of awareness.” (Batterink & Neville, 2013).

“We learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.”– Kato Lamb (from Polyglot: How I Learn Languages P.73 (4th ed.). She attributes the line to the 19th-century publishers Charles Toussaint and Gustav Langenscheidt (the same), whom she paraphrases as having said “Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik.” (thanks Justin Slocum Bailey)

“Research shows that knowledge of grammar rules is very fragile and is rapidly forgotten.” – Krashen, 1993

“studies have shown a weakening of the impact of learning after three months.” – Krashen, 2002

“Instruction does not appear to influence the order of development. No matter what order grammatical structures are presented and practiced in the classroom, learners will follow their own “built-in” syllabus.” – Ellis, 1984

“As is well-known, studies have shown that we acquire the grammar of a language in a predictable order, and this order cannot be broken.” – Krashen

“it is not at all the case that the more linguistically simple an item is, the earlier it is acquired. Some very “simple” rules may be among the last to be acquired.” – Krashen, 1982

“Teaching complex facts about the second language is not language teaching, but rather is “language appreciation” or linguistics.” – Krashen, 1982

“Consciously learned grammar is only available as a Monitor or an editor, and the constraints on Monitor use are severe: The user has to know the rule (see the complexity argument below), have time to apply the rule, and be thinking about correctness.” – Krashen

“No study has shown that consciously learned rules have an impact on Monitor-free tests over the long term.” – Krashen

“Research on the relationship between formal grammar instruction and performance on measures of writing ability is very consistent: There is no relationship between grammar study and writing.” – Krashen, 1984

“No empirical studies have provided good evidence that form-focused instruction helps learners acquire genuine knowledge of language. Moreover, many studies have found such instruction ineffective.” – John Truscott

“Second language editing actually depends far more on intuitions of well-formedness, coming from the unconscious language system, than on metalinguistic knowledge of points of grammar.” – John Truscott, 1996

“We see performers who have known a (late-acquired) rule for years, but who still fail to consistently “get it right” even after thousand of repetitions . . . On the other hand, we often see performers who have acquired large amounts of a second language with no apparent conscious learning.” – Krashen, 1981

“People who do attempt to think about and utilize conscious rules during conversation run two risks. First, they tend to take too much time when it is their turn to speak, and have a hesitant style that is often difficult to listen to. Other overusers of the Monitor, in trying to avoid this, plan their next utterance while their conversational partner is talking. Their output may be accurate, but they all too often do not pay enough attention to what the other person is saying!” – Krashen, 1982

“No meaningful support has [ever] been provided for the position that grammar should be taught.”– Long (1997)

“Structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation”– Lightbrown

 

3. COMPELLING INPUT

“Optimal input focuses the acquirer on the message and not on form. To go a step further, the best input is so interesting and relevant that the acquirer may even ‘forget’ that the message is encoded in a foreign language.”
– Krashen, 1982

“Compelling input appears to eliminate the need for motivation, a conscious desire to improve. When you get compelling input, you acquire whether you are interested in improving or not.” – Krashen

“It is possible that compelling input is not just optimal: It may be the only way we truly acquire language.” –Krashen

4. ATTITUDE

“Savignon (1976) is correct when she says ‘Attitude is the single most important factor in second language learning.’ We might even suggest that one characteristic of the ideal second language class is one in which aptitude will not predict differences in student achievement (S. Sapon, personal communication), because efficient acquisition is taking place for all students.” – Krashen, 1981

“Thus, motivational and attitudinal considerations are prior to linguistic considerations. If the affective filter is ‘up’, no matter how beautifully the input is sequenced, no matter how meaningful and communicative the exercise is intended to be, little or no acquisition will take place.” – Krashen, 1981

“Those whose attitudes are not optimal for second language acquisition will not only tend to seek less input, but they will also have a high or strong Affective Filter–even if they understand the message, the input will not reach the part of the brain responsible for language acquisition, or the language acquisition device.” – Krashen, 1982

“Studies have shown that several affective variables are related to success in language acquisition – anxiety (low anxiety is correlated with more success in language acquisition), self-esteem (more self-esteem is related to success in language acquisition), and motivation, with ‘integrative motivation,’ (a desire to belong to a certain group) related to long-term success in language acquisition (until membership is achieved), and ‘instrumental motivation’ (to accomplish a task) related to shorter term success (until the task is done).” – Krashen

“When asked what aspects of foreign language classes are the most anxiety- provoking, students put “talking” at the top of the list (Young, 1990).” – Krashen

“Finally, many classroom exercises, with their emphasis on correctness, often place the student ‘on the defensive’ (Stevick, 1976), entailing a heightened ‘affective filter’ (Dulay and Burt, 1977), which makes them less than ideal for language acquisition.” – Krashen, 1981

“Learning is most successful when it involves only a limited amount of stress, when students are relaxed and confident and enjoying their learning; but the use of correction encourages exactly the opposite condition.” – John Truscott

“the ‘elusive quality
- strong motivation’ (Allen, J.P.B.,1973), combined with the right attitude towards the target language and its culture (Gardner,1972), sustained by appropriate intellectual and physical efforts taken by the learners themselves (Kaplan,1997) . . . can lead to successful acquisition of English as a foreign language.”
– D. Sankary

“Simply hearing a second language with understanding appears to be necessary but is not sufficient for acquisition to take place. The acquirer must not only understand the input but must also, in a sense, be ‘open’ to it.”– Krashen, 1981

 

5. OUTPUT AND CORRECTION

Research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.” — VanPatten (2013)

“Peer-to-peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.” — Terry Waltz

“Students who learn language explicitly or through “skill building” are virtually unable to naturally produce language and rely on memorized rehearsed phrases in order to produce output. -Dr. Stephen Krashen

 

“More speaking or writing does not result in more language or literacy development, but more reading does”– Krashen

“[N]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice”– VanPatten, 2013

“Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication. (Maclntyre & Gardner, 1991; McCroskey & Richmond, 1987)” from Baker & MacIntyre (2000)

VanPatten (2013): “If input is so important, what does traditional practice do? […] essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

“Adding output and correction, in fact, has been shown to make progress less efficient, not more.” – Krashen

“More output does not result in more language acquisition. For example, students in classes that demand more writing do not acquire more of the language, and students of English as a foreign language who report more speaking outside of class do not do better on the TOEFL examination; those who read more outside of class, however, do better.” – Krashen

“Children are usually allowed to go through a ‘silent period’, during which they build up acquired competence through active listening. Several scholars have suggested that providing such a silent period for all performers in second language acquisition would be beneficial (see for example, Postovsky, 1977).” – Krashen, 1981

“Thus, feedback on errors was not only unhelpful, but also harmful to learners. Those who received comments on content plus correction were significantly inferior to those who received only comments on content.” – Truscott

“Correction was not only unhelpful in these studies but also actually hindered the learning process.” – Truscott

“Oral grammar correction is a bad idea.” – Truscott, IJFLT 2005

“more speaking or writing does not result in more language or literacy development, but more reading does”– Krashen

“Adding output and correction, in fact, has been shown to make progress less efficient, not more.” – Krashen

“More output does not result in more language acquisition. For example, students in classes that demand more writing do not acquire more of the language, and students of English as a foreign language who report more speaking outside of class do not do better on the TOEFL examination; those who read more outside of class, however, do better.” – Krashen

“Children are usually allowed to go through a ‘silent period’, during which they build up acquired competence through active listening. Several scholars have suggested that providing such a silent period for all performers in second language acquisition would be beneficial (see for example, Postovsky, 1977).” – Krashen, 1981

“Thus, feedback on errors was not only unhelpful, but also harmful to learners. Those who received comments on content plus correction were significantly inferior to those who received only comments on content.” – Truscott

“Correction was not only unhelpful in these studies but also actually hindered the learning process.” – Truscott

“Oral grammar correction is a bad idea.” – Truscott, IJFLT 2005

 

6. CLASSROOM RESEARCH (TPRS, TPR and other C.I. methods)

“The most consistent advantages for TPRS are in developing students’ speaking, writing, vocabulary, and grammar. In all these areas, TPRS has consistently outperformed traditional teaching, and has at least equaled traditional teaching in every study.” – Karen Lichtman & Stephen Krashen

“TPRS should have advantages in retention over time, in comparison to traditional teaching. Compare TPRS students and traditional students on the same measure right before their summer break and right after their summer break.” – Karen Lichtman & Stephen Krashen

“TPR classes had only 20 hours of instruction while controls had 200 hours of instruction . . . All TPR classes, with the exception of grade five, outperformed controls after 100 hours, and the adult class, after only 20 hours, outperformed controls after 200 hours. Similar results were obtained using a reading test.” – Krashen, 1982

“Her experimental group did not speak at all for the first 14 weeks but, instead, had to produce “active responses” that demonstrated comprehension. Also, they were not forced to speak for much of the next seven weeks. The experimental group was shown to be superior to the control group in listening comprehension and equal in speaking, despite the fact that the controls had more ‘practice’ in speaking.” –Krashen, 1982

“In both first and second language development, students who participate in classes that include in-school self-selected reading programs (known as sustained silent reading) typically outperform comparison students, especially when the duration of treatment is longer than an academic year.” – Krashen

“Extremely problematic for output hypotheses was the result that the amount of ‘extracurricular writing’ and ‘extracurricular speaking’ reported were negatively related to TOEFL performance.” – Krashen

“ . . . studies consistently find that older children acquire second languages faster than younger children . . . Older children, it has been argued, have an advantage because of their greater knowledge of the world, which makes input more comprehensible, as well as more advanced levels of literacy, which transfer to the second languages.”
– Witton-Davies

 

7. FOREIGN LANGUAGE BENEFITS

“Children who are considered ‘low achievers, and/or who have a disability,’ seem to benefit the most from foreign language study.” – Wang, Jackson, Mana, Liau, & Evans, 2010

“ . . . increasingly impressive bodies of research that document . . . the great number of cognitive, social, academic, problem-solving and practical benefits that have been observed in children who learn one or more languages in addition to their home language.” – Wang, Jackson, Mana, Liau, & Evans, 2010

“Research Findings: Second Language study:
– benefits academic progress in other subjects
– narrows achievement gaps
– benefits basic skills development
– benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking
– (early) enriches and enhances cognitive development
– enhances a student’s sense of achievement
– helps students score higher on standardized tests
– promotes cultural awareness and competency
– improves chances of college acceptance, achievement and attainment
– enhances career opportunities
– benefits understanding and security in community and society” – NEA Research. (2007). “The Benefits of Second Language Study.”

 

8. CURRICULUM

“Given that verbs typically account for 20 percent of all words in a language, this may be a good strategy. Also, a focus on function words may be equally rewarding – 60 percent of speech in English is composed of a mere 50 function words.” – Davies

“Why should one do this? Nation (1990) has shown that the 4,000–5,000 most frequent words account for up to 95 percent of a written text and the 1,000 most frequent words account for 85 percent of speech.” – Davies

“We teach language best when we use it for what it was designed for: communication.” – Krashen, 1981

Below are the most-frequently used words per theme and also the extremely low-frequency words typically taught in that theme. The numbers in parentheses are the rank frequencies as calculated in Davies’ A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish (2006). Words are translated to English.

Colors (250) white (8225) orange
Animals (780) horse (4945) elephant
Body (150) hand (2407) ear
Food (787) meat (7602) carrot
Clothing (1710) suit (4427) t-shirt
Family (166) son (5071) niece
Days (1121) Sunday (3490) Tuesday
Months (1244) August (2574) September
Sports (2513) soccer (28388) hockey
Weather (989) heat (5493) breeze

There are more than 300 more frequent words than the numbers 6 through 10, and the numbers 13 through 19 are not in the most frequently used 1,000 Spanish words. In fact, only the numbers one and two are in the most-frequently used 100 words.

 

9. TIME

“Our research shows that after 630 to 720 hours of instruction, or about midway through the fourth year of study, approximately 14% of students can read at the Intermediate-Mid level or better. Approximately 16% can write and 6% can speak at this level.” – Center for Applied Second Language Studies, 2010

The ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners (Swender & Duncan, 1998) propose elementary programs that meet from 3 to 5 days per week for no less than 30–40 minutes per class; middle school programs that meet daily for no less than 40–50 minutes.

 

10. READING

“Without a reading habit children simply do not have a chance.” – Krashen

“The best way to improve your knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers. The next best way is read extensively in it.” – Christine Nuttal, 1996

“For maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).”– VanPatten

“People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading.” – Krashen

“The best way to improve in a foreign language is to do a great deal of comprehensible, interesting reading. The case for self-selected reading for pleasure is overwhelming.” – Mason

“What is probably the best-supported way of improving language competence is rarely mentioned in the professional literature: wide recreational reading, or ‘free voluntary reading.’ ” – Witton-Davies

“Those who read more, write better” – Krashen

“Free voluntary reading may be the most powerful tool we have in language education. In fact, it appears to be too good to be true. It is an effective way of increasing literacy and language development, with a strong impact on reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and writing.” – Krashen

“Incidental learning of words during reading may be the easiest and single most powerful means of promoting large-scale vocabulary growth.” –Nagy & Herdman

“The second language student needs massive amounts of comprehensible, interesting reading material, enough so that he can read for pleasure and/or interest for an hour an evening, if he wants to, for several months.” –Krashen

“Picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction.” – Krashen

“Free reading is also an excellent source of knowledge: those who read more, know more.” – Krashen

“There is overwhelming evidence for recreational reading as a means of increasing second-language competence. In fact, it is now perhaps the most thoroughly investigated and best-supported technique we have in the field of second-language pedagogy.” – Krashen

“Many studies confirm that those who read more write better . . . it is reading, not instruction, that helps us develop a good writing style.” – Krashen, IJFLT 2005

“The success of pleasure reading thus depends on the reader’s willingness to find material at his level and reject material that is beyond him.” – Krashen, 1982

“Hirsch and Nation (1992) claim that in order to reach text comprehension, readers and listeners need to be familiar with 85% of the words in a text.” – Thornber

“the source of good writing style, the vocabulary, syntax and discourse structure of the written language, is reading.” – Lee & Hsu

“Students who had a pleasure reading habit easily outperformed those who were not readers on a test of grammar and on a test of reading and writing.” – Ponniah, IJFLT 2008

Two Kids Talk About Language Classes

Two of my students, Ace and Kavi, are in my English 11 class and I also have Ace in Spanish.  Both are very bright. Kavi takes French and Ace bailed out of French into Spanish. 

One day in June they were both in my room after school, finishing English projects, and they were talking about language class. 

Kavi: So you have Stolz for Spanish. How is it?

Ace: It’s easy. Just listen and read and you pick it up. I got an A both years. 

Kavi: French is hard. I can’t get an A. 

Ace: You’re not a dumbass. 

Me: Yeah, Kavi. You have good work habits. 

Kavi: Three things. They just keep adding rules.  So it keeps on getting harder to remember all the rules. It’s also confusing.  Part of the rules thing.  Also I get bored.  They make you talk about boring crap like buying groceries and they make you do these tests where it is all grammar. 

Now, I’m probably the worst T.P.R.S. teacher in the world. I mean, my dog could probably do TPRS as well as me.  So this is a beacon of hope for, well, all languages teachers: if I can pull of TPRS, anyone can.  I’m the dummest guyy in the roomm and I experienced success with this thanks to Blaine Ray. 

Go forth and try it, people, go forth. 

How should I teach SER and ESTAR?

Spanish teacher conundrum, recently brought up on the Yahoo moretprs listserv by teacher Marji:

How do I teach the difference between ser and estar? Marji is asking this question because the kids are making errors, and also she only sees them infrequently, so they seem “slow” in picking this up.

Ser = to be, for permament, inherent qualities
Estar = to be, for location and feelings

The essence of the question– like the French teachers’ eternal How do I get them to remember the difference between être and avoir passé composé verbs?— is this: how do I teach a “non-English” grammatical structure to English speakers?. The answer is simple! I’ve written about this before, so here is a Spanish and French-focused refresher.

First, I translate only meaning. So on the board, I write

era = was
estaba = felt, was located in _____

es = is
está = feels, is located in ______

Now, note here.  The kids do not get an explanation of the inherwnt essential aspects and differences of/between these verbs.  All they get is the meaning.

They also have the I/you forms in my simple PQA/direct questions chart:

IMG_0172

I narrate our first story– Adriana Ramírez’ Los Gatos Azules— in past tense but I question actors and do PQA (personalised questions and answers) in present tense.

Second, I keep it all comprehensible. I say el chico estaba en Watts and ask “what did I just say?” to make sure the students understand. I then say something like el chico era alto, going slowly, pointing and pausing, doing comprehension checks.

Now, they have not had the grammatical difference between ser and estar explained, but I will keep on using these appropriately. All they need to do is

A) clearly hear the difference
B) understand the meaning(s)

Because, as Blaine Ray points out, ser and estar are the most-used verbs in Spanish, we want to start using them on Day 1 and keep using them always.

Third, I will use these expressions in both past and present. For past tense, as noted above, I narrate (and ask class questions about the narration) in past tense. For present tense, I will direct-question the actors. ¿Eres un chico? — Sí, soy un chico. ¿Estás en California? — Sí, estoy en California. Then, I will do PQA by asking class members the same question(s) I have just asked the actors. If they can answer, great; if not, they can read off the PQA/direct questions chart.

(New trick: this year, to get more reps on 3rd person present, I ask the actors about each other in the present tense. So if I narrate había un chico en Brooklyn and circle that, I still want some present-tense reps on hay, so I will ask my main character about another character in the story. E.g. I introduce my parallel character by saying Había una chica en San Francisco. Then, I ask my boy in Brooklyn ¿Hay una chica en San Francisco? and he says Sí, hay una chica en S.F.)

The aim is for them to hear it a zillion times in proper context, in all necessary tenses, and slowly their “language acquisition devices,” as Chomsky calls them, will start developing subconscious pattern awareness and then performative competence.

Fourth, I will not lecture about grammar. As Laurie Clarq and Susan Gross have said (I am paraphrasing), “if they ask for an explanation, they can have a five-second one.”

I taught French last year for a colleague for two periods and we did a story where I used il est arrivé, il a oublié, and il/elle etait faché (this is two different passé composé verbs, and two past tenses).

The kids did not need to know that there are “Dr and Mrs Vandertramp” verbs, or the house-movement mnemonic, or the camera/video metaphors for p-c and imparfait, bla bla. All they needed to know was the meaning. Now, I suck at French, but the teacher was impressed because these Level 2s were getting “fourth year grammar,” and understanding it. The method generally works even when a hack like me uses it 😉.

BTW the story idea, improvised by student teacher Nicole Kunkel and I, was
— Jean est arrivé en retard à la classe
— La prof etait trés fachée avec lui.
— Il a cherché dans son sac pour ses devoirs.

— Dans son sac, il n’y avait pas ses devoirs!  Mais, il y’avait des autres choses…
— C’etait dommage– il a oublié ses devors! Madame Prof etait trés fachée!

(Jean had a backpack which we put random things into, and every time Jean looked in it for his hwk, a pencil, etc, he’d pull out something funny and Madame Prof would get more mad (and we got a zillion reps on both present and past forms of all 3 structures).

We also wrote up embedded (progressively more complex) readings of our story, and then did the usual with that, for even more reps.

It doesn’t matter what first or second language people have. We know that everyone can– and does– learn at least one language without any formal instuction at all. Any baby of any race or either gender can learn any language. We teachers can use this amazing potential. All we have to do is

— restrict vocab (to not confuse and overload people)
— use all grammar (so people can “pick up” what they’re ready for)
— keep it all 100% comprehensible
— provide a ton of listening and reading repetitions

In Hindi, we have “postpositions” as opposed to prepositions. Chinese has tones, and no verb “to be.” German has complex word-order rules invented by a sadistic language demon. Try explaining the difference between “some” and “any” questions to a non-native speaker of English. French and German have two past tense auxiliaries. Russian has cases. But whatever it is, people can pick it up.

The point? They don’t need to know anything other than meaning, and the brain– given enough input– will take over and start figuring the patterns out.

How do we teach “advanced” grammar?

I got a great comment from Jody in México. I argued in a previous post that Blaine Ray (and any other solid comprehensible-input teacher, such as Joe Dziedzic, Susan Gross, Ben Slavic, etc) will use what Jody describes as “complex language (subordinate clauses, subjunctive, mixed tenses, etc.) with lower level students.”

Jody then pointed out that legacy methods (communicative and grammarian) teachers will generally say “How are kids going to be able to do that if we haven’t taught them the the other tenses first? They don’t know enough language to be able to handle those “advanced” tenses and constructions. The idea is ridiculous!”

Jody then asks “How do we respond to those teachers? […] HOW [does] a teacher make[…] complex language comprehensible (orally) so that its complexity and quantity don’t overwhelm the student ? [How does a teacher ] KNOW that this kind of instruction is actually working with her/his students? What if your students are just not getting it? Is it them/Is it me? What do you do?”

So…today’s question: “How do we teach so-called advanced grammar?”

First, there is, technically speaking, no such thing as “advanced” grammar in the sense that some things are “harder” to learn. My definition for “advanced grammar” is “grammar used not as frequently as other grammar.” I say this because the less we hear/read something, the harder it will be to acquire. Now, some sentence structures are more complex than others, true. A sentence such as Blaine Ray’s “the boy wanted a cat who had a blue iPhone” is more complex than “I like cats,” but in terms of grammar, really, they’re all the same…and, in some cases, apparently “simple” grammar is less used than “advanced” grammar. For example, in Spansh, according to word-frequency lists found here

— “used to be” and “was” are used more frequently than “you are.”
— the subjunctive form for “s/he is” and “s/he was” are used more frequently than the word “good”
— the formal future tense for “s/he is” is used more frquently than the word for “three”

Even a University-educated Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish native speaker who has acquired English– like my Mexican friend Emanuel, or my climbing partners Polly and Teresa– will often not acquire the third-peson -s until way after they have acquired much more “complex” structures such as the past conditional. (Polly, from China, has two degrees from English universities, a few million in the bank, has bought and sold a few businesses, has been living and working– and reading– in Canada for twenty years, and still says “I hope he run with me tomorrow.”)

Yet, in a typical textbook the words for you are, good and three are introduced– and practised– WAY before such “advanced” forms as the past subjunctive. So textbooks get it wrong.

But the question remains: how do we teach such supposedly complex structures as the subjunctive?

Easy:
a) you keep it 100% comprehensible
B) you provide loads of repetitions, and
C) you don’t expect the kids to internalise whatever “advanced grammar” rule you are teaching right away.
D) if it’s aural (listening input), all the above apply, and include written support to boost comprehensibility

For example, the Spanish “quiero que seas mi novio/a” (I want that you be my boy/girlfriend) is– in traditional terms– “complex.” It has a subordinate clause and the subjunctive.

If I am teaching a story, I’ll throw that in there as dialogue. I’ll have “quería que fuera” with translation on the board. I narrate “Rochelle quería que David Beckham fuera su novio” (Rochelle wanted that David Beckham be her boyfriend). I then ask my actress (in present tense) “¿quieres que sea tu novio DB?” (Do you want that DB be your boyfriend?) and have her respond with “Sí, quiero que sea mi novio” (yes, I want that he be my BF). I’ll also include dialogue where Rochelle meets DB and says “David. Eres muy guapo. ¡Quiero que seas mi novio!” (You are very handsome, I want that you be my BF!)

I will also ask the class comprehension questions: “when I say quería que DB fuera su novio, what am I saying?” and I’ll circle the sentence. I’ll also ask my actress lots of questions: “¿quieres que George W. Bush sea tu novio?” etc and when I do this, I’ll ask the class “what am I asking Rochelle?”

Now, note carefully:

A) the kids have NOT acquired the subjunctive even if they can retell the story, or properly use the sea constuction in a sentence. But they have acquired a “piece” of it and feel— somewhere in their heads– a fragment of the rule that “infinitive minus r plus a or e equals desire/possibility.” And they also have something useful— the word sea is in the top 300 or so Spanish words and they can use the word in at least one situation.

B) I am not grammar-geeking out. Hell, I don’t even tell the kids about the subjunctive, the rules, etc. All I say is “sea means ‘might be’.”

C) Once I have used sea in this story, I can re-use it everywhere and anytime. In my next story, maybe Fahim wants a blue cat, and tells the cat “quiero que seas mi gato.” (I want you to be my cat)

D) When I throw imy next subjunctive statement into a story– “¡No me gustas! Quiero que te vayas.” (I don’t like you! I want that you leave)– I also keep it 100% comprehensible and the kids– subconsciously– are getting reinforcement on the subjunctive a/e pattern.

Now, when legacy methods teachers say “they don’t know enough language to be able to handle those advanced tenses” (e.g. the subjunctive), I would ask them about their Level 4s and 5s, to whom the text says “you must now teach the subjunctive”:

— are your students appropriately transfering their sudden new explicit knowledge of the subjunctive– rules, endings, irregular forms, etc– into every part of their speech and writing?

— if you taught the subjunctive as part of a topical/thematic unit (e.g. as part of a unit on work– “el papa quiere que su hijo tenga un buen empleo” (the dad wants his kid to get a good job), do the kids actually use the subjunctive when talking/writing about something other than work?

— do the kids use the subjunctive appropriately and automatically in speedwrites and unrehearsed speech? Or are they mainly “good” at it when they have time to look through their binders and notes, and when they are doing worksheets, or textbook exercises?

I’m gonna bet the answer to all three is “no.” It sure was when I taught “communicatively” from a rigidly-structured text.

So does T.P.R.S. have an advantage, in terms of teaching “advanced” concepts such as the subjunctive? Yes. Mainly because, as Susan Gross argues, people acquire grammar rules on their own schedule, when they are ready for them, and not before. It follows from this that, as Gross says, we should provide rich, interesting, totally comprehensible and multidimensnal language right from the get-go, so that the kids are constantly getting everything, and will pick up what they are ready for when they are ready.

If we hold off on “advanced grammar,” what happens if a student isn’t ready to acquire an allegedly “simple” grammar rule? They will get input that only provides a part of what they need! If you restrict input to X, kids will only only have the chance to acqire X…for which they may not be ready, and what they are ready for, they won’t be getting.

On top of that, there is no way of knowing what kids are or are not ready to acquire. And, even if there were a way to know that, how could you possibly design teaching around 30 different stages of acquisition? You can’t.

So what do you do? You provide rich, interesting and comprehensible language all the time, and you– and the kids– are good.

Why do T.P.R.S. teachers minimize explicit grammar instruction?

I was coaching TPRS to a couple of French teachers at a local high school yesterday and they were telling me about their department-mandated French exam, which includes 1/3 specific grammar questions (e.g. “which is the right form of conjugating avoir in the 3rd person pluperfect” bla bla).  What a load of B.S. but ANYWAY one of them asked me, post me-asking-a-story, why do TPRS teachers minimize grammar instruction?

Well, first, we do teach grammar.  We do our pop-ups– “grammar commercials”– and we explain whatever the kids want to know.

More importantly, however, we mimize grammar teaching because it has very little real return.  If you want to geek out and read How Languages Are Learned (Lightbrown & Spada), or look at Ortega and Lourde (2000) you can wade through the details.

Basically, it’s like this:  There are an unknown– but enormous– number of rules for grammar in any language.  Some are simple (e.g. in English you cannot say I enjoy to run, because– for whatever reason– enjoy does not take an infinitive, but rather a noun, gerund etc).  Some are complex (e.g. I am a handsome employed professional sounds OK; I am an employed handsome professional does not), and not even me, ueber-language-geek, can explain why.  But there are so many that if we spent specific time teaching–as in, demonstrating, modeling, explaining, practicing etc– them, we could spend all our time on them.

We know from forty years of research– and there is no disagreement in the scholarly literature about this– that compelling comrehensible input drives acquisition more than anything else.   While almost everyone wants some explanation of why “___ has to happen with ___”–and the research supports some explicit grammar instruction– the question remains, how much grammar teaching is enough?

I’ll give you a simple example:  In German, articles change depending on whether they are masculine, feminine or neuter, singular or plural…and…whether they are with a noun that’s the subject, direct object, indirect object or possessive of the sentence.  You say “Ein Mann hat eine Frau” (a man has a wife), but “Die Frau hat einen Mann.”   That ein changes to einen because Mann in the second sentence is the direct singular masculine object.

HOLY CRAP, IS THIS EVER COMPLICATED! 

So how do you learn inflection?  You have two options:

a) You do what my high-school teacher, Frau Hedda Thatcher, made us do: memorise a massive table of the endings.  “Vat iss se datif plural off Hund?”  she would ask. “Vat is se plural nominatif masculine form of the woman auf Deutsch?” 

b) You do what kids do, which is get input– in students’ case, with restricted vocab– and you let your brain figure it out.  If you hear “Der Hund ist gross”  (the dog is big) and then “Der Mann hat den Hund,” (the man has the dog) your brain is getting a bit of a pattern– der becomes den with the word Hund after the verb “has.”  You don’t know inflection– you can’t explain it, and you will probably make mistakes using der in sentences– but it’s a start.

You will eventually hear something like “Der Mann geht mit dem Hund” (The man walks with the dog) and your brain (unconsciously) will note that “with mit, the word der becomes dem.”

Now, once…whatever.  A couple of hundred times?  Your brain will– for reasons you won’t be able to articulate or even be aware of– pick the rule up.  German kids do it, and so do visitors who study German and hear lots of comprehensible input.  Krashen managed it and his German is pretty good.  Blaine Ray asks a German story where he says “Das Hotel war in Vancouver,” and then “Das Maedchen war in dem Hotel.”  Here, Blaine changes das to dem.

Now here’s what’s interesting.  In order to figure the rule out, your brain also has to figure out noun gender.  But– and here is the kicker– there is no way to tell what gender a German noun is.  There are a few rules– e.g.-ung nouns are feminine– but mostly it’s totally ambiguous.  So how does the brain do it?

Well, basically, it cross-correlates a zillion data points.  If X in position Y has -en added, then gender likely Z.  If X in position Y has -em added, gender likely A.  Store hypothesis; apply next time data gets input to test validity; if confirmed, rule is more likely true, etc.  The research makes this very clear: language learners, in learning a new language, make many rule-generalisation (and other) mistakes which are not influenced by their native language.  The brain, in other words, has its own built-in sorting and predicting “software” which kicks in. (Yes, learners do also make native-tongue-influenced mistakes, but surprisingly few).  You can read Bill VanPatten’s simplified description of language acquisition here.

It’s a lot like solving Sudoku.  Anyone who does Sudoku knows that every puzzle has an “anchor point:” once you start writing down possibilities in each square, you will find one totally clear, one-option-only blank square, and once you have this, you can start cross-solving.

You solve Sudoku by going through the puzzle and, for each blank square, you write in (in pencil) all the possibilities for that square.  You will at some point– in even the hardest puzzle– come across an “anchor point,” that is, a blank square where there is only one possible answer.  When you find the anchor point, other possibilities start eliminating themselves.  If there is an 8 here, that means there cannot be a 3 there, etc etc.  This BTW is why Sudoku– like studying grammar– is boring.  There is no real thinking, just a mechanical process of elimination.

With a bit of clarity regarding a few simple vocab items– and they don’t even have to be explained– and a ton of structured input, the brain will sort things out.  It will generate and test rule hypotheses, discard some, acquire others, etc.  It will notice something like “OK, der Hund goes at start of sentence, den Hund after hat.  So der becomes den,  and der goes with Hund.  As loads more data comes in, the brain will check the new input against its hypotheses about what goes where, and confirm or discard.  If the brain then hears Der Mann hat den Kaffee getrunken (the man drank the coffee), it gets a cofirmation about its rule hypothesis, and this gets archived.

Eventually it will calculate the patterns for what goes where, and simply apply them.  Now, because we don’t have 4,500 hours like German kids do to listen to Mutti and Vatti, we have to slow down, simplify our vocab, and be more repetitious.  But we let students’ brains do basically what kid brains do.

The beauty of it is is that, while it takes forever to explain these rules, and to practice them (which is boring), we don’t need to!  (When my classmates finished high-school German– and most of them dropped it after Grade 11, because it was tedious and stupid and not necessary for University admission– they could neither speak nor write extemporaneously.  But man, could they ever decline articles and explain pronoun order.)

The reason TPRS teachers don’t over-explain (or make students consciously practice grammar rules) is that there are so many, and they are sooooo complex, that the practicing would take forever.  Instead, we provide comprehensible input, lots of reps, answers to grammar questions, and we let the brain’s (literally) trillions of wired-to-acquire neural connections do their work.

The research supports this.  While grammar teaching does “work” in the sense that people can learn to consciously remember (and apply, and recognise right/wrong uses of grammar rules), the opportunity cost is super high.  Time spent practicing grammar = time not spent getting comprehensible input.  Yes, you get “returns” on the grammar-teaching investment, but these are tiny compared to the returns on interesting comprehensible input.  To make best use of class time, C.I. is the ticket.

Basically, comprehensible input is two birds for one stone:  you are getting your grammar instruction “smuggled in,” so to speak, while students are focusing on the fun stuff– like what happens to the character who wants three boyfriends but is offered seven (and must choose!), what language the horse speaks, etc.