This is a decent bottle of wine. It’s also a bet. I bet you this bottle of wine that any objections to comprehension-based language instruction will be adressed and refuted in this post. 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.”
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 “short and sweets 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 and others for many of these ideas.
1. But 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. But 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 it? …
Me: Which sounds better, I am a professional nice tall man, or I am a nice, tall professional man?
— The second one.
How do you know? Who taught you?
*takes out phone and turns stopwatch on*
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.
Your first took you four and a half seconds. Your second took you sixteen. How easy is it to speak when you have to think about your own language?
3. Colleague: But if our 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]?
You: 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?
4. Colleague: but 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 and 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?
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. Colleague: but 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 have 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. Colleague, Head: but 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): Why?
Colleague/Head: Well, these are the basics of language.
You: What do you mean?
Colleague/Head: They are used a lot. Basic. Also they are in our textbook as the first units and they are on the exam I have coincidentally been giving for the last 45 years.
You: I wonder. How about we look at frequency lists to see what’s most used?
You: *show them the Wiktionary Frequency Lists*
You: *press CTRL F to search the list* 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. Parent/admin: but when *I* was in school, WE learned Latin by memorising verbs and lists of other words.
Bob Patrick: You took Latin in high school?
Parent: Yeah, and I got 91.358%.
Bob: Quid agis hodie?
Bob: s.l.o.w.l.y.): Quid agis hodie?
Bob: Femina haec/homo hic ebrius est! 😉
Bob (in his head): Aaaaand how well did that Latin teaching work out for you?
Bob (aloud): 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. Colleague/Head: but 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. Colleagues/Headz/Adminz: but [C.I. instruction, using stories and other interesting materials] is too teacher-centered.
Bill VanPatten: The [C.I.] classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.
C/H/A: but [C.I. classes are] too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.
BVP: Entertainment is a valid form of communication.
C/H/A: but [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.
C/H/A: but 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.
C/H/A: but 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.
Grammar Nazi Who Has Been Teaching French 2 For 45 Years: but I feel like Mr Smith’s kids neeed to learn and practice verb conjugation because when they show up in my class, they can’t complete verb conjugation tables.
Bryan Smith: “Do the ESL/ELL students study countless grammar rules to prepare for state testing? No. They don’t. They are learning a second language by getting lots of comprehended input. If they learn that way, why shouldn’t WL students?”
K folks, have at it. Refutations = you get a bottle of wine!