Less Is More

Input – Output = Acquisition (2)

Do we need to “practice talking” to learn to talk?  Nope.  Here’s a few more stories about acquiring language without producing it.  Those kids in your class who don’t talk much, or who don’t like talking…they’ll be fine. Here is another post about acquiring without talking.

First, from Judith DuBois on C.I.Fight Club:

I talked to a man raised in a family where his parents and older brother spoke Italian to each other and French to him, thinking they were helping him, since school was in French. When he tried to speak Italian they made fun of him for his “French” accent, so very early he stopped speaking Italian, but could understand it when people around him spoke it. He went to Italy a couple times as a child, and relied on his mother to tell people what he wanted. He thought that he could not speak Italian because he hadn’t spoken it as a child. But when he went to Italy as an adult with his French wife and there was no one who spoke French to be his interpreter, he discovered that he could actually speak Italian fluently. He says he has a slight accent and makes a few mistakes with genders, but has no trouble communicating.

Second, from Stephen Krashen, who in an excellent paper lists a fascinating bunch of case histories of people who acquired language largely via input:

Armando

A reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked me to meet Armando, a 29-year-old
immigrant from Mexico who had lived in the United States for 12 years. Armando, who
attended school in Mexico up to grade nine, worked in an Israeli restaurant in Los
Angeles nearly the entire time he has lived in the United States. While Armando speaks
English quite well, he says he speaks Hebrew better.

According to the article in the Times (Silverstein, 1999), Armando picked up Hebrew
“by observing and listening to co-workers and friends,” through interaction and
conversation, occasionally asking for the meanings of unknown words. According to the
“patriarch” of the family-owned restaurant, Armando “speaks Hebrew like an Israeli” (p.
1).

Armando’s experience

I interviewed Armando, in English, at the restaurant where he worked. Armando told me
that it was two or three years until he was comfortable in conversation even though he
heard Hebrew all day on the job. He said that he never forced or pushed himself with
Hebrew, that his approach was relaxed. He also informed me that he had a very friendly
relationship with the other restaurant staff, with the owners, and enjoyed chatting with
Hebrew-speaking customers. Armando’s good relationship with speakers of Hebrew was
confirmed by Times reporter, who noted that Armando formed “close friendships” with
the family that owns the restaurant, his Israeli-born co-workers, and many customers.
When Armando was seriously injured in a car accident in Arizona, several members of
the family visited him in the hospital, there were calls “nearly every day,” and prayers
were said for him at nearby synagogues.

Armando told me that he had never learned to read Hebrew, never studied Hebrew
grammar, had no idea of what the rules of Hebrew grammar were, and certainly did not
think about grammar when speaking. He said that he received about five corrections a
day, but none of these were aimed at grammar; it was all vocabulary.

An informal evaluation

I conducted an informal evaluation of Armando’s Hebrew competence. I tape-recorded a
brief conversation, somewhat contrived, but the best that could be done under the
circumstances. (It would be have much better to obtain some completely unmonitored
speech, recorded when Armando was not aware it was being recorded; [but] this, of course, would hardly be ethical.) At my request, Armando chatted with a native speaker, an Israeli friend of his, about what he did the day before (it was the Sabbath). The
conversation lasted about five minutes.

I played the recording was played the next day for four adult native speakers of
Hebrew: two employees of the Israeli consulate and two employees of the Israeli tourist
office in Los Angeles. I did not indicate who the speaker was but only asked them to
listen and evaluate Armando’s Hebrew. The judges listened to about two minutes of
Armando talking about his activities on Saturday. The listening was done in a corridor in
an office building (because of tight security in the consulate), and the recording was not
of high quality. The judges were not told anything about Armando until after they made
their judgment.

Here are the results: One judge felt that the speaker was a native speaker of Hebrew,
had no accent, and made no grammatical errors. Armando’s language, however, was
judged to be “unsophisticated.” The second judge felt that Armando was a long time
resident of Israel and could have been born there. He thought that Armando might speak
Hebrew as a second language and speaks another language at home. Armando’s Hebrew
was “not quite standard” but was acceptable. This judge guessed that Armando was
Moroccan, which is quite interesting, because the owners of the restaurant are from
Morocco. The third judge decided that Armando was not a native speaker of Hebrew, but
felt that he was very good: “He can clearly say anything he wants to say,” but shows
“some hesitancy.” This judge guessed that Armando had lived in Israel “perhaps one or
two years” and has had lots of interaction with Israelis. The fourth judge thought that
Armando was Ethiopian. She felt that he was not a native speaker of Hebrew but is
clearly very good, clearly fluent. He is, she felt, obviously “comfortable” in Hebrew and
speaks like someone who has lived in Israel for a few years. He uses slang but uses it
appropriately.

The range is thus from “very good but nonnative” to native.

The case is quite consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis and shows that
“acquisition” alone can lead to impressive levels of competence in a second language.
An additional interesting aspect of this case, in my opinion, is the support it provides
for the notion of club membership, the idea that we “talk like the people we perceive
ourselves to be.” (Smith, 1988, p. 4; see also Beebe, 1985). Armando, it can be
hypothesized, made the extraordinary progress he did because he had comprehensible
input; but his progress was greatly aided because he joined the club of speakers who used the language. (Note that the “club” in this case was a circle of friends, not a national or ethnic group; Armando has not converted to Judaism.)  

Of course, Hebrew was not comprehensible for him right away. His great
accomplishment was due to patience, being willing to acquire slowly and gradually with
a long silent period (or period of reduced output). With a “natural approach” or TPRS
language class Armando would have had comprehensible input right away and would
moved through the beginning stages more quickly, and real conversational Hebrew would have been comprehensible earlier. I predict that a traditional class focusing on grammar would not have had this effect.

Armando’s case also shows us that one can do quite well in second language
acquisition without living in the country in which the language is spoken and without
formal instruction. The crucial variables appear to be comprehensible input and having a good relationship with speakers of the language.

From my experience:

This summer, my parents got new neighbours, an Irish couple.   I was one morning sitting at my parents’ on the porch, practising mandolin, and the very blonde Irish wife waved at me from the fence, and in the thickest of Kerry accents, said that’s a lovely chune yer playin’ there, would that be The House of Hamill?

I told her it was, and she told me, she was a flute player who regularly attended Irish sessions.  We spoke for about twenty minutes.  When I finally got around to asking her name, she said Agnieska (I think that is how it is spelled), and I said, well that doesn’t sound very Irish.  She said, it’s not, I’m Polish.

Agnieska had moved at age 17 from Poland.  She had studied German and Russian in school, but had no knowledge of English.  She moved to Ireland in 2001, to stay with a cousin who understood some English but didn’t speak any.  She lived in Dublin in a building with mostly Polish people, so she heard no English at home and in her social life.

Agnieska got a job in a pub doing dishes and cleanup in evenings.  Agnieska’s cousin  worked for the pub owner.  The pub owner liked her work ethic so got her a cleaning job in a friend’s store.  She would work evenings, first cleaning up around the end of the store’s day for a couple of hours, then walk over to the pub and work there.

The pub had Irish music sessions a few nights a week, so Agnieska heard a lot of Irish music.  She had played a bit of piano in elementary school, but had never played Irish music.  One day when cleaning up she found a cheap tin whistle under the table.  When no musician claimed it, the pub owner gave it to her, and she took it home and started experimenting with it. Over the next two years, Agnieska worked at the pub, cleaned the store, and fiddled with her tin whistle.

Agnieska told me that initially she had been shown a few basic things to do in the store and pub, and had been given a few basic instructions, like “first, sweep, then vacuum” and so on. Many of her interactions were minor variations on routine: in the pub, customers would say where’s the bog? or where’s the bathroom?, or what have you got to eat? or what’s there to eat?  In her first years working, she mostly listened to co-workers and customers.  She asked her cousin what the English meant (and was told in Polish).

Agnieska said that after about two years, she felt good enough with spoken English that she went to adult school to get English-language high-school equivalency. This is when she began reading in English (a lot of what she called “trash,” as well as newspapers).  She ended up in University, where she met her Irish husband.  They moved to Kerry, where they had two kids, and then on to Canada.

She also told me that she had managed to figure out some basic scales on the whistle within a few weeks of picking it up– it’s an easy instrument– but had not done much with it other than playing radio hits and random things.  However, one evening when the pub was slow, she was bringing the musicians some pints, and got to talking to a whistler.  When she mentioned that she too owned a whistle, he offered her one of his, and said give us a chune.  She said I didn’t give it a single thought, I just played and– to her surprise– banged out a jig.  She bought a used flute later, liking the sound more, and started sitting in on sessions.

Agnieska basically learned the English language and Irish music by listening.  With English, there was high repetition and comprehensibility, and (relatively) little variation in what she heard (and to which she had to respond).  With music, she heard the tunes over and over– tunes are typically played from three to six times in a row– on a variety of instruments, in two octaves.  Repetition in slightly varied contexts in both cases, and in both cases mostly input.

Anyway…you can pick up a ton without “practice.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

Thought experiment, and neat discussion item for Defartment Meetingz, or Headz or Adminz who don’t understand why Textbookz are the devil in disguise. 

First, read the following lists.  These are English equivalents of Spanish words from Wiktionary.com’s frequency list. If you are using this with colleagues, don’t at first tell them where you got the words. 

List A: welcome, together, window, comes, red

List B: went, that he be, world, shit, that she had gone out

First, you could think about what these lists have in common, how they differ, etc. 

Second, anwer this question: which words will be the most useful for students in the real world?

The obvious answer is List A. After all, we always “welcome” people, kids need to know words for classroom stuff like “windows,” we set the tone for classes by working peacefully “together,” and common sense suggests that “comes” and colours such as “red” are super-important. 

The List B words are, obviously, either less immediately useful or “advanced” (ie textbook level 4 or 5) grammar. 

Now here’s the surprise for us and our colleagues: the List B words are all in the 200 most-used Spanish words, while none of the List A words are in the 1000 most-used Spanish words.

What I got from this was, first, that what is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and second that a sequenced plan of instruction (eg from “simple” to “complex” grammar) would majorly short-change students for their real-world Spanish experiences. 

The textbook, or the doddering grammarian (or even the smiley new school grammarian with their apps, feedback gadgetry, evidence of learning portfolios, self-reflections bla bla bla) will see language acquisition as a set of skills that we master one rule set or vocab set at a time, starting with simplest and going to “more complex.” However, what people need to actually function in México or Spain is, well, high-frequency vocabulary, as much of it as possible. Why is this? Two simple reasons. 

First, high-freq vocab is what one hears most. Knowing it means getting the functional basics and feeling good because you can understand lots. If you easily understand lots of the target language, you can function even if– as is always the case– you can’t speak as much as you understand. When I’m in Mexico and I can’t say blablabla, I can gesture, point, use other words etc. Never yet had a problem with getting my point across, but I’m always wishing I understood more. 

Second, high-freq vocab builds the “acquistional platform.” When our students are finally in a Spanish or Mandarin environment, knowing high-freq vocab reduces the processing load for new input. If students already know a high-frequency sentence such as I wanted that he had been nicer (in Spanish quería que estuviera/fuera más amable), it will be much easier to figure out what I wanted that she had been more engaging means, because we only have to really focus on the word engaging

This is the acquisition platform: when we have the basics (high-freq words and grammar) wired in, it gets steadily easier to pick up new words. 

Anyway…be curious to see what ppl and their colleagues think of this. OH WAIT I FORGOT THE DEVIL 😈. Textbooks. Well the basic prob with texts here is that they don’t even close to introduce words along frequency lines, as I have noted elsewhere

T.P.R.S. or…whatever? More Evidence for the Effectiveness of Comprehensible Input

I have documented TPRS kids’ success in the past (see this) but today we are in for a different kind of treat: we are going to look first at what top students can do with traditional methods (forced output, grammar practice, word lists, memorisation, etc) and then with comprehensible input.

Today, totally by accident, I found my old Spanish 2 binder from when I was a traditional methods teacher using the ¡Juntos Dos! program.  One of my old Level 2 final projects was to create a children’s book.  The kids generally used themselves as characters.   This story was written by Nuvjit S.

Nuvjit was a keen language learner in high school, and has since then acquired Japanese. She was the top student in Spanish in her year.   For this project, the kids got editing help from me, they could use dictionaries, etc. Here is Nuvjit’s children’s book. This was the best project of its kind that I got that year.  So take a look at what I was able to get done with traditional methods.  This is second year Spanish.


  
  
  

Now, let’s take a look at what a kid taught with only comprehensible input methods can do.

This is Neha D.’s story. She is one of the top five or six students from this year.  This was done today, in 50 minutes, with no notes or dictionary.  First draft.  No editing.  Neha is Nuvjit, ten years later, with  Spanish teaching based on what we know the brain needs to acquire language: tons of compelling comprehensible input, in aural and written form.

Neha has never seen a grammar worksheet, a verb conjugation table or an explanation of how the pretérito  differs from the imperfecto.  She has never had her work corrected, and she has never “reflected on her learning,” or fiddled with a portfolio.  She probably can’t even tell you what a verb is and she has never heard the word “conjugate.”

This is first year Spanish.


  
  
  
  
  

So…it’s pretty obvious which method works better…for me, and for these students.  Your mileage may vary.

Now let me also be clear here:  I was a pretty bad communicative teacher.  I didn’t get good results (well, I couldn’t get my kids to have awesome results).  There were– and are– loads of people better than me in that tradition.  So I am pretty sure that any number of people could have gotten better results.  I’m also at best a slowly-improving T.P.R.S. practitioner, and there are loads of people who get better results than me.

This however is also my post’s silver lining:  if I was a bad “communicative” teacher and I’m a marginal (but improving) T.P.R.S. practitioner, my kids are getting more out of the class with T.P.R.S.

At bottom, I don’t attribute Neha’s success to me being smart or a good teacher, or to how funny I am– err, try to be– etc.  Neha and her classmates’ success ultimately stems from T.P.R.S., Movietalk, etc, allowing us to remain comprehensibly in the target language for huuuuuge amounts of time.

Building A Better Language Learner

What mental habits breed success?

In a fascinating article, psychologist Steven Stosny examines the creation of mental habits that work, and boy oh boy have we ever got some insights for the languages classroom.

To sum it up briefly, as Hebb put it nearly fifty years ago, “neurons that fire together wire together.” When the brain undergoes sustained, repetitive (but not boring) focus on ____, the connections– the actual physical links between neurons, the synapses– physically grow thicker, and more able to do a “mental move” quicker, with less energy, and more automatically…more easily.

This has been studied in everyone from athletes to readers to doctors. As a rock climber, for me most moves are now “wired in,” and when confronted with a crux, I often find myself doing the sequences– left foot up, smear right, throw right, reset right foot, etc– automatically. As I get older, I get less physically strong, but mentally way more on top of things.

One of the reasons Michael Phelps, before he retired to a life of marriage to supermodels and eating whatever he damned well feels like, was the winningest swimmer and Olympian of all time was that he practiced literally everything over and over. Phelps– in addition to weightlifting, aerobic workouts, feedback from coaches on technique, etc– practiced everything. What if his goggles filled with water, as they did in Beijing? He’d practiced swimming without. What if he was off-stroke at a turnaround? He’d practiced turnarounds thousands of times. What about the insane stress pre-comp? Easy: he had a ritual: a set breakfast, a specific set of music on his MP3 player, a specific set of exercises to warm up, a specific set of clothes to wear. He got rid of as much variation as possible to focus his mental and physical energy on swimming fast and dealing with problems automatically.

Stosny also refers to the psychological literature dealing with “mental bandwidth,” that is, how much processing we can do at a given time. It turns out that mental bandwidth is not unlimited, and that when we are under stress, we “use up” more of that bandwidth. Stosny therefore suggests that the best way to deal with stress (or new situations/information) is to have as many of the needed skills– calming oneself; knowing the language; knowing the climbing moves– as possible automatised. If I am climbing, and I’m thirty feet above crappy gear on hard moves, I am much better off if I don’t have to think about the moves, but can just do them, and focus on placing gear, or getting to a rest, or managing the fear, etc.

In his article, Stosny talks about his work as a psychologist who dealt with clients who were abusive towards their wives, but not self-unaware. Stosny initially functioned on the epiphany-leads-to-change model, where he’d guide the client to a moment of realisation– hitting my wife is toxic or I am this way cos of what my Dad did to my Mom– and then hopefully that moment of new awareness would lead to change. What Stosny discovered was that, for various reasons, these epiphanies rarely led to any kind of change. His clients went back to being abusive, or drinking, or whatever.

What Stosny finally did find worked was, basically, a focus on new habits. He had to have his patients visualising new, better behaviour– I will take ten deep breaths if my wife gets under my skin— and practising this behaviour. Thinking about the past, feeling regrets, etc, were not what helped. What needed to be done was single-minded focus on the right outcome, and practising that outcome. Actually, “outcome” is the wrong word– the right word is something like “right action in the moment.” When Stosny had a client who habitually beat his wife, the wrong thing to do with a freak-out coming on was to visualise a happy marriage. The right thing to do was to focus on specific, immediate steps and behaviours. I will breathe. I will walk away. I will punch a pillow, not my wife. In other words, if you want to score a goal, think about the kick, not the crowd yelling your name; a journey of a hundred miles starts with one step.

For the language classroom, we can learn a ton from Phelps and Stosny to start building a better language learner:

a) We should eliminate distractions. If students are focused on quality comprehensible input, that’s all we need. Get rid of phones, side chatter, zillions of posters and verb charts on the wall, grammar explanations, etc. If we focus on the meaning of the language, it will be acquired.

b) We should eliminate goals and focus on process. There’s all this modern edu-babble about portfolios, goal-setting, self-monitoring, peer feedback, self-evaluation, bla bla bla. Wrong! If we focus on the process— listening to, and reading, quality comprehensible input– the goals (speaking and writing and understanding a language) will come. Phelps doesn’t train by thinking about winning– he trains to move fast, turn efficiently, deal with stress, etc. If he does all that well, he wins. In the language classroom, process equals product.

c) We should do only what is necessary. We are going to get way more bang for our pedagogical buck by teaching limited, high-frequency, useful vocab (in interesting ways) than we are by dithering with huge word lists of things that are seldom used, or used only in super-specific contexts. Indeed, it has been suggested that you can do 90% of the work in any language with just seven verbs: goes, wants, has, is, likes, feels, needs.

d) We should practice till it’s perfect. Phelps does thousands of turnarounds, laps, etc; Stosny makes his clients practice various techniques hundreds of times; I’ve spent thousands of hours on rock faces doing moves. Do it enough, properly, and it will get “wired in.” It’s stressful being in a foreign country trying to buy train tickets or dinner or whatever. If we get things wired in, we “free up” mental bandwidth for managing emotions, thinking, danger, new situations, etc.  If it’s automatic, everything else gets easier.

In Delhi, or Mumbasa, or Kinshasa, what you want is to be able to say I’d like to please buy a _____ without thinking, and know enough numbers and whatever to understand the answer. What you don’t need to do is be able to say “gosh, that was an -er verb, conjugated in the imparfait, so I should say ____ .”  If we automatise the basics, we “free up” brainpower for listening, managing stress, remembering, etc.

Less, done better, is more.