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:


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.

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

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.”

























Talking Without Understanding

I was at Steve and Kim’s last Saturday, and when their kids’ bedtime came, Uncle Stolzie got the chance to read to Jasper, 4, from his new book, while the parents put Calder (20 months) to bed.

So we snuggled up on the couch and I started reading the book.  I’m a pretty good reader:  I can do different voices and accents, and I’m verbally quick.  I would read a paragraph or two, and Jasper would ask questions about the pictures. He liked the reading.  After about twenty minutes, Jasper was sleepyheaded and off to bed.

And then I realised that I had no idea what I’d just read.  I was so focused on the reading, voices, dialogue, going slow, etc, that the story itself eluded me.  I know there was a squirrel and a toad, and that was about it.

So it made me think about language performance.  If we make kids read aloud, how much do they actually understand?  Can you speak a foreign language– in my case, a totally new book– and know what you are saying?  Can you read and speak well, and sound good, and not know what you’re doing?  Does output help us learn things?   When we “get through” a performance, have we experienced something like what a reader or viewer has?

This made me think of music. I’ve been playing Irish music (and old-time) for ten years now.  So how do you learn?  Well, primarily you listen.  Irish music is played in sets.   A tune will have an A part (played twice) and a B part (ditto).  The whole thing is played three times, then you jump directly into the next tune, then another, etc.  The music repeats a fair bit, so you have many chances to pick it up.

When I go to sessions or festivals, I see people hear a tune (from teacher or session group), use Tunepal or Shazam to identify it, then look up the sheet music, and then start playing along.  I wonder why.  Until you know the tune– i.e. you can hum or whistle it– there is very little point in playing.  And the only way you can really learn a tune is by listening.  Yes, you have to practice, because making music with mouth and fingers, unlike speech, is not something the brain is prewired to do.

Learning tunes by playing is like learning a language by talking: sure, you’ll pick something up.  But it will be slow, and you’ll be so busy working on sounds and notes that you won’t really process what you’re hearing.


Comprehensible Bluegrass Input

I’m at bluegrass camp with a hundred pickers and a few grinners. I’ve been studying mandolin with prodigy Tristan Scroggins, who at age 20– with no formal musical training– holds up one-quarter of Jeff Scroggins and Denver Colorado, the outfit his ass-kicking banjo player Dad tours around the world.  What I’m really studying of course is how this kid got to be so freaking good so young, and how people learn bluegrass.

It turns out that young Tristan has gotten to where he is not as you might imagine by obsessively playing chord sets, runs and scales in his room for hours, but by listening.

Scroggins was taken by Dad to festivals starting at age four, where he ripped around underfoot with other kids, soaking up indeterminate thirds and mixolydian scales by osmosis, and when lost his Dad’s distinctive picking was his homing beacon.  At home Dad practised and loads of musicians were always passing through.

Scroggins started banjo at age 12 but didn’t feel good at it, so he switched to mandolin.  In school he’d load his iPod up with tunes, sneak-wire his earbuds in under his long hair, and spend class time listening to music while working on math problems.  Scroggins liked bluegrass, buty also grokked on Broadway show tunes, an influence that still shows up in his soloing and writing.

Like any good American suburban teen, young Tristan wanted and sought adventure, which he found in video games, whose soundtrack for him was more bluegrass.

“So every now and again I’d hear Chris Thile or somebody do something weird.  I’d stop it, put it into the slow-downer, and listen to it at like 30, then 35 etc till I got it.” The slow-downer is software that slows music down (without lowering the pitch) so you can clearly hear what the musician is doing. The numbers refer to beats per minute.  For a rough idea of musical speed, AC/DC’s stomper “Back In Black” is at 96 bpm.   “When I could hear it clearly then I would practice it a bit till I could play it,” he says.  Teachers– sound familiar?

At festivals, Tristan did what we do: sitting around evenings with random circles, chopping along and taking breaks (solos). In bluegrass, unlike Irish music or old-time, mostly you don’t do much. You play along with the guitar player on the off-beat while singing is happening or others solo.  In older country– e.g. Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”– the boom-CHUCK pattern of bass and snare drum is like bluegrass, where mando, banjo and fiddle “chop” by playing where the snare drum’s off-beat would be (there are no drums in bluegrass). The guitar and bass make the “boom” and the mando and fiddle make the “chuck.”

What’s cool here is that most of what happens in bluegrass circles is not playing but listening.  You chop along (or sing and strum if you’re leading the jam) but mostly you listen until you take a break (play a solo).  And it is during this listening that two things happen.

The first is that you hear what other soloists are doing.  Because during soloing everybody else plays simplified and quieter patterns (strum and chop), the solos stand out. You can see what fits, what doesn’t, where errors go, and the literally bazillion other things– e.g. dynamics– going on in music.  You are in a kind of rhythmic trance– Suggestopaedic– where enough of the conscious mind is locked onto simple chording that the other stuff can soak in.  (It is not an accident that whiskey and weed are drugs of choice for many bluegrass musicians.)

Scroggins said that the biggest benefit to jamming circles is not the chance to play but to listen and to see how to fit in.

The second thing going on in circles is input via songs and tunes (music without words), as opposed to instructor talk or practice.  Songs and tunes are to music what stories are to language acquisition: patterned, meaningful mental platforms which are both the means and end of music.  If a song is good and well-played, it will smuggle all of those musical skills into a student’s head without the student having to do much thinking about music itself.

One commentator on the Yahoo Moretprs list made a comment to this effect: “a friend who teaches music said that when people tell him I want to learn guitar, what they *really* mean is, they want to be able to play their favorite songs.  So I teach them the songs and that’s how they learn music.”  So it is in bluegrass (or Irish trad, or old-time, or learning a language). We learn music from tunes, not tunes from music instruction.

Now obviously nobody wants to learn grammar etc for its own sake, and the points of language are self-articulation and communication, but there is a point here. Music acquisition– like language– happens as a byproduct of listening immersion in something interesting and comprehensible.

In an immersion-type environment, a language teacher’s job (as Judy DuBois has noted) is basically to clarify the loads of input they get every day.  This is like Scroggins using the slow-downer software.  Or Scroggins as a teacher, slowing down solos for us to try to copy or elaborate on.

In a regular class environment, the teacher’s job is going to be to deliver stories– the “song” and “tune” of language– while making sure things are comprehensible (by clearing up misconceptions and by going slowly).

I’m also watching people learn tunes here.

To acquire: listen a ton.  No, like really listen:  don’t do anything except listen to the tune.

To learn: video everything, take notes, write music down, and immediately try to play along with the instructor.  One problem: all that playing and recording means that there’s precious little listening– the sine qua non of acquiring tunes– going on in the classes.  I’ve gradually ditched everything except listening.  I’ve found that while I feel slower initially (I sit there while everyone else is playing along), I pick things up fine eventually and I can skip the fiddling with paper and devices.

One of the most irritating new trends in music learning circles is the live-searchable electronic database (e.g. Tunepal for Irish trad). You press record when somebody starts playing the tune, it “listens,” finds the tune online, and gives you sheet music on your device.  The people who have these on their phones will within 30 seconds of hearing a new tune be “playing” along.  Of course, when you do this, you aren’t really listening to the music.  You are participating, sure– it’s amazing how many people at bluegrass fests just want to be in the group, holding an instrument– but what you really need is to have the tune in your head. As old-time mandolin master Thomas Sneed says, “once you can hum or whistle it, you’re ready to make your fingers play it.”  All these devices and notes are busywork rather than the focused listening that the form demands.

I was reminded of Nicole Naditz’s activities for her French class.  Naditz– who is well worth following on Twitter @NicoleNaditz– is an A.C.T.F.L. Teacher of the Year and in terms of practice is mostly in the legacy methods camp (forced early output, etc although she has read Krashen etc and gets that, ideally, one should allow for the silent period, etc).  Naditz says that because of her school’s demands, she must make the kids talk almost immediately (even with true beginners).  So she has communicative pair activities, dialogue assignments and other staples of the “communicative” classroom going on (as do many of our colleagues).  I don’t agree– you can build perfect oral fluency without traditional practice, as the research shows– and my feeling is reinforced here.  Making people do stuff, rather than just having them soak things up, in some ways feels good (for the teacher– “Look!  They are practicing solos/French/whatever!”) and may even feel good to some participants, but isn’t necessary.

Output before listening is the same in language and music: in my view (and according to research) not the best practice.  You need a mental model in your head first.  For a tune, that means being able to first hum its “skeleton” (most basic) version.  In language, that means having what Bill VanPatten calls basic “mental representation” of language, or a kind of gut-level awareness of both what sounds right and meaning.  People who want to play a tune they can’t hum– and fake it by reading sheet music– or teachers who want to make students talk before talk emerges organically, are wasting time.

Last year, my best actor, Mo– whose Spanish handle was “El Chapo Guzman” (the legendary Sinaloense drug lord)– was my main male lead in every story.  He said to me at the end of the year “Mr Stolz, it’s hard for me to speak, because I spent all that time acting and speaking.”  This kid was amazingly fast and fluent, with a killer memory, and he himself noted that speaking is a bad way to learn to speak.  Go figure.

Anyway.  Input, as always, trumps all.  “Practice”– on the fiddle, or with another language– must first be a lot of listening, and only later playing or talking.  And we don’t want to learn “music” or “language”: we want to learn songs and stories.