Soap Operas? Hells Yea!

Check this:

So after weather and date, for our daily opener, I ask the kids ¿qué hiciste ayer? (what did you do yesterday?), and sometimes they talk about dates and romance. I encourage them to lie heh heh, and sometimes they do, and sometimes we actually hear about their real lives.  Because it was impossible for me to remember who was with who, I started writing down their “dates” on the homework board and they started bringing them up on subsequent days.

So now we do telenovelas every day and the stories are great:

  • Shyla was at the mall with a male friend when her new boyfriend SAW THEM OMG so now he is not texting her.
  • Manpal– the total music-geek hipster– is dating his ukelele.
  • Nihaal was with a girl who is 18″ tall
  • Sharky’s GF is short, ugly and smelly, but since physical appearance doesn’t matter to him he is happy.
  • Hafsa’s ex is now dating her twin sister Hajjar…but Hafsa’s new guy (although not as good-looking as the old one) is nicer, smarter and funnier.

Every day, we add a sentence or two to each of the various dramas. Amazing how much the kids remember and it’s a riot playing around with this endless deployment of mini-stories.

You get to mix a whole lot of grammar together, and you get a lot of buy-in, cos the kids are basically inventing everything. The quieter ones just have to show comprehension.

The trick– as always in C.I.– is to get a load of interesting miles out of very little vocab. One noun and one verb (or other word) per day is loads. So lately we have been focusing on dejó a ___ (s/he dumped ___) and engaño a ___ (s/he cheated on ___). Great soap opera material. The only problem is getting 1st and 2nd person reps but that’s what imaginary text convos are for. Here, Abby dumps Abdul:

Here, Nihaal’s new girlfriend, la rapera Soulja Fraud, has a blood feud with rapero Quavo. So Nihaal threatens to not road trip (to UtAH) with S.F.

Anyway this is major fun.

The Wayback Machine

I was recently at a conference and thought, OK, I should go see what the Intensive Language teachers do, nd went to a workshop called something like “Get Your Beginners Talking!” Every language conference I’ve ever been to has a workshop like this. 

Here’s a part of a handout:

And here is what the kids would have handed out to them:

This is a classic “communicative” activity: it wants people to use the target language to bridge information gaps as a way to acquire the target language. 

So…what do the research and our classroom experience say about these activities?

1. Speaking “practice” as the exercise suggests does not improve aquisition.  We’ve heard this from VanPatten, Krashen and of course Kirk (2013). 

2.  Feedback– in this case on pronunciation– does not work. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You can’t produce language in real time while self-monitoring to make sure you are using the feedback correctly (Krashen). 
  • Conscious info does not end up in the implicit linguistic system, as VanPatten notes (see this). 

As BVP puts it,

3. This turns the teacher into the language police.  Someone asked the presenter “do they ever speak L1 while doing this?” and they answered “yes, I have to keep an eye on them.”  No fun. I personally find using L2 with other L2s “fake” feeling…and I’m a language geek. 

4.  In terms of personal interest, we have a problem: what if Johnny likes playing with dolls, and doesn’t care that Suzie is really interested in playing Grand Theft Auto?  What if these are low-frequency words?  If these are the case– and they usually are– the amount of vocab that the kids hear that is repeated is going to be minimal. If I hear about 15 different people’s 15 different activities, I am getting less input per item = less acquisition. 

5.  The junky output becoming impoverished input problem among L2s is here unaddressed.  

6. The repetition would be boring. In the presenter’s example, a classic beginner question is do you like to _____? and kids have to answer Yes, I like… or No, I don’t like… This is going to get old really quickly and of course it would be more natural, easier and faster just to use English. 

Anyway…the wayback machine took me to activities that I have never been able to make work. However as they say, your mileage may vary. 

I’ve been able to ditch 95% of output-focused activities, and– thanks to the ease and power of comprehensible input– I have ironically managed to build better speakers by avoiding making kids speak. Go figure. 

Two For One!

Anyone who reads this knows I have two main skills: putting my foot in my mouth, and getting a bad idea in my head and (despite all evidence to the contrary) pursuing it.

I used to think, OK, when introducing adjectives & adverbs, best to introduce paired opposites, e.g. guapo<->feo (good-looking <-> ugly).

This year I played around with limiting vocab (even while switching to fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1). How do I cut the word-load down? I wondered.

So I tried the simplest thing: I just introduced one adjective at a time and used no+adj instead.

So where I used to say la chica era muy guapa, pero el chico era feo (the girl was good looking, but the boy was ugly), now I say la chica era guapa, pero el chico no era guapo (the girl was good-looking, but the boy was not) and I add a happy and then distasteful face when presenting it live.

(I do introduce the opposite word a day or two later.)

The effect was that the kids seemed to pick words up more quickly, and I got fewer errors like this: *el chico era no guapo.  I think this was because they got to use their mental bandwidth of fewer items so the input was more focused and their brains got the “rules” more easily.

I dunno what people think. But this was a major revelation for me, and in line with standard T.P.R.S. practice: limit vocab and recycle it as much as possible.

Why do T.P.R.S. teachers overpractice everything?

One feature of a T.P.R.S. classroom– especially during story-asking– is an apparently insane amount of repetition. The teacher is constantly asking questions such as “is there a boy?” and “are the boys dancing in the rain?”. We also use parallel characters to get even more repetitions on vocab.

Now, we know that the more we hear something that we understand, the more we acquire it. But, as it turns out, there is another very good reason to “overpractice” things.

In research done in Colorado, scientists basically did two things while watching subjects learn new skills (here, using a mechanical arm to move objects around). First, they showed that as people practiced more, they used progressively less energy to get a task done. Mastery was defined as, they could do the task with way less energy than they started (i.e. they got more efficient), they could correctly do it, and they could do it quickly and without thinking (little conscious focus).

Secondly– and more interestingly– they showed that once subjects had mastered the task but kept on doing it, their energy expenditure for doing the task kept dropping, while the subjects were unaware of this process. In other words, the subjects got better at the task without realising they were getting better.

When I told some professional musician friends about this, one guy immediately said “amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

The implications for the languages classroom are enormous and I’m only starting to think about this. (Of course, Mr Intuition himself, Blaine Ray, figured this out twenty-five years ago– now science backs Papa Blaine up on it):

A) “overmastery” should be the goal. We want to make it so that first, students understand without any thinking or pauses. And second, we want them to be able to quickly and easily and unselfconsciously and fluently “spit out” responses to questions, or statements describing things, or questions, orally or in writing.

B) the reason we want this, as the article shows, is that once we have “overmastery,” we are using both much less mental bandwidth and less energy to process the “known” (acquired) stuff, which, crucially, frees mental processing power for newer input.

This last point’s importance cannot be overstated. You want as much “open mind” as possible available for what you are now learning. The more mental clutter you have– unconscious self-talk along the lines of wait, what does that mean? What did he say? How do I say ____ again?— the less energy and mental room you have for new stuff.

C) if you think mental processing power is unlimited, read The User Illusion. Norestranders shows that since about 98% of mental processing is unconscious, we have very limited opportunities for conscious input, and it follows from this that the more we limit the variety of input, and “smooth out” the mind’s unconscious operations– by “automatising” them with practice– the easier it will be to acqure new stuff.

It occured to me that this could potantially be a “communicative” teacher’s argument for yet more student talk in the languages class–“the research obviously says they have to practice”– but this is probably not the case. The reason for this is that practice, in the languages classroom, is literally 90%+ listening and reading. The more we listen and read, the more automatic the language becomes. Blaine Ray was asked at a workshop whether the actors in stories acquired more than the rest of class (most T.P.R.S. teachers seem to have a regular crew of actors) and he said “no.” You don’t learn (much) by talking; you learn a ton by listening.

D) If we “overmaster” the seven basic “power verbs,” we can do pretty much anything even with limited vocab. Has, is, wants, needs, goes, likes/loves, gives/receives I am betting will get 80% of the needed work done in any language. So if students have these automatised, they have some really good “real world” prep (a point made by Jim Tripp on Ben’s).

Musical analogy:

When I started with Irish music, every new tune was major labor. But I went to sessions weekly and after awhile they became faster and faster to learn. (My first-year goal was two tunes/week and I almost did it– I’d hear something awesome, ask its name, then look the music up online and practice at home). The learning became quicker because a) my fingers got the moves wired and b) I started to internalise the scales and rhythms. Irish is mostly in mixolydian and dorian, so the classically-trained and rock guy (me) will naturally play a C# instead of C natural in a mix tune. Eventually I just naturally unthinkingly started hitting the dimished 7ths of the mix and dor scales

Once you play (and listen) enough, the input soaks in and you stop making certain kinds of mistakes. You also subconsciously note tune and bar similarities and you find yourself going “well the B part of Scatter the Mud is more or less like The Noonday Feast except with a mix 3rd” or whatever.

And when these things start happening– when finger movement and scales (what’s “in” and what’s “out”) get automatised– acquisition of tunes becomes easier and quicker. Indeed, I now mostly learn purely by listening, and only occasionally look at sheet music.

Another interesting effect: the more “wired in”– automatised– tunes become, the more you can experiment on them. I still remember playing Cooley’s, a tune I’d played a hundred times at least, and finding myself playing triplets– hard on mando– because I had the tune so wired in that my brain could now explore a new music trick.

I also remember the exact moment I acquired the Spanish subjunctive. After a month of lessons, lots of travel and work, on a sunny day waiting for a bus near Huehuetenango, Guatemala, a guy asked me “when is the bus coming” and I said “espero que venga pronto.”. If the input is there and you get it, the more of the basics you unthinkingly do, the more easily the non-English stuff comes.

Anyway, the analogy’s point: the more you solidify the basics, the easier anything subsequent becomes. Luckily for us, T.P.R.S. allows us zillions of reps because stories– especially with multiple parallel characters– accomodate repetition without boredom because the language is the container, not the content: we teach stories with language, not language with grammar.

What is “sheltered subject matter teaching,” and does it work?

Susan Gross has said of T.P.R.S. that “we shelter vocabulary, not grammar.” This means we do not give our students tons of vocab items– we “shelter” them from a downpour of different words– but we do use whatever grammar we need right from the get-go (keeping it all comprehensible). This is what we call “sheltered subject matter teaching.” Today’s question:

Does sheltered subject matter teaching have a research basis?

The answer, it would seem, according to a new study mentioned in the Times, would appear to be “yes.” (I have emailed the author asking for a copy of the paper; forthcoming).

Background: there’s lots of evidence that poorer kids are exposed to– and pick up on– much less language than wealthier kids (Hart and Risley 1995 is the best-known study). So, people have suggested poorer kids need to be exposed to more language. The question, of course, is what “more” should mean.

Researchers studied parent-child language interactions and, long story short, found that

A) the number of words parents use with their kids does not significantly affect how linguistically capable they become in the future. In other words, super-dooper edumacated parents who went to one of them fancy Ivy League schools– and use a greater variety (and quantity) of vocabulary than do the less-educated– do not manage to make most of their vocabulary “rub off” onto their kids. While wealthier, better-educated people do end up with kids who know more words,this acquisition does not happen because the parents know, or say, a greater number or variety of words.

B) The article notes that “the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.” In other words, it is the type and quality of communication that matters more than the quantity.

C) Researchers “found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Sound familiar?

So…if older kids learn anything like their younger siblings, we can maximise language acquisition by

— reducing the variety of vocab we use. We don’t have to stampede through 1,400 words/year– as my Avancemos text demands– to get kids to learn a ton…we just really focus on using our fewer words quite clearly.

— using realia to to support meaning (props, wigs, costumes, actors, etc)

— using rituals– shared, repetitive actions– to support learning by providing context clues/prompts to clarify meaning. E.g. We begin stories with “there was a girl/boy…” Blaine Ray emphasises one specific technique– the teacher turning their shoulder to audience and facing the actor– about which I thought, “why bother?” initially. But now I get it: it’s a ritual signal to the audience that we are switching from narration to questions (and often from one verb tense to another).

— “saying it back” to students (part of the circling technique). If we ask “did the girl forget her giant purple dog at the nightclub?”, and the kids answer “yes,” we repeat back to them “yes, the girl forgot her giant purple dog at the club.”

— using “wacky voices,” baby talk and other prosodic tools to clarify meaning (Michelle Metcalfe is the goddess of this technique). These “other prosodic tools” include changing tone and volume, using accents, exaggerating question and exclamation intonations, etc. The more “shaped” language is, the easier it is to understand. If I exaggerate my question tone, the kids don’t need to devote mental bandwidth to wondering is Señor Stolz asking a question, or is he stating a fact?. Rather, they know that it’s a question, and can focus directly on the meaning.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that the kids understand.