Stephen D. Krashen

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.”


























Frequency List Lessons

There was a recent discussion in which a teacher said, my department head insisted on teaching only the present tense in Level 1, the preterite in Level 2, etc.  This Head’s reasoning was, people must “master” one set of “vocabulary” at a time. Bad idea.

Anyway, let us look at which verbforms in Spanish are actually most frequently used.  Here, from’s Spanish Frequency List, are the most-used verbs in Spanish, then some ideas about what this means for teachers.

The verbform is as given, and the number refers to how close to most-used the verbform is.  The lower the number, the more often used the verb is. Reference point: in Spanish, the most-used word is que (“what” or “that”) whose number is therefore 1.  The second most-used word is de (“of” or “from”) whose number is 2, and the articles la and el (“the”) are the 6th and 7th most-frequently-used words.  OK, verbs:

8.             es
22           está
42           vamos
44           hay
47           estoy
48           tengo
53           ha
55           sé
56           estás
58           puedo
60           quiero
62           soy
63           tiene
68           fue
69           ser
70           hacer
71           son
73           era
74           eres
76           tienes
77           creo
79           he
81           voy
82           puede
83           sabes
91           quieres
100        estaba
102         están
103         va
109         siento
110         tenemos
111         puedes
115         ver
124         decir
128         ir
132         has
136         estar
137        estamos
141        quiere
146        trabajo
148        mira
149        vas
150        sea
154        hecho
156        dijo
157        pasa
162        hablar
169        espera
171        han
173        sabe
177        fuera
181        podemos
182        dije
184        necesito
185        estado
186        podría
187        acuerdo
189        tener
190        dice
192        crees
194        gusta
197        será
198        haciendo
202        había


First, the facts.

A.  The top 202 most-used Spanish words include

  • verbs in seven verb tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, present progressive, formal future, informal future e.g. va a hablar)
  • verbs in two subjunctive moods (present and past)
  • reflexive verbs

B. Verbs we think are oft-used such as gustar are less-used than for example fue

C. The traditional textbook order of teaching verb tenses (typically, present ⇒ preterite ⇒ imperfect ⇒ present perfect ⇒ subjunctive) is totally at odds with how frequently verb forms are actually used.

The implications (in no particular order):

  1. Traditional textbook verb sequencing will not help students in real-world use. Most students will not take five years of Spanish– two is more typical– and so traditional sequencing will overplay less-used “categories” (e.g. stem-changing verbs) and underplay what actually gets used (everything, basically).  They will therefore understand less than they should/could.

    We know this:  according to Davies and others, the 1500 most-used words make up 85% of all spoken language (in any language).  A reasonable target for a five-year high-school language program would therefore be, 300 words per year, more or less.  What if students only take two?  Well then, they will get the most benefit from using the 600 most-used words.

  2. Textbook sequencing does not properly “model” grammar “rules.”  It is pretty obvious that everything normally used is “mixed together.”  A four year old will say something like yesterday Daddy took me to a playdate.  I hurt myself playing with Jason. But it was fun.  I like playing with Jason.  He’s nice.  Here, there are three verb tenses and a reflexive verb.In Spanish, English speakers have a whack of verb subtleties to soak up.  For example, the term “I was” could be estaba, estuve, me sentí or fui. If we teach one tense as a time, as the textbook does, we play up the morphology (form) at the expense of contextual “rule” awareness.  E.g. a Colombian will say cuando estaba cansado ayer en la tarde, me tomé un tinto (“when I was tired yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a coffee”).  The Colombian has acquired the “rule” that the preterite tense “interrupts” the “background” that the imperfect tense establishes.In a traditional textbook, however (eg the ¡Juntos! books I used to use), students will spend quite a while on the preterite, and then on the imperfect.  Even if they acquire the specific forms (which they generally don’t, because nobody is on anybody else’s schedule in terms of acquisition), when a new form shows up, two things happen:

    a. they will start using the new form (verb endings) everywhere and apparently forget the older form’s endings.  Kids who knew to say ayer yo fui a la escuela now say ayer yo iba a la escuela intending to mean the same thing.

    b. when (if) they pick up the new form, they will have huge problems “knowing” which form to use where.  Why?  Because there are so many “rules” to remember that the only effective way to pick them up is from contextual input modeling.  Basically, we need to hear an ocean of meaningful Spanish sentences which use both these verb tenses together.  This is true in any language of any grammatical structure.

    An English speaker can do a thought experiment here:  what is the “rule” for using the very high-frequency English words some and any?  Why can’t I ask do you have some advice? or answer no I don’t have some advice for you?  Why can I say do you have some of those washers for my drum? but not do you have some ideas? 

Anyway.  There you go: some data and ideas about word frequency.  Comments as always welcome.


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.

Old Myths Debunked

This post comes from Carol Gaab.  She is an author, teacher and San Francisco Giants language coach, as well as a presenter and all-around thinker.  Gaab has one of the most critical minds I have ever run into, and likes to dismantle misconceptions almost as much as she likes to show us interesting and effective ways to teach languages.

So here she is, responding to myths like “we must use authentic documents” and “we must practice speaking,” etc.  A fascinating read, and great if you are having discussions with colleagues who embrace older methods.  Thanks, Carol!

Do You Even Lift? S.L.A. and Free Weights

Part One: The Basics


My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model.  Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness.  I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga.  Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things

  1. Everybody should have basic cardio fitness.  A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it.  You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
  2. We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things.  This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
  3. If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
  4. You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.

On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year.  It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy.  I did it for a few months.  I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.

And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room.  I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength.  My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.

The results have been remarkable (for me).  All my weights have gone up.  I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another.  I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid.  Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.

I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored.  The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.

Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).

Can you see where we are going with this?  

a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.

The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training.  But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff.  Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.

If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.

b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”

Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together.  A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down.  A vertical press engages everything from the waist up.  Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.

In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning.  It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

Bill VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together. 

Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language.  The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.”  Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning.  Kids often don’t, though.  The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy.  And Bill VanPatten notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time” (2013).

You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.”  But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.

So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!

(Totally random side-note:  Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter!  He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class?  Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?

Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.

Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do)  doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).

Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma.  Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained.  To stay in shape, he climbs a lot.  But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!).  He tried and tried, and failed and failed.

So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained.  Circuits.  4x4s.  Hangboard workouts.  Weights.  Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works.  And…filmed feedback.  His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.

He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).


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. 

What Is Rule Overgeneralization, and What Can We Do About it?

So you are teaching with your text and in year one the kids “learn” first how to say “I like” in Spanish– me gusta– and then how to conjugate regular present-tense verbs.  And suddenly they are saying *yo gusto no trabajo. Then in Level 2 you “teach” them the past tense, like “she ran” is corrió.  And suddenly they are saying *los lunes corrió a la escuela.  These are a lot like how kids pick up L1:  they acquire Daddy went to the store and then later say Daddy goed yesterday.

This is “rule overgeneralisation:” a new “rule” shows up and suddenly it gets applied everywhere, inappropriately.

Kids pull out of this very quickly, mostly because of the masses of input they get from L1 parents and other adults.  But what can we do about this in the language classroom?

So some random notes:

1. Avoiding conscious learning is the first key.  If you have to consciously learn AND remember AND apply “rules” in real time– ie during oral production– you will naturally default to the most recently-learned rule.  So all that hard work on the present tense seems to go out the window when the passé composé gets introduced.  This is not cos kids are dumb, lazy etc, but it is a brain-structure and bandwidth problem: you have a limited amount of conscious brainpower, and forcing it to “learn” and then remember and apply “grammar rules” (and the brain, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, doesn’t even actually use what we teachers call “grammar rules” in the first place) is too much.  Too many mental balls to juggle. TPRS or AIM-style stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels etc– i.e. interesting comprehensible input– will take care of a bunch of this.

2.  Unsequenced or “unsheltered” grammar is second. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross pioneered using “unsheltered” grammar– using all verb tenses, pronouns, verb #s etc — from Day 1.  If the input is “modeling” L2 in all its diversity, the brain won’t default to conscious or recently-“learned” rules.  Yes, beginners can cope with sentences like El chico quería un mono que bailara (the boy wanted a monkey who might dance) easily.  There you have inperfect, subordinate clause and past subjunctive all in one sentence.

This way, the brain has “everything” coming in at once, and it is getting the “mental spaces” for the different “rules” built, ground up, from Day 1.  The kids won’t substitute trabajaba for trabajó because they have been hearing and reading them– mixed together, naturally– from the beginning.

(There is, btw, another argument for the use of unsheltered grammar: frequency.  A glance at any word frequency list shows us that the 250 most-used words (i.e. what Level 1 of any language class should teach) includes verbs in five tenses and the subjunctive mood.  And it’s not like Mexican moms or French dads delay speaking the subjunctive (or whatever) till their kids are ten years old!)

3. Avoiding “grammar practice” is the third key. The problems any output activity where we “practice” grammar are numerous:

  •  How do we expect people to do what they are trying to learn to do?  Are we not putting the cart before the horse here?
  • If we acquire languages via input, what good does output do?  “Little or nothing” is Steve Krashen and Bill VanPatten’s answer.
  • This will inevitably be accompanied by tons of English or other L1 discussion.  Even the eager beavers will be saying “is it the thingy, the subtunction?  Is that like you put an -a on it?  No wait that’s an -e. OMG this Snapchat. Shut up I don’t like her, OK it’s *ella trabajió.
  • It’s boring. Generating sentences such as “the girl wants her cousin to cook” or “I want my friend to run” is not fun.  I’ve tried everything–everything– and believe me, I can get kids to listen to a fun story that has [whatever grammar] in it, but I cannot get 90% of kids to “practice grammar” or “practice speaking” in any meaningful way.

4. Remember that “errors” do not exist, from the learner’s point of view.  If somebody “screws up” in writing or speech, they quite simply have not acquired what they need to produce the language properly.  They are being asked to do something they quite literally cannot do. There’s an entire Tea With BVP devoted to this question. So, rule overgeneralisation– like any error– has more to do with what teachers want than how “good” students are.

5. We have to remember that acquisition is non-linear.  We can minimise problems such as rule overgeneralisation, but we can’t get rid of them.  Check out this mama bear and her cub going rock climbing.

They test pawholds.  They back down.  They try the sequence differently.  They don’t get there in one fast line.

Teachers are mama bear and students the cubs, if you will. They’ll do the moves…when they are ready.

Finally, we need to up the input.  Students only acquire via input.  Yes, it may seem like they are learning from doing worksheets, or using the subjunctive chart above, or practicing dialogues.  But such “learning” is incidental, and as we see from research, much less effective than lots of good input.  If you keep hearing “j’allais à l’école hier” or “yo gusto hamburguesas,” the students need to hear (and read) more je suis allé and me gustan las hamburguesas.  In the long run, that’s the only thing that is going to work.




The Zen of Language Teaching

Here are your koans.  

If you want to successfully teach grammar, do not teach grammar.

If you want your students to talk, do not ask them to talk.

If you want your students to write well, do not make them practise writing.

If you want them to acquire more words, teach them fewer words.

If you want to make them fluent, do not try to make them fluent.

If you want your students to acquire a language, do not teach them about the language.

If you want your students to know the meanings of lists of words, do not give them lists of words.

If you want your students to spell properly, do not make them practise spelling.

Just because nothing appears to happening doesn’t mean nothing is actually happening.

Just because something is happening doesn’t mean anything is happening.

Don’t just say something– sit there!  

If you want your students to read, do not teach them how or what to read.

If you want your students to prepare for the unknown, make them comfortable with what they know.

A student without a language dictionary is like a fish without a bicycle (sorry, Gloria).

A language classroom with lists of words is like a phone book with stories.

In order to see exactly how much influence you have over the specific language your students acquire, lie in the grass and stare at the clouds. 

“If you want to build a ship, do not gather the men to collect wood, divide up the work, or give orders.  Teach them instead to yearn for the vast and infinite sea.”– Antoine de St. Exupery

As always, the ideas here are are grounded in research, and this one was inspired by Mandarin and S.L.A. guru Terry Waltz.

Why don’t immigrants’ kids properly acquire their parents’ language?

My colleague Rome Lacvrencic, head of the B.C. Association of Teachers of Modern Languages, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion recently. 

Lavrencic, of Polish extraction, heard some Polish at home in Ontario, Canada, English everywhere, and was in late French Immersion. By the end of Grade 12, he says he was “more proficient in L3 than L1.”  He attributes this to being able to speak more French than Polish. 

 This  is a familiar refrain: “I used to be good at ____ but now I don’t speak it much so I’m bad at it.”

This was where I disagreed. I told him that speaking wasn’t the point, but that listening was.  

So I thought I’d take a look at this via numbers and my own experiences. 

My L1 was German.  I heard it at home a lot until Grade One, and much less after Grade Four, when my cousin Sig came to live with us.  Sig spoke Spanish, French and English, so English it was at home. 

Now, when I speak German, I sound like a five-year-old from 1963. I hear my folks speak German but that’s about my only exposure. And I suck at German. When I am around German speakers, I understand a ton but I can say much less than I understand. 

In terms of input, mine dropped to close to zero at age 9. Lavrencic went through a roughly similar process: Polish dropped off but French input massively upped.  My guess is that he (and anyone else in his shoes) would get 5-6 hours daily of French input at school, plus homework (reading) while in Polish (like me in German) would have gotten maybe an hour or two.  

Lavrencic took French in Uni and also teaches it so he’s obviously super-proficient.  

In my view, Lavrencic is bringing up the problem of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this), also known as the correlation vs causation problem. There was speaking and input, then there was acquisition.  The acquisition happened after both the speaking and input. Was it therefore because of the speaking? 

The research says it’s the input. Terry Waltz recently remarked, echoing Krashen, that there are loads of cases of people acquiring languages without speaking them. The deaf who do not get speech training are one. As we all know, when we start acquiring a  language, we go through Krashen’s “silent period” where we understand more and more but our speaking lags.  It is also well-known that babies as young as a few days have begun understanding some aspects of language 8 months prior to even single words emerging. 

Recently on Yahoo this topic came up and master teacher Hai Yun Lu weighed in. She’s Chinese, married an American, and wants her kid to acquire Chinese. Check it:

“I have raised my son to be bilingual. There are many rules and  practices we have implemented at home in order for this to happen. After my son was born, a college professor visited me and shared research she had read. If I wanted to raise a bilingual child, then his second language input needed to be minimal 30% of his total language input (I wish I could find this actual research to share with everyone).

Let’s say, if his waking/alert time is 14 hours a day. 8-9 hours in daycare = English input. He has about 5 hours at home with us. Listening to me speaking Chinese to him, his father speaking English with him and his parents conversing in English. Of course, on the weekends/holidays, he gets more Chinese input. Still, we can barely meet the minimal input amount. Therefore, rules have come into place in our house. Each time we go back to visit China, first and most, we carry a suitcase full children books back for him. (Richard Scary’s collections, Curious Gorge, Clifford…) I only read to him in Chinese, even with an English book [she means, she reads the words to herself silently in English but says them in Chinese].

We rarely turn on TV before he goes to bed. If he’s interested in watching some cartoons, I do whatever I can to get them in Chinese. Therefore, he watches his favorite cartoons in Chinese (e.g Thomas and Friends, Disney films, Curious Gorge, Magic Flute’s Adventure). The majority of his playmates have been Chinese-speaking kids until this spring. He has developed close friendships in JK, where we have finally “extended” our friends circle.

My son is one of the very few kids who can speak Chinese fluently, in comparison to the kids in a similar situation. Many people complain to me that their kids understand their languages, but only speak back in English. I always say “input” proceeds “output”. They need more comprehensible input before they can output. (Here I have left out some psychological factors such as the desire to “fit in”, which typically occurs once when kids start school and they start to refuse to speak their parents’ languages.)

Many of my son’s friends’ parents are very eager to have their children to speak Chinese, and they keep saying to me: “just speak Chinese to my child, I hope we will be able to speak.” It hasn’t worked for any of his friends yet, because what we can say to each other is incomprehensible to his friends, unless I want to turn a playdate into a Chinese lesson time.”

Haiyun Lu

Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?