grammar acquisition

Another Nail in the Skill-Building Coffin


I was Twarguing recently with my District colleague Shauna Néro. “Grammar feedback and direct instruction in the language classroom are pointless,” I said.
“I don’t believe it,” she said.

This is a pretty classic argument between a C.I. practitioner and a traditionalist skill-builder.  Fortunately, science doesn’t care whether or not we “believe” it, and our argument, as we shall see, has been mostly settled for us by VanPatten, Keating and Leeser.

Let’s prep our brains for this.  Here we go:

Sentence A:  “Chris is brewing beer in Vancouver on Saturday.”

Sentence B:  “Chris in Squamish rock-climbing is on Sunday.”

Which took you longer to understand?  Which made you momentaraily go “huh?”  I bet it was B.

Because, as egg-heads and linguists say, “you have acquired a well-developed mental representation of English,” sentence B takes you a half-second more to read than A, and it takes you a couple of microseconds longer to answer Question B than Question A.  You probably noticed your brain going “no, wait, sentence B should be __________” i.e. “re-thinking” the sentence properly.  This is what the brain that has fully acquired English does.

Now here’s another example.  In Hindi, khanna means “food” and he means “there is.”

Sentence C:  Khanna he?

Sentence D: He khanna?

You probably figured out that both questions mean “is there food?”  Did one take you longer to read than the other, or to figure out?  Probably not.  Now, here’s the thing.  Sentence D is wrong.  If you are a native speaker of Hindi, you read D and briefly went “huh?”  You understood it both ways, but your processing speed differed depending on whether or not your Hindi was later-learned or acquired as your/a first language.

This, it turns out, is standard experience with L1.  If the vocabulary and grammar have been acquired, and the sentence makes sense, grammatical errors will make us measurably slow down in our reading and question-answering.  In other words, if we really have the language acquired– wired in– we will slow down slightly when processing errors in the language.  If we have acquired it less thoroughly, we will get the meaning but our processing will not slow when there are word order or  grammatical issues.

This is why you can read Noam Chomsky’s famous sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and it won’t intuitively “feel” or “sound” weird, despite obviously being nonsensical (like Lewis Carrol’s “’twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”).

It turns out that measuring processing speed is a pretty good way to figure out how well someone has acquired mental representation of a language.  If we process errors slowly, it shows that we have the language “wired in,” and if we process them quickly (or don’t process them at all), we have not yet acquired mental representation of the part of the language being looked at.

Bill VanPatten and crew asked two interesting questions in an experiment detailed here:

a) Do native (L1) speakers of Spanish “slow down” processing different types of errors?

b) Do non-native (L2) Spanish speakers slow down equally for different types of errors?

They exposed Spanish L1s and L2s to Spanish sentences with three types of errors:  wh- question, adverb placement, and verb conjugation errors.

With verb conjugation, where one should say la chica juega fútbol (the girl plays soccer), subjects read errors such as  *la chica juego fútbol (the girl I play soccer).

With adverb placement, where one should say Juan no viaja más a Francia porque no tiene dinero (Juan no longer goes to France because he has no money), subjects read *Juan no más viaja a Francia porque no tiene dinero.  Note here that the errors follow English word order.

The question-word errors involved sentences like ¿dónde comen tus padres cuando hacen visita a Chicago? (Where do your parents eat when they visit Chicago?) and *¿dónde tus padres comen cuando hacen visita a Chicago?  Again, the error sentences follow English word order.

Note that both correct and incorrect sentences where possible use the same number of words and the same words.

VanPatten, Keating and Leeser showed the subjects sentences (some with errors, some normal) on the computer screen, followed by a question.  The computer timed from when they saw the sentence to when they entered an answer, and then showed them the next question.  The focus here was not getting the right answer (it was basically impossible to get a wrong answer) but rather on seeing how long it took people to process grammatical and ungrammatical sentences.

It had been hypothesised that the L1s would process Spanish errors of any type at the same speed, because their mental representation of Spanish is so solid that any error would stick out.  This turned out to be the case.  L1s– native Spanish speakers– processed  conjugation, question word and adverb placement errors at the same speed.  For the L2s, things were quite different.

Verb conjugation had been (repeatedly) addressed in the college students’ Spanish classes. There had been explicit instruction and explanations, practice, listening, reading etc, all of which used verb conjugation as focus– both direct and implied (implicit)– of instruction.  Using adverbial phrases– e.g. saying “no longer” (no…más)– as well as question formation had been regularly  present in reading & listening, but had not been explicitly dealt with.

What VanPatten, Keating and Leeser found was that there were significant differences in L2s’ processing speed depending on the error type in the sentence.  For the verb conjugation error sentences, the L2 group– despite having been taught, and having read and ‘practiced’ it– did not slow down in their processing.  With the adverb placement and question-word error sentences, the L2 group– despite not having been ‘taught’ or having ‘practiced’ them— slowed down processing markedly.  If they slowed down processing, that meant they had developed a mental representation thereof, and if they did not slow down processing it, they had not (yet) acquired mental representation of the item in question.

In other words, the L2s had acquired a solid mental representation of adverb phrase placement and question word usage despite not having been explicitly taught them, and they had failed to develop a solid mental representation ofverb conjugation despite having been taught it and having practiced it.

You probably want to re-read that last paragraph.  Let’s rephrase: people acquired things from the Spanish input which they weren’t explicitly taught and had not practiced, and they did not acquire other things from the Spanish input which they were taught and had practiced.  As VanPatten wrote me– echoing Krashen of 35 years prior– “the research on effects of instruction consistently fails to show any effect for [on] the implicit system,” and this study shows exactly that.

Let’s rephrase again:  you can teach– and “practice”– all the ______ you want, but people are not going to pick up on ____ if  their brains are not ready for it. 

The implications are staggering, and here they are in no particular order.

First, textbooks are at best irrelevant and at worst an active and expensive impediment to learning.  Sequenced grammar, as I have argued, not only makes language acquisition boring, but is ineffective.   Why?

  • We do not learn grammar as “units” or “skill sets.”  There is no mental “unit” called “the -ar verb” or “indirect object pronouns.”
  • students do not acquire grammar on a teacher or book-dictated schedule
  • As Vanpatten, Long, Krashen etc note, we do not acquire what textbooks present as “rules.”  What we call “rules” are surface descriptions of very complex subconscious processes.
  • as Susan Gross has pointed out, people may well be ready for input that the text does not present, and not ready for what it is showing us.

Second, this study suggests that teaching with fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 is the way to go.   In other words, all grammatical structures– verb tenses, pronouns, moods, what have you, no matter how “complex” or “advanced” or “un-L1-like” they may appear from the traditionalist’s perspective– should be present in input as soon as learners begin acquiring the language. As Susan Gross has argued, and as Long (1997) says, “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.”  In addition, if there as an un-L1-like feature in the L2 (e.g. the Spanish subjunctive for English L1 speakers), it may require more processing practice– input– than supposedly “L1-like” features…and should therefore be present sooner.

This being the case, using sheltered grammar– what all textbooks do when they leave “advanced stuff” like the subjunctive for later– is wrong, because it

  • denies the brain at least some of the input it needs
  • overemphasises at least some what the brain is not ready for

Eric Herman points out that this is a logical, but not an empirical, argument for unsheltered grammar, noting that we would need to study under what conditions– unsheltered or sheltered input– better mental representation appears.  My gut feeling (and classroom experience) is that unsheltered instruction will develop better mental representation, but more slowly than sheltered, as there is a greater variety of syntax etc to soak up.

Third, this puts a massive hole into any kind of proficiency level system which is tied to specific grammar or vocabulary.  Most assessment systems in traditional textbooks– the typical end-of-chapter reading, listening, writing etc tests– are invalid.  Sure, kids can consciously wrestle with verb conjugations or pronouns or whatever by “studying hard” the night before the test, and on test day they say “hurry let’s do the exam before we forget,” and they are right– they immediately forget whatever they’ve memorised.  However, vocab-and-grammar-specific tests often

  • do not assess proficiency of what kids actually know
  • assess proficiency of things kids may not be ready for

If your State, District, school etc says, for example, “French Level 2s must know how to conjugate verbs using être in the passé composé,” they are flat-out wrong-headed.  Kids should be exposed to verbs using être in the passé composé (if the input is comprehensible and interesting), and it is certainly appropriate to expect them to understand, but forcing them to use these (especially in idiotic discrete-item grammar tests) is wrong.

It is also wrong to ask students to output specific features of language in a test situation.  While the brain can recognise the meaning of things it has not acquired, asking it to output these things properly is asking the impossible.  So a writing or speaking exercise which says “you must use the verb ___, the following nouns, etc, in your dialogue, paragraph etc,” is bad practice.  This is when you get kids writing “yo tener divertido” or “je suis quinze ans.”

Fourth, the most obvious lesson here is that teachers are wasting their time with grammar lessons, explanations and practice.  The brain is going to pick up what it wants only when it wants.  While obviously teachers should answer grammar questions, and explicitly deal with grammar to support meaning (e.g. by saying “in French, the –ons on aimer means ‘we,’ and goes with nous“), anything else is a waste of time.  Ditch those stupid fill-in-the-blank workbooks.

Fifthif grammar lessons– and teaching that organises curriculum around grammar– do not deliver the wanted results, the question of “what should we be teaching?” arises.  The answer, I think, is threefold:

  • multidimensional language (a.k.a. unsheltered grammar) with “everything” in the mix
  • compelling comprehensible input which will keep learners focused (and therefore acquiring)
  • vocabulary beginning with more frequently-used and moving toward lower frequency

I’d urge people to look at Wiktionary’s frequency lists and note that, in terms of the most commonly-used  words, all grammar is present.  It’s not like the subjunctive is seldom (or later)- used in Spanish or French.  Indeed, the typical order of presentation of grammar in textbooks– numbers=> present tense=> past tense=> subjunctive– is backwards to how often these features are used in languages.

Sixth, activities which focus students on input of language– reading and listening– will be more effective than those involving grammar manipulation, output, etc.  If a teacher notes that students have not acquired ____, reading/listening to a ton of input that contains ____ would be the best bet…but, as VanPatten et al show, it’s no guarantee they’ll pick it up when you want them to.  We do know that if they understand, they are acquiring…just not necesarily on the teacher’s schedule.

Seventh, there is news for “communicative” teachers, who like having students use the target language to exchange information: it will be almost impossible to have students generate accurate language either to make questions or to respond to them.  Why?  Because– by definition– what a ‘communicative’ teacher is asking a student to do is the thing they do not know how to do. If the experimental subjects had not developed mental representation of verb conjugation after competent native speaker and textual exposure to it, how can we expect students to acquire (say) verb conjugation by both doing it and getting poor input from other learners?  As Bill VanPatten puts it on his podcast, “asking students to produce what they are trying to acquire is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse.”

OK, there we go.  People’s brains, not their teachers, set the acquisitional agenda.  Let’s respect that by providing good comprehensible input, not insisting that students master the passé composé by November 27th at 2:43 PM, and not harping about grammar.

The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and C.I. Instruction

Research shows that

  • languages are acquired only when people get aural or written comprehensible input
  • comprehensible reading in the target language improves acquisition a lot
  • grammar practice and explanations, most metacognition, performance feedback, and output are of minimal or no value
  • drills and any other kind of output practice don’t work
  • there are predictable, unavoidable, error-involving stages and sequences of acquisition of grammar which cannot be changed
  • learners’ speaking the target language does not help learners acquire it, and often slows acquisition
  • comprehensible input methods (including T.P.R.S., narrative paraphrase a.k.a. Movietalk, free voluntary reading and Story Listening) do more for acquisition than do legacy methods
  • despite superficial differences, children and adults learn languages in the same way

Here is the evidence supporting what we know about language acquisition.  Thanks to Eric Herman for digging a lot of this up, and thanks to Karen Lichtman, Bill VanPatten, Ray Hull, Stephen D. Krashen, Wynne Wong, Reed Riggs and Paul Nation for sending papers, comments, etc.

Want a live crash course in research?  See Bill VanPatten’s presentation (in 6 parts) here.  His weekly podcast is archived here.  Lance Pantagiani’s condensed Tea With BVP episodes are archived here. Sarah Cottrell’s Musicuentos podcasts are also worth a listen.

1) Should students be taught and practice specific grammar points?  NO.  Truscott reviews research and says that “overall the evidence against grammar
teaching is quite strong.”  Krashen annihilates the grammarians’ arguments here. Wong and VanPatten also dismiss the grammar-practice argument in Wong and Van Patten 2003: “The Evidence Is In: Drills Are Out,” and VanPatten, Keating & Leeser (2012) conclude that “things like person-number endings on verbs must be learnt from the input like anything else; they can’t be taught and practiced in order to build a mental representation of them” (see Wong and Van Patten 2003 the evidence isin drills are out).

VanPatten also notes that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and that “classroom rule learning is not the same as acquisition.” Lightbown writes that “structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation” (in VanPatten, 2004): in other words, explanations don’t aid acquisition (though some students may feel good getting them).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as VanPatten and Wong put it, that “learners– again, both in and out of the classroom– have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

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.

VanPatten (2013) also echoes Susan Gross when he 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.

In a fascinating study, Batterink & Neville (2013) found evidence that the “longstanding hypothesis is that syntactic processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, relying upon computational mechanisms that are autonomous and automatic” (what Krashen calls the Monitor model) is, in fact, correct.

2) How much vocabulary, grammar and general language skill do students pick up via free voluntary reading (FVR)? LOTS…and loads more than from direct instruction. There are estimates that readers acquire an average of a word every twenty minutes of FVR, that FVR works about twenty times as quickly as classroom instruction, and that 75% of an adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.  See Lehman (2007), summarised in IJFLTJuly07.  Additional free voluntary reading research is detailed on Krashen’s site and Japanese researcher Beniko Mason has also done a ton of good FVR research.  There is very good research on the Fijian Book Flood experiment detailed here, which shows, among other things, that some “focus on form”– grammar and writing feedback– is useful for second-language acquisition at later and higher levels, even while comprehensible input does 95% of the work and remains the sine qua non of language acquisition.  In a recent study (abstract here), non-native speakers of Spanish who had a Spanish reading habit had much greater vocabulary than native Spanish speakers who did not read.

VanPatten writes that “for maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).” Warwick Ely here examines free voluntary reading, grammar instruction, etc, and comes to the same conclusions that Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Lightbown & Spada etc do. Waring (2015) here makes the “inescapable case” for reading.  Mason and Krashen’s look at F.V.R. among Japanese learners of English showed significant positive effects.

Self-selected, comprehensible, interesting reading in the target (or native) language is boosts acquisition for the following reasons:
  • it delivers masses of comprehensible input
  • learners can pause, slow down, go back and seek extra (e.g. online or dictionary) help, which they cannot do nearly as well with a live speaker, and especially not with many native speakers (who often do not adjust vocabulary and speed to non-native-speakers’ needs)
  • readers can (and generally do) select books (input) tailored to their level
  • there is no output pressure, so the affective filter is low
  • for beginners, prosodic features like word differentiation are easier to see than to hear (but others, such as tone and accent, are harder to grasp)
  • the brain’s visual system is acute and, especially for monolinguals, better developed than the hearing processing system.

3) Do people acquire language via comprehensible input? YES. Krashen here summarises the comprehension hypothesis and destroys its rivals. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.”  Krashen also takes a look at savants, polyglots and ordinary folk who have learned languages via comprehensible input in this fascinating paper.  In a study of Spanish learners, comprehensible input teaching worked about six times as quickly as traditional instruction.  There is a great short comprehensible input demo by Krashen here, and here (starts at about 12:30) is a longer and more detailed lecture.

Krashen also lists the academic research supporting comprehensible input here.

Ashely Hastings’ “Focal Skills” program (which presents first aural (and video), then written comprehensible input before moving into writing and speaking), was designed for use in Uni classes, and is where what we call “Movietalk” came from.  The research on Focal Skills shows it much more effective than traditional present-and-practice approaches.

Karen Lichtman lists the T.P.R.S.-supportive research here, and another giant literarture review is here.

4) Should we organise curriculum thematically?  NO.  Among other reasons, it turns out that it’s harder to remember clusters of similar vocab than collections of thematically disparate vocab. As Paul Nation writes, “research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, … shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as “clothes” or “chores”] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.” See Paul Nation on lexical sets and Rob Waring’s paper on vocab learning.

5) Should we “shelter” (limit) vocab?  YES. Evidence from children’s language acquisition suggests that we should, while “upping” prosodic variation (“wacky” or differentiated voices), reading rituals, and responses to student output (the paper is forthcoming). There is some processing research (VanPatten) that suggests that the amount of “mental energy” available for comprehension is limited, and that a minimal amount of new vocab be introduced in structured patterns over a broad overlay of well-known vocab, so that “mental energy” can be devoted to acquiring newer items. VanPatten: “any model of L2 input processing [must] consider in some way the impact of capacity issues in working memory on what learners can do at a given point in time.”  In other words, overload = bad.

Children also acquire vocabulary more quickly if it is “framed”: delivered in interactive, structured and limited speech-and-response sets (see chapter 10 of the interesting book Nurture Shock for details). It is estimated (Nation, 2006) that in most languages, the top 1000 most-frequently-used words account for about 85% of all oral language use, and the top 2000 for ~95%.  Best practice is probably to teach “along the frequency list” where the most emphasis is on words that are most used (with variations that cater to student needs and interests).

6) Do learners “learn” grammar that teachers “teach?”  Not on teachers’ or texts’ schedules.  VanPatten (2010) argues in this very comprehensive paper that “some domains [aspects of language acquisition] may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice [e.g.vocabulary], while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences [e.g. grammar].”  VanPatten, echoing Krashen, concludes that there is limited transfer of conscious knowledge “about” language into functional fluency and comprehension, and notes that “[n]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice” (2013).

Ellis (1993) says that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books, and not the syllabus.”

7) Should we use L1– the “mother tongue”– in class? YES, (albeit as little as possible), as Krashen notes, because this avoids both ambiguity AND incomprehensibility, neither of which  help acquisition. Here are some ideas about why L1 should be used in the languages classroom (Immersion teachers take note…all the _______ in the world won’t help kids who do not understand it).  Nation (2003) notes “There are numerous ways of conveying the meaning of an unknown word […] However, studies comparing the effectiveness of various methods for learning always come up with the result that an L1 translation is the most effective (Lado, Baldwin and Lobo 1967; Mishima 1967; Laufer and Shmueli 1997).”

Here is some 2020 research where students  an L1-supported L2 class outperformed an L2-only (immersion-style) class.

8) Can we change the order of acquisition? NO. Krashen’s books have examples of order of acquisition. More recently, Lightbown and Spada (2013) reiterate Krashen’s contentions, showing how acquisition order of verb forms (in English-learning children) is fixed. Wong and VanPatten (2003) make the same point.  There is very little we can do to “speed up” acquisition of any “foreign” grammar rule (e.g. English speakers learning the Spanish subjunctive) or vocabulary, other than providing lots of comprehensible input that contains the rule in question.

VanPatten (2013) notes that instruction “does not alter the order of acquisition,” and Long (1997) says that “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” We also know that L2 mistakes are partially a function of L1, have partly to do with L1-L2 differences, but mostly to do with learners not being mentally ready to produce the new form (which is a result of a lack of input).

For example, L1 German learners of L2 French make mistakes with subject-verb inversion…despite German having exactly the same rule as French for s-v inversion.  Arika Okrent documents children’s L1 acquisition errors; note that errors 5-8 are also classic adult L2 acquisition errors (stages).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003)  put it, that “learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”  In Lightbown (1984), French-speaking students’ English output did not “match” the input they were given.  Students “do not simply learn linguistic elements as they are taught– adding them one after another in neat progession.  Rather, the students process the input in ways which are more “acquisition-like” and not often consistent with what the teacher intends for them to “learn”.”

9) Does correcting or properly re-stating learner mistakes–recasting– improve learner performance? Generally, NO. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) point out that while teachers like recasting (and do it a lot), and while students can and do immediately generate improved output as a result, “these interactions were not associated with improved performance on […] subsequent test[s].”  VanPatten writes “[d]irect error correction by the instructor does not promote linguistic accuracy and the absence of error correction in the early stages of acquisition does not impede the development of linguistic accuracy” (1986 p.212).

Feedback regarding meaning, however, works: a student who points at a picture of a cat and says “dog” can benefit frim being told “no, that’s a cat.” However, feedback directed at the implicit system– eg you should say vengo, not veno— is useless.

My view: if there is a place for recasts in the languages classroom, it is in ensuring that student output– which is also input for other students— is comprehensible and accurate.

10) Is there broad agreement among second-language-acquisition researchers about what constitutes effective practice? YES. In this paper, Ellis lays out the “ten principles” of second languages teaching.  He notes

  • comprehensible input is the sine qua non of second language acquisition
  • we must provide some “focus on form” (grammar explanations) to support meaning
  • there is no transfer from explicit knowledge of grammar to implicit language competence
  • the use of quite a lot of “formulaic” expressions– a.k.a. “lexical chunks”– is essential esp. for beginners
  • curricula organised along grammar sequential lines are probably not brain-friendly
  • instruction must primarily focus on meaning
  • drills don’t work
  • some output is necessary for acquisition in much later stages as this focuses learner attention on some aspects of form

S.L.A. researcher Patsy Lightbown here explains the “known facts” about second language acquisition.  Here is a video of S.L.A. research and what works/does not work by Bill VanPatten.

11) Do “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” exist?  NO.  In this paper, psychologist Daniel Willingham puts the boots to the idea that teachers need to kill themselves providing nineteen different ways to learn the verb “to run.”  While people often have preferences about learning, and while some people definitely have better skills in some areas than others, there is no evidence to suggest that language acquisition is positively affected by anything other than the presence of masses of comprehensible input, and the absence of counterproductive activities (grammar practice, forced output, grammar lectures, etc).

VanPatten has said that “No research has found a link between learning styles and individual differences on the one hand, and on the other the processes involved in language acquisition.

12) Do students like speaking in a second-language class?  Generally, no.  Krashen first made this point, and Baker and MacIntyre note that “Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication,” (references to Maclntyre & Gardner (1991) and McCroskey & Richmond (1987)) and also note that production anxiety in classes is high among non-Immersion students.

Best practice is probably to let those want to, talk, and to delay any output for others while asking them to signal comprehension or lack thereof (as natural approach, A.I.M., Narrative Paraphrase and T.P.R.S. do).

13)  Does speaking improve acquisition?  NO.  Despite (a few) studies which try to make the case for output, there isn’t a strong one. See Krashen’s response to one such study here, and his examination of Swain’s output hypothesis– and the research testing it– here. In another study, English-speaking students were taught Spanish structures (subjunctive and conditional) via various mixes of input and practice output. In this study, students who

  • got input only did very well
  • got input and did limited output (“practise”) did no better than input-only students
  • did more output (“practise”) than getting input did significantly worse than those who got more input.

Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that “[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

VanPatten also says that when “mechanical drills attempt to get the learner to acquire the thing they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse,” and notes that “research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.

14) Should we speak s.l.o.w.l.y. in class? YES. Audiologist Ray Hull writes  “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” Adult native-language output is 170-180 words per minute, so slowness is essential (for all teachers, not just those of languages).  Note that there is no way to speed up auditory processing speed.

15) Do learners need many repetitions of vocab items to acquire them? YES.  In this study, scientists concluded that 160 repetitions of an item resulted in new items being “wired in” like older (or L1) items.  However, acquisition rates vary and depends on various factors:  is the word an L1 cognate?  Is it being used comprehensibly?  Is its use meaningful?, etc.

16) Does feedback about performance in a language (e.g. correction, explicit information, etc) help acquisition?  NO.  Sanz and Morgan-Short (2002) replicated with computer-delivered input what VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) did with spoken and written input.  And, as VanPatten & Wong (2003) put it, they found that “neither explicit information nor explicit feedback seemed to be crucial for a change in performance; practice in decoding structured input alone […] was sufficient.”  In other words, explaining to people how a grammar rule in a language works, and/or pointing out, explaining and recasting (correcting) errors has no effect on acquisition.  VanPatten also writes that “Overt correction does little good in the long run” but “indirect correction may be useful,” but notes that the research on indirect feedback is far from clear.

17)  Are some people better language learners than others?  NO.  Older research (as Vanpatten, 2013, watch it here, video 5, says) suggested different people had different aptitudes.  New research (VanPatten 2013b, 2014) suggests, echoing Krashen, that on traditional tests of aptitude that measure conscious learning– e.g. knowing grammar rules– there are “better” and “worse” students.

HOWEVER, in terms of processing (understanding) ability, there is no difference among people.  If they get comprehensible input, they acquire at roughly the same rate, in the same way.  A classroom that foregrounds grammar practice and output should produce a more varied mix of outcomes than one which focuses on input.  VanPatten notes that working memory– roughly, how much “stuff” one can keep in their head consciously at a time– varies between individuals, and that those with greater working memory may find language acquisition easier.

18) Do children and adults learn languages in the same way? Mostly, yes.  Children must develop a linguistic system while simultaneously acquiring a language.  For example, kids need to develop basic competencies (which adults take for granted), such as knowing that words can represent reality, that that there are such things as individual words, etc.  Once this “linguistic foundation” has been laid, kids and adults acquire languages in the same way. We know this because kids and adults make similar errors, have similar sequences of acquiring grammar, etc. As VanPatten notes, “adults and children appear to be constrained by the same mechanisms during language acquisition regardless of context, and the fundamental ingredients of language acquisition are at play in both situations: input (communicatively embedded language that learners hear or see, if sign language); Universal Grammar coupled with general learning architecture; and processing mechanisms that mediate between input and the internal architecture. In short, much of what we observe as differences between adults and children are externally imposed differences; not differences in underlying linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of acquisition. And some of those externally imposed differences are a direct result of myths about language acquisition.”

 19) Do we have data showing how well comprehensible input methods work in comparison with legacy methods?  YES.  (note:  Nov 14, 2015– this section is being updated; please comment if you have things to add)
  • C.A.L.A. testing shows T.P.R.S.-taught students outperforming other students despite having less in-class time than other students
  • Joe Dziedzic found that T.P.R.S. outperformed “communicative” teaching, with the biggest gains for T.P.R.S.-taught students being in oral and written output, despite T.P.R.S. students not being forced to speak or write outside of evaluation.
  • Ray & Seely’s Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling (7th ed.) has a research appendix.  Summary:  T.P.R.S. never works worse than, sometimes performs as well as, but mostly performs better than traditional methods.
  • Ashley Hastings’ “focal skills” C.I. approach– where what we call “Movietalk” comes from– significantly beats traditional teaching.
  • Grant Boulanger has shown that C.I. teaching both works better than the textbook in terms of student outcomesand increases retention of students who typically do not stick around in language classes (people of colour, boys, poor people, etc).
  • There are as of Nov 2018 twenty-nine studies that compare one C.I. approach (TPRS) with other methods. TPRS mostly comes out much better.
  • Beniko Mason’s “Story Listening” C.I. method also beats traditional instruction hands down. See her research here.
There is no evidence suggesting that the following legacy language practices are effective:
  • grammar teaching and practice
  • forced and/or early output
  • any kind of drill
  • error correction and/or recasts
  • minimal reading; “fragmented” one-dimensional reading (e.g. lists, informational text, etc)
  • sequenced grammar instruction

Got a study, paper, etc that needs adding? Email me or add a comment and I’ll update this.

Grammar Acquisition, Simplified

OK here’s a cool short example of of how we pick up grammar.

1) The word “bung” in the Blablabian language means “I make love.”

2) The word “bungbung” in Blablabian means “I made love.”

3) The word “nom” means “I eat”

4)  How do we say “I ate” in Blablabian?  That’s right, class– “nomnom.”

What’s the rule for past-tense first-person formation in Blablabian?  That’s right– say the present-tense first-person word twice in a row.

Kids do this with whatever language they are learning because (a) their brains get 1000s of hours of input (literally– kids get 4,000-4,500 hours of input before even single words emerge) which is supported with pointing, gestures, repetition, physically being picked up and moved, etc etc. and (b) what Chomsky calls “the language organ” neural networks know (it’s genetically wired-in) to induce the rules from the data.

Comprehensible input language teaching relies on one simple trick: instead of focusing the conscious mind on the rule, we focus the conscious mind on the meaning.  And if we give people enough repetitions of quality input where they (a) understand, (b) are paying attention and (c) feel comfortable, they will pick the rule up.  Indeed, they can’t help but pick the rule up.  The unconscious “language organ” will figure the rule out and eventually start applying it, initially to decode input and then later in speech and writing.

We also throw in explanations of the rule– pop-ups, or what my colleague Adriana Ramirez calls “grammar commercials”– because some people like those (and a few may even need them).  Some researchers now think (in contradiction to Stephen Krashen’s contentions) that there is a bit of “leakage” from the conscious mind to the unconscious, so explicit instruction will in some cases be helpful (especially with writing, and with older learners).

But, basically, 95% of all good language teaching work is nothing more than delivering repeatable, interesting comprehensible input in a safe, fun environment.