second language acquisition

Can we “prove” Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis? 

Steve Smith tells me on Twitter that nobody can “prove” Krashen’s hypothesis that languages are acquired by getting lots of comprehensible input. Clearly, as Krashen himself recently said, “we need to talk about science.”  Specifically, today’s question:

Can science prove anything, and can we “prove” the comprehensible input hypothesis?

The answer: science can never prove anything. Truth, technically, is a property of closed symbolic systems (e.g. logic, math).  So, why– how?— is science useful?  It’s pretty simple.  All science does is make testable predictions about causes of phenomena.  Sometimes, scientists will also propose an actual mechanism.

Scientists:

  1. observe a phenomenon (e.g. people acquiring languages)
  2. make a prediction/guess about how this happens (e.g. via comprehensible input). This is called forming a hypothesis
  3. test via experiment your hypothesis to confirm it (e.g. expose people to comprehensible input and see whether or not they learn the language; expose them to grammar lessons and see whether/how well they acquire)
  4. At the end of your experiment, you will know whether  or not X causes Y.
  5. Investigate confounds (potential alternative explanations for phenomenae)
  6. For it to qualify as science, an experiment has to repeatedly generate the same results.

Krashen’s hypothesis is simple: if people are exposed to comprehensible input in the target language, they will acquire the language.  (Technically, Krashen’s hypothesis– which has been tested and confirmed– is now a theory.)

Steve Smith has two objections to Krashen’s hypothesis.  First, he says this:

Strictly speaking, no hypothesis can ever be “proven” true. All you can do is test the hypothesis and see whether data confirms it (aligns with its predictions).  With language acquisition, the research is clear: people who get comprehensible input acquire languages; people who get incomprehensible input, grammar practice, too much output “practice,” or a mix of all acquire no (or very little) language, and always much less than those exposed to comprehensible input.

Is the hypothesis testable? Yes.  Has it been tested, and its predictions confirmed? Yes.  Has anything else come along to provide a better explanation?  No(t yet).  Karl Popper reminds us that good science isn’t true.  He notes that good science has only two properties:

  • it’s just not wrong (yet)
  • it makes accurate, testable predictions.

While Smith is technically correct, he misses the point.  Suppose we hypothesise that an analgesic such as Ibuprofene reduces pain.  On testing our hypothesis, we find that it does indeed reduce pain.  The confirmed hypothesis is thus useful and accurate, but, technically, it’s not “true.” It “does the job” of explaining and predicting.  Hypotheses aren’t true— they work, or they don’t.

Smith’s second claim is this:

This misses the point entirely. First, Krashen does not propose an explanation for language acquisition on the neurological level, nor does he need to.  His hypothesis only involves comprehensible input and acquisition (both of which he defines).

An analogy may be of service here.  Imagine: we bring a preindustrial tribesman into the modern world and he observes cars.  He forms a hypothesis– gas makes cars go– and predicts that, ceteris paribus, a car with a full gas tank will go further than a car with an empty tank, and tests this hypothesis.  The car’s performance obviously substantiates his hypothesis.  Now, the fact that the tribesman doesn’t know anything about internal combustion engines, energy efficiency, math, etc, while true, is irrelevant and does not discredit his hypothesis.

Similarly, the fact that Krashen (and Chomsky, and VanPatten, and Lightbrown, and every other person who investigates S.L.A.) do not propose a neurological explanation for language acquisition is irrelevant.  What counts is whether or not the hypothesis holds up under experimental scrutiny (i.e. whether or not people acquire language through comprehensible input).

Somebody could come along with a better explanation (in which case the comprehension hypothesis, as Krashen notes, gets tossed).  Or, somebody could get right down to the neuronal level and explain the acquisitional mechanism.  If this “neuronal explanation” showed that something other than c.i. accounted for SLA, the hypothesis would again get the boot.  Or, it might simply show us the mechanism by which comprehensible input becomes acquisition.  (This would be something like how Einstein updated Newton: relativity doesn’t invalidate Newtonian mechanics, rather, it just applies on a different level).

Second, Smith is wrong when he says there is no way to say whether or not the use of comprehensible input, focus on form (grammar instruction and/or practice) or a mix of the two are best practice in the language class.  First, we know what works (comprehensible input) from research.  Second, we know– again from research– what has no (or very limited, conscious-mind-only, and short term) effects: grammar teaching and practice, and output. Unless you want to advocate doing something that we know doesn’t work very well, the conclusion is obvious: the more c.i. learners get, the better off they will be, and the best mix is probably as little grammar talk as possible.  VanPatten has also weighed in here, saying that traditional practice and grammar explanations do “very little” for acquisition.

Again, we don’t know for sure how much grammar instruction and how much input learners should be getting. There are a lot of suggestions, though.  In the New Brunswick E.L.L. study (Lightbrown et al), French-speaking students who received only comprehensible input (by reading and listening)  without a teacher did almost as well as students who were taught English and tutored in writing.  In other words, 90+% of the work was done by input.  Beniko Mason (1997) found that Japanese college students who simply read in English far outperformed students who had writing practice and direct grammar instruction in vocabulary recognition.  In both first and second languages, free voluntary reading (teacherless comprehensible input, as it were) has overwhelmingly and repeatedly outperformed any other method of teaching vocabulary, grammar, style, etc (Krashen’s site has all the data).

[real-life digression: Blaine Ray told me the following:  when T.P.R.S. was being developed in the late 1980s, Ray called Krashen– who was then with Tracy Terrell testing the “Natural Approach”– and asked, “how much grammar homework should I be doing?”  Krashen, skeptical of grammar practice from his linguistics research but aware that there were also gaps in said research, told Ray “well, get them to do some grammar practice just for homework.”  So, Ray– whose Bakersfield school district mandated grammar teaching– had his kids do the stupid fill-in-the-blanks stuff that comes with the ¡Díme! program– the cuaderno exercises.  At the end of the year of grammar homework, Ray found the kids writing and saying basic errors like *Yo quiero juego fútbol americano (I want I play football– the sentence should read yo quiero jugar fútbol americano).  Exasperated, thinking “why waste time?”, he ditched all the grammar homework, and next year, in class, while announcements blared and he had to take attendance, Ray had a kid stand at the front of the room, read the  ¡Díme! grammar explanations aloud to fulfill District requirements (nobody listened), assigned reading for homework, and found the kids at the end of the next year making fewer mistakes.

This is an experience that every stick-to-your-guns T.P.R.S. teacher has had or will have.  You will doubt the power of comprehensible input, you will assign grammar homework (or “conversation practice” or whatever legacy method), your kids will dutifully do this, and it won’t work.]

Third, Smith is also wrong when he says that because we cannot “see into [the] brain,” there is no way to decide what language class activities are best.  We don’t need to “see into [the] brain” to know what works.  You probably can’t explain on a chemical level what happens when your car burns gas.  Do you need to in order to drive? I’d say, if you know enough to put the right fuel in, and you do put the right fuel in, you’re all set.  And if you did know a chemical explanation for combustion, would that help you drive?

Smith also says this: 

I didn’t say this, and the research flatly contradicts it.  Krashen (2003) in “Explorations in Language Acquisition” notes that all the research on grammar-focused teaching shows positive effects only when assessment is done under Monitor-use conditions.  

In other words, grammar teaches you…grammar.  VanPatten comments 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 the rest of the research is here.  

Grammar-focused teaching works when

  • grammar items are either elicited and/or “overloaded” in the input
  • learners have time to think of and plan for responses
  • learners know, know how to apply, and have time to apply, the grammar rules

Krashen proposes a much higher standard for testing whether or not grammar teaching becomes implicit (automatic) learning (i.e. whether people have acquired the item in question), with broadly two criteria:

a) a three-months-delayed post-test.  Most of the research will do an immediate treatment post-test (i.e. they will see if people can do/use grammar rule ______ right after the experiment) and a slightly delayed post test (e.g. two weeks later).  However, if we waited three months, and grammar rule ____ was still recognised or put into use, then we would have much stronger evidence that explicit teaching can become implicit knowledge.

b) Monitor-free testing.  This just means that you see whether people have picked up ______ without making them consciously aware that they have learned, should use, etc ____.

Say your treatment was teaching English speakers Spanish pronoun placement.  Pronoun goes before one verb, or before or after verb clause w/ some exceptions, bla bla.  This is a classic S.L.A. research area, because Spanish pronoun location is different from English, so it’s brainwork to acquire this new rule.  Now, when you do your post-test, here are two possible scenarios:

1.  You tell your test subjects “OK, we are gonna ask you some questions.  A question might be ¿Conoces a George Clooney? and you could answer Sí, lo conozco or No, no lo conozco.”  You could also (or instead) tell them “we would like you to answer using pronouns, like lo or la etc.”

2.  You tell your test subjects “OK, we are going to ask you some questions, just answer.”

Under (1), we are modeling specific behaviours, reminding people about expectations and grammar rules, pronouns, etc.  We are bringing grammar knowledge to conscious awareness.  Under (2), we just see what they do.  They might use pronouns, or not, or sometimes, or use them in a mix of properly and not, etc.  Krashen’s point is very simple:  if we do anything like (1), we are not necessarily seeing what people have acquired.  We are seeing what people can do with conscious knowledge and/or modeling.  This is what Krashen calls “Monitor use.”

Why do we want to have Monitor-free assessment of instructional treatment?  Because, in the real world, we simply do not have time to think, rule-remember, edit, etc.  Good language teaching will “wire the language in” below the level of conscious awareness.  If I teach rock climbing, I don’t want you to be able to tell me how to tie a figure 8, or how to do a drop knee and lock-off; I want you to tie a figure 8, and automatically do a drop knee with lock-off when you need it.  When I am at the Paris Metro and a smoking hot Parisienne is flirting with me, I need to be able to spit out, without thinking, right away, j’aimerais vous inviter à manger avec moi, parce-que vous êtes une femme incroyablement interesante or whatever.  If I am standing there going “OK, do I put vous in front of or behind the inviter?” I am not going to have even a shot at the lady’s company.

OK, back to Steve Smith:

Smith also commits a few logical fallacies here.

First, the appeal to authority and mass opinion– that people “feel” something works–  does not qualify as evidence that it does.  I “feel” that the Moon is made of cheese.  Is it?

Second, it’s also post hoc, ergo propter hoc— after this, because of this.  You teach French grammar (and whatever else), and after that, your kids acquire some French.  Was it the grammar, the “whatever else,” or both that got them to learn?  Eric Herman and I have discussed what he calls “incidental learning,”, and we concluded this: even horrible languagen teaching– what I did for the first 12 years of my career– “works” because even if you are doing forced output, grammar worksheets, bla bla bla, the kids are getting comprehensible input.  Boring, impoverished, low quantities, etc, but c.i.  So…do Steve Smith (or whoever)’s kids acquire because of grammar, or because grammar contains some c.i.?

Third, Smith says that “learners” feel “conscious learning” can “become acquired.”  Really?  We’d need some evidence for this– i.e. Smith would have to ask say 100 students how well they felt that grammar teaching and practice was helping them, and then compare those statements with results, and show us that the students who liked their grammar teaching did significantly better (than controls) as a result, etc.  Any T.P.R.S. teacher would respond to this by saying “we don’t spend more than 20 sec/class on grammar, and our kids feel that comprehensible input stories are the most effective way to learn ____.”  Again…we’d need evidence from TPRS kids.

Another problem here: even if you “feel” grammar teaching helps, how do you know it does?  This is much like the “noticing” argument that Swain developed and Truscott dismissed: the fact that you are aware of a form-meaning connection (a grammar point) which you’ve acquired does not mean that you acquired it because of this awareness.  (In my experience, it’s the opposite: I “notice” grammar awareness once I have acquired it– your mileage may vary.)

The question of whether or not one could ever deliver “pure” grammar instruction is up in the air.  I have said this before and I think Smith may be referring to that statement.  Even T.P.R.S. is technically not 100% input– because we do occasionally say “-s means you in Spanish.”

Suppose you have a terrible book– Avancemos, say– where the kids have to conjugate “to go” in Spanish.  So they are writing Yo voy al cine, ella va a la escuela, etc.  Boring & dumb, and output as VanPatten reminds us is useless, etc.  BUT…if the kids actually understand what they are reading, it is still (tedious, two-dimensional, impoverished) input.  So, you could get them to pick up some Spanish that way.  I guess.  If you wanted to totally suck, and make your kids hate Spanish, and make them learn slowly, and check out emotionally…

A Dictionary of Language Acquisition and Teaching Terms

For everyone who gets overwhelmed with jargon. Special thanks to Sam Johnson for the inspiration.


Accent: what every speaker of every language has.  The better ones *obviously* belong to people who are wealthier, whiter, more educated, with nicer clothes, etc.

Accountability: what teachers who provide boring or stupid activities need to make sure students do their work

Acquisition the process of getting to the point where you can speak/write a language without consciously thinking. The opposite of “learning;” what most textbooks don’t get students involved in.

Analytic teaching (Long): language presented “whole” and in context; focus on meaning with grammar focus second. a.k.a. “focus on form.”

Ashley Hastings: professor who developed the “narrative paraphrase” comprehensible-input technique of language teaching, which is now better known as Movietalk.

Authentic documents: things made by and for native speakers.  That they very often have

  • low-frequency vocabulary
  • complex idiom
  • and are therefore neither comprehensible nor useful in a languages classroom

has not stopped the A.C.T.F.L., most State education departments, every Canadian Ministry, etc, from advocating their use.

Autotelic: interesting for its own sake, and not merely suffered through for some future payoff.  The only way to design a language class that will ever reach a majority of students, who will not be quaffing espresso on on the Champs Elysee or dining on tapas in Barcelona, and who therefore have little “real world payoff” incentive to care about their language class experience.

Avancemos: the world’s most ironically-named textbook.

Ben Slavic: French teacher, book author, blogger & passionate advocate for language pedagogy’s reform.  Creator or at least namer of “the Invisibles” and advocate for “untargeted input.”

Blaine Ray American Spanish teacher who developed T.P.R.S. after experiencing failure and frustration with communicative and grammar teaching, and then reading Asher and Krashen.  Properly understood as the Einstein of language pedagogy.

Carol Gaab: Spanish teacher, TPRS teacher trainer, writer, force of nature, novel & textbook author and publisher, San Francisco Giants language coach, grandmother (in alleged age, not appearance), butt-kicker. Has the highest force-to-height ratio in the comprehensible input Universe.

C.E.F.R.: the Common European Framework for Reference in language proficiency.  A scale that ranks one’s language skill from one to six, thus:

A1: You suck but hey, you’re trying to order coffee

A2:  Don’t get any ideas now, even though you can tell somebody you’re from ‘Murrica.

B1: You are approaching un-‘Murricanhood by actually being able to say three things in French

B2: Ok, fine, you are making progress, but not enough to flirt with sexy French people

C1: We’ll let you in on a work visa

C2: Fine.  you’re here.  Now, let’s discuss Sartre.

 

Circling: technique developed by Blaine Ray (named by Susan Gross) where a teacher asks repetitive but varied questions using a target structure in order to repeat a vocab item many times.

Cloze exercise: 1. where people listen to something, and read along to a written version of that speaking, and fill in occasional blanks with what they hear.  2. a clever way for teachers to force students to listen to boring things

Cold Character Reading a technique developed by Terry Waltz to teach reading of ideographic (non-phonetically written) languages.

Communicative-experiential approach: 1. a language teaching method  which asks students to use language to bridge authentic communication gaps to obtain essential information as a way of acquiring the language. 2.  A progression from the audiolingual method. 3.   “The dogma of salvation-and-bliss through chatter” (Erik Gunnemark, who spoke 45 languages).

Communicative pair activity: 1. Learning activity where an information gap is bridged via target-language use, theoretically as a way of acquiring the target language. 2.  The blind leading the blind.  3.  Putting the cart before the horse, as speech is the result of acquisition, not its cause.

Comprehended input: (Terry Waltz) messages that the teacher has checked to make sure people understand.

Comprehensible input: messages in the target language (in reading or writing) that people understand.  Now considered the sine qua non of language acquisition by all researchers.

Comprehensible input hypothesis: the hypothesis that language (vocabulary, pragmatics, semantics, grammar etc) is acquired when learners receive comprehensible input– messages they understand– in the target language.  Research thus far has confirmed the hypothesis’ predictions, and assigned (at best) very minor roles to the role of grammar practice and learning, and output, in developing acquisition.

Culture: 1. anything speakers of another language collectively do which differs from the students’ customs.  2. Clothing, music, food and dress which make excellent colourful textbook pages, fun videos or Instagram accounts. 3. What teachers hope will spice up those ever-so-nutritious but oddly bland grammar exercises.  4. The future goal and real reason one learns a language: so that one faraway day, one can go and enjoy the culture that goes with the language being studied.  E.g. “Johnny, I know learning French verbs is…not your preference….but just imagine how amazing life will be in seven years, when you can go to France and sip wine on the Camps Elysees!”

Dialect: a language without an army

¡Díme!: the stupidest language text ever written.  In order to teach well, do the following:

a) see what ¡Díme! does
b) do the opposite

Drill: as bad an idea in the language classroom as in the Alaskan wilderness, and even less productive.

Edubabble: a scaffolded, self-reflected authentic C.E.F.R. and Common Core peer assessment collaboration which leverages coding genius hour codesign into project-based inquiry proficiency assessment tracked through Google hangouts and Edmodo accounts in order to start the conversation piece and moving forward to provide real-time feedback sociolinguistic competence metacognitive online anus accountability.

Embedded reading: a series of texts, the first of which is short and simple and contains the target vocabulary and structures being acquired.  The next two or three texts contain the same vocabulary, but add increasingly more dialogue, detail, etc. Invented (basically by accident) by Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley, embedded (a.k.a. “scaffolded”) reading provides low-stress buildup to reading complex texts, and lots of vocab repetition.

Feedback: something which teachers love giving, and students’ brains find impossible to use to acquire language.

Food cart/truck: when the crepe/taco/samosa truck comes to your school, and students get to “use the target language in culturally authentic communicative ways.”  A.K.A. kids text and chat in L1 for an hour and say/hear ten words in the target language.  Easy on students, and teacher, and a brilliant way to tick boxes while getting nothing done.

Free voluntary reading (FVR): allowing students to read what they want, with no assessment or “accountability” measures. A significant booster of language acquisition (in L1 and L2), and terrifier of control-freak teachers.

Frequency: how often a word is used in speech or writing.  High-frequency vocabulary items are more often used than low-frequency items, and form the basis of communication.  Good language teaching begins with the highest-frequency words.

Frequency list: rankings of words from most to less used.  The most-used word in Romance and Germanic languages is the definite article: der, el, le, il, the, etc.

Generative grammar: Chomsky’s explanation of how language works.  In response to B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist theory (we learn language because we want stuff; we get “rewarded” for “saying things properly”), generative grammar accounts for the fact that a language’s speaker can generate an infinite number of sentences with the language’s limited vocabulary, and that speakers are able to “figure out” grammar rules without having them explained (or even modeled).

Grammar 1. a set of rules describing how a language’s components interact 2. a tool useful for boring students and reinforcing teacher ego 3. In most of the world salient only in the learning of computer languages, but in too many places fed directly to students of living languages 4. A thing whose mastery– like speech– is the result, not the cause, of language acquisition 5. “Analyzing language is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” — after E.B. White, via Dennis Doyle

Grammarian: someone who believes that explaining the parts will lead to speaking the whole

Green Bible: Ray and Seely’s “how to do T.P.R.S.” book Teaching Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling. Written at the suggestion of Susan Gross, who urged Ray to clarify his method and provide a reference for T.P.R.S. practitioners.

James Asher: American psychologist and the rediscoverer of T.P.R.— total physical response– where teachers speak and gesture, and students gesture, as a way of helping recall.

L1: a speaker’s first (native) language.  What they grew up hearing.

L2, L3 etca language learned in some kind instructional or immersion setting.

Language: a dialect with an army

Learning 1. Consciously manipulating language (vocab and grammar) to try to acquire it 2. What one can do with language when one has time to consciously think of vocab, rules, etc.

Lecture: the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the students without passing through the mind of either (Mencken).  See also “stiff meeting.”

Legacy method: (Waltz & Krashen) any older way of teaching language which does not align with modern research.  Legacy methods include drill, grammar translation, audiolingual etc, as well as individual aspects of practice which slow or do not aid acquisition, such as forcing students to talk, grammar worksheets, multiple-guess listening activities, and what Long calls “synthetic” teaching (present, practice & produce) etc.

Mental representation: (VanPatten) a set of brain patterns developed when comprehensible input is processed by Noam Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” patterns which allow for first comprehension and then production of language, and a “gut level” awareness of what works or doesn’t in that language.

Monitor: 1. the “voice in the head” which is consciously aware of grammar rules, word meanings, etc.  2. What grammar teaching reaches 3. What a competent speaker of a language does not use except under very specific, reflective and/or time-available conditions.

Myth: 1. a belief, ungrounded in science or history, with alleged explanatory power whose job is to legitimise something.  In language teaching, prominent myths include speaking leading to acquisition, grammar practice being necessary, grammar rules being brain-friendly, themes and topics being effective means for vocabulary organisation, etc. 2. a story which despite factual challenges holds power.  S.L.A. researcher Bill VanPatten writes that “[s]ome of the myths perpetuated in language departments include that

  • explicitly teaching grammar and vocabulary is necessary or even beneficial,
  • correction of learner output is necessary
  • practice makes perfect,
  • learners acquire rules and paradigms
  • learning vocabulary and grammar is a prerequisite to learning to communicate
  • first-language transfer is the source of all learning problems,
  • adults learn languages differently from children, among many, many others.”

Natural method: comprehensible input language teaching method (and book of the same name) developed by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in early 1990s.  Influenced Blaine Ray’s T.P.R.S.

Noam Chomsky: 1. The man who invented modern linguistics, largely on the basis of his theory of generative grammar, which explains how the brain’s “language acquisition device” processes linguistic input, infers language-specific rules therefrom, and can use a limited number of rules and vocabulary items to generate an infinite number of sentences.  2. A relentless, fact-focused and principled critic of U.S. power 3. One of the only scientists to have an experimental animal– Nim Chimpsky– named after him.

Noun: a thing in uhh language

Output: any meaningful production of the target language.  The result, not the cause, of acquisition. The Holy Grail of language teaching.

Parallel character: having another character in an asked story whose experiences are roughly similar to the main character’s. Basically an excuse to recycle vocabulary.

Peer-to-peer communication: 1. getting learners to use the language with each other to share ideas and information 2. “The McDonalds of language teaching” (Waltz, Krashen)

Pop-up (a.k.a. “grammar commercial”– Adriana Ramírez): a brief, non-boring in-context explanation of the meaning of a grammar item (e.g. “Class, in Spanish, the  or  end on that word means he or she did it in the past”)

Poverty of stimulus argument: Chomsky’s point that despite not seeing certain kinds of word combinations, language acquirers do in fact “figure out” the rules for using these words, and do not make certain kinds of errors.  One of the main supports in the Universal Grammar theory.

Practice: what helps basketball players and rock climbers, and what in a language classroom only works if it involves processing input.

Proficiency: a word that means whatever you want it to.  For example, being able to list five rooms and five furniture items in a house is, in one well-known Spanish teacher’s view, an example of proficiency.

Results: what matters in language teaching.  The best results will be characterised by fluent, quick, unedited and voluminous output generated by unstressed students who do not have access to books, dictionaries, etc when writing or speaking.

Rule:  something books and teachers love to explain but by which students oddly enough are unable thereby to learn.

P.Q.A.: (personalised questions and answers): using targeted vocabulary to generate student-teacher microconversations in ways that connect vocabulary to students’ experiences.  In T.P.R.S., PQA basically involves the teacher asking students the questions asked of the actors, and “running with” answers– true or invented– which interest the student.

Scaffolding: edubabble for “start with something students know, then guide them from there through something they don’t.”

Sheltered grammar: not using all grammatical devices or rules from the target language during teaching or in the reading.  A characteristic of legacy method teaching.  Most textbooks “shelter” grammar by introducing first one verb tense, then another, etc.  Sheltering grammar comes from the mistaken idea that languages are organised into skill sets that can be acquired one at a time.

Sir Ken Robinson: University type, whose never having taught in an actual primary or secondary classroom (or having developed a useful method of any kind) uniquely qualifies him to discuss teaching in primary and secondary classrooms.

Slosher (Waltz): a student who has been exposed to enough grammar rules and vocab lists that isolated fragments of language slosh around uselessly in his/her head.

Sociocultural communicative competence: 1. edubabble for “discretion is the better part of valor,” a.k.a. knowing what to say and not say in a different culture and language. 2. The lack of which is the source of Borat’s humour. 3. arguably the least important thing a teacher of languages should focus on.

Speedwrite (a.k.a. “Timed write”).  1.  a writing assignment done with a time limit and no access to notes, dictionaries etc.  The aim is to show what students have unconsciously and automatically acquired, as opposed to learned, by not giving them enough time to plan or reflect on writing. 2. Where students who have had loads of good comprehensible input shine, and grammar/”communicatively”-taught kids freak out.

Standardised test: 1. a way of fairly and impartially assessing how well ALL animals, including fish, giraffes, snakes and Samoyed dogs– and not just monkeys– can climb trees.  2. A way for educational testing companies to get approximately $500,000,000 per year from U.S. taxpayers. 3. A very effective way of ensuring that only what can be measured with numbers is taught.

Stiff meeting: a monthly, Admin-organised chance to catch up on email, own the crap out of Level 49 in Candy Crush Saga, or do some marking.  Verbal irony, people– nobody actually ever does any of these things in meetings.

Stephen D. Krashen U.C.L.A. researcher who developed (and found much of the evidence for) the comprehensible input hypothesis.  Also an expert on the effects of free voluntary reading, a relentless critic of standardised testing in the U.S., major caffeine addict and a former champion weightlifter.

Story: 1. the world’s oldest teaching method 2. a narrated set of events where one or more characters faces a significant challenge and/or conflict which s/he must overcome and/or resolve. 3. the easiest and most enjoyable way to present vocabulary in a new language

Storyasking: the process of story narration and acting, where the teacher supplies the language, and the students the acting and story details.  Also called narrative co-creation. Invented by Blaine Ray.

Strong interface position: the view (DeKeyser) that explicit grammar teaching (e.g. explanations) aids acquisition.

Synthetic teaching: (Long) the “present, practice and produce” model of language teaching, a.k.a. “focus on forms.”  Exemplified by the ¡Díme! Spanish texts.  A discredited legacy method.

Teacher: a lazy, expensive, liberal and Unionized waste of space which would in an ideal world be replaced with a combination of iPads, multiple-guess tests, Bible sermons, worksheets and Khan Academy videos.

Terry Waltz: 1. Mandarin teacher, PhD, presenter, speaker of 13 languages, TPRS in Chinese “how-to” book author, and professional translator 2. The funniest person in the comprehensible input universe 3. someone whose statements will be at least three of the following:  empirically true, funny, thoughtful, applicable

Textbook: 1. An excellent source of corporate profits 2. A great way to physically raise a computer monitor or prop up a desk 3. A poor source of both compelling comprehensible input and brain-friendly activities.  4. “This is not something to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown away with great force.” –Geoff Jordan, after Dorothy Parker.

Thinking: 1. deliberate mental activity which does not help anyone learn a language. 2. What textbook publishers do only when designing textbook marketing.

T.P.R.S. “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling”– Blaine Ray’s comprehensible input language teaching method which emphasises collaborative narratives, input, and reading fiction over grammar practice, output and reading informational text. Known by green-with-envy detractors as Twitching Purple Reptile Stories.

Universal grammar: what Chomsky describes as built-in “software” that allows the brain to receive linguistic input and “build” a mental representation– automatic functional knowledge– of language.  Evidence for the U.G.’s existence is the formation of mental representation in a predictable set of patterns across ;languages.

Unsheltered grammar: using all the grammatical rules, devices, etc that belong to a language when teaching it and in the readings provided to students.  Many comprehensible input methods teachers use unsheltered grammar either immediately or soon after beginning instruction.

Vocabulary list: what textbooks insist that students memorise, and which brain research says they can’t.

Verb: another thing, err, uhhh, from the language

Weak interface position: the view (Krashen, VanPatten) that grammar explanations beyond clarifying meaning do not aid acquisition.

Weighing the pig: short for “weighing the pig won’t make it fatter,” i.e. testing students does nothing to develop their language abilities.  This fact has had very little

Worksheet:

1. Grammar or vocab learning tool that doesn’t help people who don’t understand, and which is unnecessary for those who do

2. What textbook publishers fill low-cost, high-margin student workbooks with

3. What friends don’t let friends hand out

4. The Novocaine of the language teaching profession.

5. A superb way of bringing 19th century ideas into the 21st century classroom.

Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to criticism of and questions about T.P.R.S.

We T.P.R.S. teachers often get slammed by the misinformed.  T.P.R.S.– and comprehensible input generally– often looks so weird to a traditional teacher that mental fuses blow and an irresistible urge to break out the grammar worksheets and communicative pair tasks takes over.  They aren’t talking?  They don’t practise grammar?  You don’t have a communicative objective?  Quel horreur!

So, today’s question:  how do Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to questions about and criticisms of T.P.R.S.?

First, blogger Sara Cottrell writes about what she doesn’t like about T.P.R.S. here, to which Carol Gaab responds here, and neatly dispenses with most of Cottrell’s criticism.

Next, we have Blaine Ray– the nicest guy in the world and the man who invented T.P.R.S.– who is at age 65 or so still teaching a class weekly (and refining his methods– Clarq and Whaley’s embedded readings, and his own teacher-as-parallel character are two newer fave tweaks), training teachers through his excellent N.T.P.R.S. convention and workshops, and often posts in Yahoo’s MORETPRS listserv.  I just found one such post on my hard drive.   Here is Blaine answering some questions about T.P.R.S. (edits for clarity)

Q:  Does TPRS reach all types of learners in the classroom, in particular special education students?

A:  Everyone can learn a language who has learned his/her first language. So in a sense TPRS might work with all learners. It does not work with unmotivated learners. We aren’t there to save everyone.

Q:  Does TPRS really engage all students in the class?

A:  Do grammar lessons engage all students? That really isn’t the right question. Does TPRS engage students better than other types of language teaching?  I would say yes. There is something about live theater that is very engaging. I have seen students that seem to be disengaged tell me what is going on in the story over and over. It is been my experience that virtually all students follow the story line.

Q:  Can´t weaker students just copy what other students say when answering questions?

A: At the end of a story we have students rewrite the story. I don’t observe copying. It is the writing of the story that tells me whether students have been engaged or not. I walk around the class and pick up all of their writings. There is definitely a difference between top and bottom students. I had one of the “self proclaimed” weakest students be the horse in my story this week. She had a much better ability to answer my questions than students I have seen in classes that have had no TPRS experience.

Timed writings show what weaker students can do. The difference is that when I have had students from grammar classes write a timed writing they can’t produce very much. What they do produce are memorized sentences. There is very little difference between the top and the bottom because they are all bad (meaning they can produce very little.) TPRS students can generally write well over 70 words on a topic in 5 minutes in my experience.

CommentStudents don´t really get any practice on their own in communicating with the language.

Response: You must understand the input hypothesis to understand TPRS. Students get constant practice in the only way possible to learn a language and that is through listening.

Comment: It is so teacher centered, where the teacher is talking most of the time, so students are learning so much less of the language.

Response: I believe the best thing a department can do to show who is learning the language and who is not is to share timed writings. If departments required teachers to bring all timed writings from their classes, then it would show who is teaching well and who is not. Teachers wouldn’t be able to pronounce that their students are learning. They would show what their students have learned by bringing in writing samples of all of their students.

Q:  Can you do TPRS one day a week and still see the benefits?

A:  Compared to what? I actually teach a class once a week and they don’t do TPRS the rest of the time. (I volunteer to teach the class.) I can see tremendous benefits in what I am doing. I talked to a girl yesterday about her Spanish and she told me how confident she was in her speaking. Students can’t fake speaking. They either know it or they don’t. I certainly think they would do better with more input though.

Q:  How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm for all of your classes everyday?

A:  A better question would be “How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm teaching out of a text book?”  I taught exclusively out of a text for 5 years. I went home most nights looking in the newspaper for another job. Teaching with stories is energizing. I don’t see teachers using TPRS complain about maintaining enthusiasm.

Q:  When you´ve got a classroom full of students that have a hard time staying in their seats, how do you reach them and manage the classroom so that they are not bored?

 A:  I can’t see any way of teaching that would work with students who won’t stay in their seats. In fact, TPRS does not work if a teacher allows social talking. Classroom management is easy. Most of my classes were over 40 and some were over 48. Boredom was not a problem. Students did not get tired of playing the TPRS game even after years.

Q:  Are you giving students a toolkit of methods and grammatical structures to use?

A:  Students are not aware of the structures. They are focused on the story.  The teacher needs to be aware of the structures. But more importantly the teacher needs to see where the students break down in their speech and practice where the students need it most.

(Note: the idea of T.P.R.S. is to make language acquisition a byproduct of listening to (and reading) the target language.  We don’t teach French, or Chinese– we teach stories but we teach them in French or in Chinese.)

Comment:  The stories are monotonous and all have a specific makeup.

Response:  This is probably a statement by a teacher who doesn’t understand TPRS. TPRS is all about surprises. Yesterday my story had a horse who was going to celebrate his 10th birthday at Chuck E Cheese. He was a good horse who goes to school and studies Math, Spanish and Horse. He got an A in Math, A minus in Spanish and a B plus in Horse. I had a girl who played the horse. Katie (the owner) had to go to the restaurant to arrange the party, went to someone to get the money and then got the money.

This was all dramatized. All along the way I kept asking the girl what she was doing. These details came from the students. Every story is a new adventure. If they are monotonous, it just means you haven’t taught your students how to play the game.

Comment:  The stories all involve animals in some way, or getting an animal.

Response: That is not necessary. A story can be about anything.

 

Finally, a few choice quotes from linguist Bill VanPatten, given at the IFLT 2017 conference. Thanks to Michelle Kindt and Karen Rowan for putting these online.

On how languages should be taught: “Language is too abstract to teach explicitly. Stop treating language teaching like other subject matter.”

Comment: T.P.R.S. is passive– the teacher does everything.

BVP: “Nothing could be more active in a classroom than co-constructing stories with your students.”

Comment: “TPRS is too teacher-centered.”

BVP: ” The TPRS classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.”

Comment: “TPRS is too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”

BVP: “Entertainment is a valid form of communication.”

Comment: “TPRS is too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”

BVP: “TPRS is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.”

Comment: “Teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”

BVP: “What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.”

Comment: in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations. 

BVP: “Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.” 

 

 

What are the pros and the cons of A.I.M.?

I was recently chatting with a couple of Vancouver teachers who used to use the Accelerated Integrative Method (A.I.M.) of language teaching.  A.I.M., developed by Wendy Maxwell, is both a method and a program.  It begins  with “total immersion”: the teacher speaks only the target language in class, and uses gestures to support meaning.  Students are expected to speak from Day 1, and to also use the gestures.  There is reading, some grammar instruction (not a ton), and the whole thing is built around a set of stories, which are read, listened to, acted, watched, acted with puppets, etc, as well as responded to.  Oral output is rehearsing a play, which is performed at the end of the year/semester.  They have some reading materials.  The curriculum is super-structured:  you need to “do” all the stories in order to perform the play and they have very detailed lesson plans (and procedures) starting day 1.

Now, I have not used A.I.M.– I found out about it at the same time as T.P.R.S. and the latter intuitively appealed to me more– but I get asked a lot about what I think.  So since I can’t speak for A.I.M., I’ll let Catherine and Natasha explain what they did and didn’t like about it:

Natasha:

  • used AIM for about 2 years for French
  • liked the intense “immersion” it offered– lots of French spoken in class and the T.P.R. (total physical response– words accompanied with gesture) aspect
  • initially appreciated the rigorous structure: it was “easy to start” and there was no need to copy/borrow/adapt “materials” and “resources” from others.

Natasha abandoned A.I.M. and here is why:

  • the TPR was only superficially and initially useful and eventually became a pain in the butt.  Students also generally refused to do it.
  • TPR created problems with ambiguity, and fossilised.  For example, if a gesture accompanied “walks,” Natasha found that they would keep using “walks”in the wrong place with the gesture (e.g. “we walks”).
  • the oral assessment– can the kids recite their lines in the play?– in her view was silly as it wasn’t even close to real language use.  She also noted that the performers didn’t always know what they were saying.
  • she found it very difficult to keep the kids focused on the stories, because they are the same in all their iterations.  E.g. they would listen to it, read it, watch it, act it out, act it out with puppets, etc.  There was, according to Natasha, no variation.  No parallel characters, student-centered improv a la t.p.r.s., etc.

Catherine also used A.I.M. for two years and repeated most of Natasha’s comments (both positive and negative), with a few of her own.  On the upside:

  • if the whole languages department in a school is using A.I.M., the transitions between grades– i.e. “what should they know when they start grade ___?”– is very easy, as the curriculum is majorly locked in.
  • the theatre pieces in which each year or semester culminates are pretty cool to look at (and, if your school has the resources for costumes etc, can be a lot of fun to put on)

On the downside:

  • because the curriculum is so rigid, it inevitably leaves some students out.  If students have not acquired ___, the curriculum marches ahead anyway.
  • there is very little room for improvisation in stories
  • teachers with a creative bent will be severely limited, because the whole A.I.M. package is “unified” and one has to “do” or “cover” everything for the final goal– theatre pieces– to work.  This means that teachers’ ideas will have very limited room for exploration.
  • much of the introductory stuff is boring.  E.g. the class sits in a circle and the teacher says “this is a pen,” and “this is a desk,” etc.

(One of the interesting things for me was oral assessment:  A.I.M. uses “real” language– i.e. student-generated output– right from the get-go, but assesses something other than “real language” in the theatre piece, while T.P.R.S. uses “fake” language– acted-out stories with simple dialogue– but assesses “real” language– teacher interviewing the kids one-on-one.)

T.P.R.S. answers a few of these criticisms:

  1. T.P.R. is only (and optionally) used for awhile, and generally with true beginners
  2. The method is infinitely flexible.  We have Blaine’s “holy trinity” of story asking, PQA and reading…and we now also have Ben Slavic’s PictureTalk, Ashley Hastings’ MovieTalk, dictation…and even when we are using a “text” such as Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk, or Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input Storytelling, we– and the KIDS– can change story details, locations, etc etc.
  3. The comprehension checks in T.P.R.S.– if regularly done– will provide super-clear feedback about whether or not students have acquired (on understanding level) whatever they are being taught.  If a teacher gets a weak choral response, or slow/poor responses from the actor(s), we go back, add a character, etc.
  4. There is no “end goal” in T.P.R.S.  If we are in the target language, and the kids understand, and we don’t overload them with vocab, they are acquiring.  Blaine Ray has famously remarked that he spent four months doing ONE story with his grade 9s.  We are not working toward an exam, a play, a portfolio.  All we want to do is tell the kids interesting fun stories with vocab we can repeat zillions of times.
  5. If a story is boring, we add a parallel character, or bail out and start another one, or throw something random in.  While we do want to stick to our structures, we can basically do whatever we want with them.
  6. If there’s ambiguity we just translate.

Another colleague, Katy-Ann, has this to say about A.I.M.:

“I loved using the AIM program!!  It was a lot of work at the beginning to learn all the gestures, but I found that it worked so well. I could speak French for the entire time with my 8’s, and the majority of the kids loved the way the program worked. At the end of the year the students were capable of telling a story (based on the play that we read) in their own words, with a partner. The activity was completely unrehearsed, and as the students alternated back and forth telling the story, they had to listen for details and continue on where their partner left off. Most groups talked bath and forth in this way for a good 10 minutes. They were also capable of writing a massive story. I loved hearing them create more complex sentences and I could help them with the words they were stuck on without actually telling them the word. I could gesture and it would jog their memory. I found that this gave the students confidence. They were actually recalling things and not just repeating words back to me. At the end of the year the feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive and the parents were very supportive of the method as well.

I’m a fairly animated teacher, so I felt comfortable making a bit of a fool of myself with the gestures, songs and games. My colleague and I collaborated a lot during the process and reworked the songs into raps to make them a little cooler. This style really suited my personality and I loved that I could actually stick to my French only rule in the classroom.  I haven’t used TPRS in the classroom and unfortunately I’m not teaching French this year, so I can’t really compare the methods. If I was teaching French (and I had some pull at my new school) I would totally beg to do the AIM program again with the jr French classes. I’m not sure how the older kids would react to it.

Anyways, I hope that this helps. I think that the program is AMAZING. The kit that my school purchased is called Salut, mon ami. I only got through one kit in the year, because we added in a couple things, but I would recommend two per grade – or if you are just starting, then one.  Of course there are some holes in the program, but the main thing that I noticed is that the kids were speaking in full sentences every day, they were successful and engaged. I could really go on and on about it because I’m a believer. I would totally take the seminar if you can. I did the three day course and by the end I knew it was for me.”

Anyway there you have it, some A.I.M. ideas.  Anyone with experience with A.I.M. please leave some comments.

So You Think You Know Grammar?

I have always urged readers to join Ben Slavic’s blog ($5/month well-spent).  Ben’s books are also well worth a read, esp T.P.R.S. In A Year (without which I probably could not have started T.P.R.S.). Today I am gonna share part of a post from Ben’s six years ago.  Latin master Robert Harrell– who has won every award you can name, and who has used  T.P.R.S. to triple his school’s Latin enrollment, plus producing kids who speak fluent Latin and who crush the A.P. Latin exam without doing six years of grammar worksheets — has a response to the grammarians.  If a grammarian blathers on about how one must know grammar rules, show them this.  For Harrell’s commentary and the full entry, see Ben’s blog.

Let me suggest the following “experiment”: I have a ten-question quiz. Without preparation, give it to any “non-language” (i.e. not teaching English or a foreign language) person at the school, including administrators and evaluators, and see if they pass it.  

Remember that these are experienced speakers of English with advanced degrees that have included many English classes, so the proctor is not allowed to explain any of the terms used, give examples or otherwise provide hints.

Please give the correct form for each of the following verbs:
1. to drink – 3rd person neuter singular present perfect active
2. to go – 2nd person plural future perfect active
3. to hang – 1st person singular future perfect passive
4. to speak to – 3rd person plural pluperfect passive
5. to equivocate with the idiom “to go” – 3rd person feminine singular future continuous active
6. to hang – 3rd person neuter singular pluperfect passive
7. to hear – 2nd person singular pluperfect passive
8. to lay – 3rd person masculine singular future perfect progressive active
9. to lie (= be in a horizontal position) – 3rd person feminine singular present perfect active
10. to be – 1st person singular pluperfect active subjunctive
Bonus: Use the verb in #10 in a conditional sentence.

For those who don’t want to think this through, here are the answers:
1. It has drunk
2. You will have gone
3. I will have been hanged
4. They had been spoken to.
5. She is going to be equivocating
6. It had been hung
7. You had been heard
8. He will have been laying
9. She has lain
10. I had been

Do we understand?

Dumb gatekeeping

OK I’m feeling hyperbolic today, but you gotta agree, this is pretty dumb:

So my former colleague Polly, an innovative French teacher in the communicative tradition, told me about becoming a teacher.  She’d been a languages monitor in Quebec, had read a ton, been to France, yadda yadda– she was fluent in French– and then decided to become a French teacher.  When she applied to the University, she had to take a French “entrance exam” to make sure she was “good enough” at French to teach it.  Il faut pouvoir parler comme un francais and all that. Keep the riff-raff out of the profession etc. 

So she went to the French qualification test and the oral exam was, the examiner showed her a picture of a bicycle.  “Dècrivez la biciclette” said the examiner.  Polly did what she could– it’s red, it has two wheels, it’s a ____ brand, on l’utilise au Tour de France, etc, and then the examiner said “qu’est-ce que sont  ____?” and pointed to the cogs.  Polly had no idea how to say “cogs” in French.  The examiner proceeded to ask her more biciclette questions which she didn’t know the answers for.  Front forks?  Hubs?  Brakes?

She failed the exam and had to qualify as an English teacher.  Of course, when she was applying for work, the Abbotsford board– desperate as always for French teachers– hired her to teach French.  Polly would later go on to write Provincial curricula, mark Provincial exams, sit on a zillion committees, teach French at all levels, pilot texts, sit as a department head, etc.  Yet the University powers-that-be decided that, on the basis of not being able to describe a bicycle’s components, she was unqualified to be a French teacher.

Anyway, that’s the dumbest thing ever.  Bike vocab:  low frequency.  Describe an object not normally given much consideration by people other than roadies, hipsters and bike mechanics: linguistically infrequent.  Assessment of actual relevant skill?  Zero.  Thank God the real world found Polly’s mad French skillz useful, yo, and let’s learn from her experiences by

  • teaching high-frequency vocabulary
  • not asking kids to learn idiotic, seldom-used words
  • keeping assessment authentic

Building A Better Language Learner

What mental habits breed success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less, done better, is more.

Should– and do– student teachers try T.P.R.S.?

Last year I did workshops at Simon Fraser University for Janet Dunkin’s French methods class.  Dunkin, a longtime French teacher in North Vancouver, is on a two-year secondment to S.F.U. where she teaches student teachers how to “be a French teacher.”  She has an academic colleague, Timothy Cart, who co-teaches.  Congrats to Janet Dunkin for inviting CI/TPRS practitioners in to meet her student teachers. Next up– presenting the method to U.B.C. And U.Vic. languages teacher candidates.

A few of the STs are at myb school and I got a chance to talk to them and their cohort so today’s question is should– and do–student teachers try TPRS, and, when they do, how does it work out?

First, there is significant resistance to TPRS/CI in many schools.  As noted earlier, teachers are generally a conservative bunch who operate in conservative environments and who learn from people steeped in tradition.  Many languages teachers don’t want to/don’t know how to change practices.  This makes it difficult for innovators– especially younger ones– to try something their mentor/mentrix isn’t familiar or comfortable with.

Second, there is a power differential in a student-teacher situation.  The student teacher has to do a “good job,” and that usually means doing what the mentor/mentrix wants.  The all-important letter of reference and final evaluation will too often be dependent not on authentic language acquisition but on whether or not the student-teacher did what his/her “boss” wanted done.

Third, student teachers often don’t know the method thoroughly.  Anyone who’s tried TPRS knows, as Adriana Ramírez said, that there is a three-year time needed to go from start to something like mastery.  So a student teacher often cannot get the results the method delivers right away, which makes them– and the method– superficially “look bad.”  In my experience, bad TPRS trumps good grammar grind/communicative teaching hands-down, but the results are long term…kids will not immediately spit out awesome French/Spanish/whatever.  In the grammar grind class, or even the communicative, you  appear to get immediate results— “Look, the kids are talking!  Look, the kids are doing worksheets, or revising their paragraphs!”– which is pleasing to anyone who doesn’t really get how language acquisition works.

Fourth, student teachers do not know the research.  I can argue with anyone because I’m a geek.  People like Eric Herman, Ben Slavic (and me, to a lesser extent) read studies etc, plus we practice the method daily, so we can say things like “Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, argue for very limited grammar instruction, and show that grammar instruction has very limited results.”  So…unfamiliarity with research and method makes justifying “weird” practices like TPRS much harder.

Fifth, the lack of initial output in a TPRS/CI class is disconcerting.  If the goal of language acquisition is speaking and writing– the “markers” of acquisition– then the choral responses, masses of input and lack of one-on-one speech seems weird to traditional teachers.  We know, as Wong puts it, that “a flood of input must precede even a trickle of output,” but to the uninitiated, it looks…weird.   Most languages teachers put the cart before the horse: speaking and writing are the result of acquisition, not the cause .

Sixth, Universities do not generally choose innovators to instruct student teachers.   I have looked in detail at the languages methods programs offered by the Univeristy of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.  S.F.U. offers a basic intro to comprehensible input.  We’re working on UBC and UVIC.My best guess is that what happens with helping teachers, co-ordinators, etc, is that they get out of the classroom– they get bored or ambitious or whatever– and when in an advisory role they stop experimenting.  These people too must please the powers that be.  So it is almost everywhere: you gotta lick the hand that feeds you.   (This is not, however, universally true.  For example, Christine Carrioux– languages helping teacher for the Delta School District– is a major innovator who has urged her staff to see TPRS/CI demos and workshops; S.F.U.’s Janet Dunkin is very open to new methods.)

So, the odds are not good that a student teacher will find a TPRS/CI-friendly classroom environment.  However, this is a blessing in disguise.  If you are a student teacher, your practicum can “teach” you by negative example.  If you must do the grammar grind/communicative thing whilst learning your trade, because your mentor/mentrix “has always done it this way,” you get to reflect.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this work?
  • What does “it works” mean?
  • Do the kids like it?
  • How much time getting quality input in the target language do the kids get?  Can you stay in the target language 90% of the time, as the A.C.T.F.L. says you should?
  • Are they improving?  What is “improving?”
  • Do they want to take the language again next year?
  • How well has communicative/grammar grind teaching worked for them in the past?    

The answers to these will guide student teachers when they finally get their own classroom.  Sometimes you need to see what works– TPRS/CI stories and reading– and what doesn’t to make your instructional decisions.  If you are a student teacher who wants to try CI/TPRS, I would suggest you try…but the bottom line is, you need a solid ref from your mentor/mentrix so we can get you into the system.  You may have to suck it up and play the game.  Once you’re in, and you have no conservative/non-innovative people to please, you’re good to go, and you can then explain why you have chosen method ___ over method ____.

Best practices: some non-Krashenian insights from the research

Thnaks to research-lover Eric Herman, I’ve been reading Lightbrown and Spada’s How Languages Are Learned (4th ed.) from Oxford University Press.  This indispensable reading summarises a load of research on everything to do with second-language acquisition.  Two phrases jumped out at me: “Comprehension of meaningful language is the foundation of language acquisition” and “Considerable research and experience challenge the hypothesis that comprehensible input is enough.”

Krashen pretty much nailed 80% of language learning: we learn via comprehensible input in safe and enjoyable settings.  If that C.I. can be made compelling and repeatable enough, we learn more, or faster, or both.  HOWEVER…there is more to learning a language than understanding it.  So…here are some Lightbrown and Spada-mentioned insights from research.

a) people need a minimum of 16 meaningful exposures to a vocab item to remember it.  TPRS will serve us well here.

b) fossilised errors— recurring grammatically wrong patterns of speech or interpretation– will continue unless there are deliberate teacher interventions.  C.I. is not enough, at least not in a classroom setting.  With first language acquisition, or immersion, the sheer volume of input will correct most– but not all– errors.

The classic example is use of the Spanish phrase me gustan los tacos (“I like tacos”).  Learners will often figure out that “gusta–” means “like”, but will fail to acquire the -n that you need for plurals.  Why specific feedback is necessary is open for debate, but it is necessary.  TPRS pop-ups useful here.

The question of why this is necessary is up in the air.  Some think the quantity of input in a classroom is low; others see this problem as stemming from various interlanguage processes.

c) Specific training in output– specifically in writing– is necessary.  While the effects of writing training (drawing attention to specific parts of grammar or vocab or punctuation, etc, or asking for error correction, and other strategies) are not huge in comparison to the effect of quality C.I., they are significant. For example, in the New Brunswick E.S.L. study, the focused instruction kids did outperform the C.I. kids in writing.  However, what was astonishing was, the C.I. kids did 90% as well as the focused-instruction kids with no teacher guidance or feedback.  There is speculation on why this is, and it has something to do with the idea that understanding and output, while related, are not exactly the same brain system.  So…if you wanted to do only ONE THING for second-language acquisition and writing output, it should be comprehensible input.  If you want kids to be noticeably better, give them some specific meaningful instruction in, and feedback on, writing…but only in upper levels.  Until a massive amount of language has been heard and read, feedback has limited effects at best.

d) Some specific training in recognising “weird” (i.e. non-native) grammatical forms is necessary for acquisition.  For example, English and Spanish pronoun orders are different:  in English we say “I ate it,” while in Spanish it’s “Yo lo comi” (“I it ate”).  Research suggests that unless we provide a LOT of focused C.I. that (a) uses this structure and (b) draws attention to it, we will get delayed, incorrect or no acquisition of the rule.  TPRS again will serve us well here– do those comprehension checks!

e)  There is zero evidence to suggest that “smarter” people are “better” at picking up languages.  Smarter– i.e. academically proficient symbol-manipulators, rule-followers, etc (you all know who I am talking about here!) are better at learning about languages…but in terms of acquisition, there is little difference between “types” of students.

f) Readers must know 90-95% of the vocab in the text to be able to read independently.  This argues for MUCH more use of “easy” readers in a 2nd language classroom and much less “hard” and non-teacher-supported reading.

g)  The best thing a teacher can do for S.L.A. is to allow kids to experience authentic success.  This means kids should (a) understand everything, which feels good, (b) find it interesting (ay,..there’s the rub) and (c) feel safe and comfortable in class.  The links between motivation and acquisition, despite “common sense” thinking, are unclear.

h) Free voluntary reading matters…but FVR with teacher interaction etc is much more effective.

i) For oral error correction, friendly comprehensible recasts (restatements) work best.  Grammar explanations do little or nothing most of the time.  However, recasts don’t do much, and there is disagreement about why they do sometimes work.

j) Sociocultural competence matters…but not that much.  Yes, people need to be taught target-language stuff having to do with how that culture works.  E.g. in Spanish, people need to learn when/where to use the usted (“You sir/madame”) form.  Knowing this helps…but it’s far less important than people getting loads of C.I.

The upshot?  Krashen, 30 years ago, got it 85% right.  The other 15% is examined in Lightbrown & Spada.  Go read it.

Alcohol and language acquisition

When I was a student in Quebec, and when travelling in Latin America, I always felt a little more normal in French and Spanish after a couple of beers or micheladas.  This is something I’ve heard from a zillion people all over the world: a bit of booze makes conversation flow in 2nd, 3rd etc languages. Years later, I’d have homemade gin in India, rakshi (rice whiskey) in Nepal, and chang (fermented barley) in Tibet and notice the same thing.

Why?

I think there’s three causes of what feels like “easy communication” with a bit of booze

a) Affective filter lowered.  You are in a pub, or sitting around a fire, or at a party, stress is off, music is probably playing, you’re with a fellow traveler or two…you feel good.  Krashen (and a host of others) all say the same thing: in any learning domain, the more happy and relaxed you are, the easier it is to acquire skills or info.

b) Conscious mind less prominent.  Booze is a depressant.  It lowers inhibitions and kills off conscious awareness (until you pass out if you have too much).  Booze is a pathway to the unconscious.  It’s not an accident that dance and fol musics– in all cultures– tend to be accompanied by alcohol, and religious rituals (Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Maya etc) were much the same.  As we “turn off” self-consciousness and over-thinking, we’re in a sense more open to input, and we’re also more likely to just “say what feels right.”

c) we probably overestimate what we can do/learn using booze Alcohol absolutely doesn’t enhance physical skills, it decreases memory, and it seriously impedes our ability to self-regulate and be self-aware.  We probably don’t speak much more clearly when mildly intoxicated than when sober, and while we will be “open to input” as Krashen says, our likelihood of forgetting what we’ve heard is probably higher.

From my own experiences with music (I play Irish trad and bluegrass on octave mandolin and mandolin), I can say that a few beers feels good…a certain looseness comes over me…but too much booze and the fingers and brain stop working.  Memory seems unaffected– I am now at the point where I am playing tunes I have never read the sheetmusic for, and whose names I often don’t know, as per Irish session traition– but then I have not done anything like a controlled study.  Music is much like language in my experience, the main difference being that practice is necesary in music to train muscles (in languages pratice is not important– only listening and reading really matter).  Indeed one wonders how much of music practice is just self-reinforcement of listening. 

The moral?  Booze won’t hurt– and might be fun– if you’re traveling, or sitting around with your ____-language group after class in the pub, knocking back a couple of glasses of wine.  But it won’t help long-term and I certainly woudn’t recommend it as part of any acquisition/teaching strategy.