Last September Martin Lapworth wrote a blog post called “On CI, TPRS, Acquisition, etc. (I so want to believe…)“. As I read it and the comments on it (which, incidentally, include one authored by CI king Stephen Krashen), I found myself asking a question that I’ve felt for a long time is forefront in the minds of the majority of language teachers.
It’s a question that burns in my mind because as a language teacher I know you get asked all the time, “Oh, I wish I spoke X! I’d like to learn X! How can I learn X?” And you know what your answer is?
“Take a class in X!”
Ha! No, it’s not. You’d never answer that way. I’d never answer that way. What do we always say? People know it. They answer it themselves.
I know, I need to just immerse myself in a culture, get off a plane in Mexico or something, then I’ll learn it.
It’s a question that burns in my mind because whenever I meet someone who finds out I speak Spanish, which happens a whole lot because I speak it to my children in public, I get asked:
Where are you from? Is your family Latino? Did you grow up in another country?
No, I didn’t. I spent 6 weeks in Ecuador when I was 15, and other than that I haven’t spent longer than 2 weeks in a Spanish-speaking country (though I did spend a couple of summers in McAllen, Texas, which is a lot like a Spanish-speaking country).
It’s a question that burns in my mind because of what Martin wrote, because it’s something that nags at the back of our minds, those of us who teach language and wonder if any of it will stick, if anything will make a difference for every student:
I really want to believe in CI and second language acquisition, but I am not entirely convinced that students can effectively acquire a second language unless they are in a total immersion environment. And in most school scenarios that just isn’t possible.
Martin goes on to talk about his family’s experiences with learning language, how with French he started with a grammar-oriented experience but couldn’t really speak it until he went to France. How with Spanish he immersed himself in it but couldn’t really speak it well until he worked on the grammar. How his children believe immersion is the best way to go and their Spanish immersion included heavy grammar classes, but they haven’t had success learning German in their grammar-oriented classes. How as a teacher, it seemed that
most students find languages really hard, and only the very able seem capable of achieving a reasonable level of competence. Now, all of the scenarios described above involve a LOT of exposure to the language – and I tend to feel that it is just not possible to provide anything like this level of exposure in regular language classes. But I’ve never actually tried an approach such as TPRS. My concern, as I’ve tried to outline above, is that I’ve always found the inclusion of grammar to be of benefit – not a focus on grammar as the end result, but as a facilitator, whereas proponents of CI seem to say that this is in fact counter-productive.
Here’s the question I think we’re all wondering:
Is this the best we can hope for: to reach those who have language aptitude and motivate the rest to seek an immersion experience?
You’ve asked it, right? I’ve seen it presented from some really good teachers, defending why they do something like Genius Hour with novices who can’t handle Genius Hour – because it’s motivating, and that’s my only hope, to motivate them to continue past me. Because I’m teaching life skills here, not just language.
You may have seen the example I used in my post What I hate about TPRS. One teacher has a student who has come from a TPRS class and can’t handle the coursework. The teacher hates to move her to a lower level, but other teachers recommend it. Because you know, TPRS students really struggle with that grammar stuff. Everything’s better in moderation. Better balance that TPRS with some grammar worksheets.
I apologize for this post being a bit all over the place, but that gives an accurate picture of the dilemma in my mind. If all I do is work with random language, am I cheating my students out of some life skills I could have approached if I’d been willing to abandon TL use for a bit? If I give my students motivating projects that maybe fudge a bit – or a lot – on the level of comprehensible input they’ll be exposed to or the output I can reasonably expect from them, am I cheating them out of the opportunity to actually learn what I say I’m teaching – that is, language?
And then Steve Smith comes along and defends “pencil-case” teaching – using boring classroom objects to teach boring functions like prepositions, object pronouns, gender, and verbs, as well as providing fodder for vocabulary games, because:
A teaching activity is a means to an end. We engage in artificial classroom activities because we know that, if they are well done, they can lead to long term acquisition. Clarity is vital and the humble pencil case can play a very useful role.
Is he right? Is there a place for artificiality in the classroom? He wonders if CI-based teachers will raise an eyebrow at what he has to say, but honestly, it reminds me a lot of Ben Slavic:
I want to buy a butterfly, class!
Derek, do you want to buy a butterfly?
Well, class, I want to buy a pink butterfly!
Andi, do you want to buy a butterfly?
Where do you want to buy a blue butterfly, Andi?
Susan doesn’t want to buy a butterfly.
Susan wants to buy a cat.
Susan needs a pencil.
Susan needs a yellow pencil.
Susan doesn’t eat pencils.
Does Susan eat beans?
Who eats green beans?
Who doesn’t want to buy a butterfly?
Does Derek want to buy a butterfly or does Derek want to play football?
Derek, do you want to play basketball?
Do you want to buy a butterfly or play football?
What color is a football?
I think Steve unknowingly hit on the big question here: is the best we can hope for having our activities be a means to an end, or can students actually achieve the end in a classroom?
I believe the answer is yes, and I believe the answer lies in one word: meaning. I’m not talking about absurd, random Susan-doesn’t-eat-pencils, is-the-butterfly-on-the-desk meaning. Unless everything we do has realistic, level appropriate meaning attached to it, from the unit names to the assessment criteria to the “vocabulary games,” this really is the best we can do. We’ll continue to think we motivated kids who were already motivated and they’ll go study abroad and speak the language and the rest will join the hordes who talk about their school language classes in terms of crepes and Spanish Mike. When we sit down and say that is it, I’ve had it, no more multiple choice questions, no more games coming up with a word that starts with L, no more translation vocabulary quizzes, no more talking over their heads, no more what words do you recognize in this BBC Mundo clip, then we’ll see higher percentages of students achieving measurable proficiency in their required courses. They may not be able to talk about global warming, and they may not be able to put an indirect object pronoun in the right spot (or explain to you what an indirect object pronoun is), but they can do something for meaning, and I’ll tell you this – that is exactly what they want to do. And being able to do what you want to do is the most powerful motivator of all.