The term “skill” is so often used in language learning we don’t seem to question it. But one person, I know for sure, did: Frank Smith. He opined that a skill is something physical, not mental, and could be improved through practice.
Unfortunately, a good many people began speaking of skills in a metaphorical sense, applying it to thinking, cognitive processes, and meaning. From there, it was an easy leap to begin thinking that practice would improve the “reading skill” or “decoding skill” just as practice will improve your tennis or golf game or piano “skills,? all motor skills.
On npr this morning, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006, a guitarist named Tom Emmanuel, said that in the composition process he first gets down the “motor skills” necessary to play the song, then he begins to work on the thinking, creative part.
Well, stop and think of it: what part of a foreign language do adults always have trouble with, no matter how “fluent” and native-like they become? The pronunciation, that is, the small motor skills necessary to produce the sounds and transitions from sound to sound of a new language.
I thought it was an excellent example of just what Frank Smith is talking about. If anyone wonders why many of us are so passionate about meaning and so opposed to the mechanized, drill and kill conceptualization of language learning, please read his book, Joining the Literacy Club. And then watch your own children or grandchildren as they learn L1. Let me give you an example:
My grandson said the other day: “I want to show him my candy what color it is.” He just turned 5 so he hasn’t quite got down the embedded clause structure that allows him to transform that to: “I want to show him what color my candy is.”
First of all, I wonder how many teachers and even textbooks actually teach such formations, crucial to any adult conversation. I would love for fl teachers and learners who read this to please respond and tell me how and when you think learners learn such formations. I don’t see it. I have textbooks that teach it but I don’t think they are much used. This may support the contention of some teachers on the Lists that our textbooks have been dumbed down.
Secondly, can people really “learn? this sort of thing? Of course they can learn it like a chemical formula to use on a test, but does it become part of the internal model of L2 that they draw on when they go to say something? And here we are right back to Krashen’s distinction between learning and acquiring where the monitor is used with learned material and therefore available only in slow, deliberate writing and speech, not spontaneous language usage.
The BIG QUESTION is: can learned material be transformed into acquired material without going through the acquisition process?