A gusher of perceptions on language learning

This was written to an individual originally, thus accounting for the tone and locution.

Many of the tprs people are pretty good folks. On moretprs you get testimony that sounds pretty genuine to me. tprs is a grammar-driven program but their presentation of it tries not to get in the way of learners’ understanding L2. What I see in classrooms and hear from learners is that what fl teachers want is for them to be able to recite forms and then the teachers believe the learners will be able to use that info to communicate. They, the teachers, profess to not understand why the students cannot speak or write L2.

You can see where I’m going with this. Krashen, for some reason, came along and presented the notion that people learn another language, as adults, by being in a situation where they want to communicate. The brain takes over and uses the input received and, as VanPatten would say, transforms some of it into intake. That lays down the patterns of L2 in the brain, creating an internal model of L2 that the learner can draw on for production and build on for further intake.

Any number of our List members have distorted Krashen over and over, saying he thinks it’s all about how a baby learns its first language or that grammar is never taught and so on. Whether or not Krashen himself knows another language is immaterial. Many of our teachers either know English and their L2 by virtue of life circumstances rather than classroom study and many others have very low proficiency in their L2. So while you may be in a position to criticize K., they certainly arenít. However, I do not see how K’s command of an L2 matters at all; he came up with his hypotheses by examing the research available to him, or so he says. His own learning history just doesn’t figure into it.

That other scholars have found significant fault with K’s hypotheses really isn’t the issue; that’s not K’s contribution. His real contribution is to bring to huge numbers of fl teachers this notion that people learn languages by understanding messages in that language.

I am still not sure where you stand on the outcomes of fl classes in the past. I have reviewed in every way I can – let me recount them briefly:

personal testimony from people I know

personal testimony from teachers on various listservs

personal testimony from teachers at conferences

testimony in books and articles on fl learning

academic articles on the results of fl teaching

historical accounts of the proficiency of students coming through various types of fl programs

biographical sketches of people who took a fl – remember the posts on Churchill?

my own personal adventures in language learning

ancillary information from related fields like psychology

all (plus some I’ve missed) indicating that students, no matter how conscientious or brilliant, typically did not emerge from several years or more of fl study able to utter more than a phrase or two of L2. I want to be clear that I am unclear as to how you remember all this but here’s how I remember it – NO MORE THAN 2% OF FL STUDENTS IN TYPICAL AMERICAN SCHOOLS LEARNED ANYTHING REMOTELY LIKE A FOREIGN LANGUAGE.

The 2% figure is made up just to account for those few dedicated souls who tried to transform the paradigms and rules into useable language.

So what is clear is that if you believe or know that learners in such schools 50 years ago DID emerge at a level of “profluency” commensurate with the time spent on study and the quality of the teaching, then Krashen’s appearance on the scene did nothing except perhaps ruin a beautiful, efficient system for producing profluent speakers coming out of our American high schools and colleges. I don’t see that they were profluent.

The value I see in K and tprs is that both encourage teachers to use L2 in a creative way. I use the word ’creative’ advisedly b/c the mark of proficiency at any level is the ability to create with language. That doesn’t “come later”; if it’s not there even at the ……. OK, here’s an example, a contrast:

dialogue memorized: ’hay un perro en el parque’

Both Tiffany and Willy have heard this.

Now for creative language on Willy’s part:

Tiffany speaks her memorized dialogue: tengo un gato. Willy, getting excited, blurts out: Tengo un perro when Willy has never heard ’tengo un perro’ before. He’s heard ’tengo un gato’ and ’hay un perro en el parque’ but not ’tengo un perro’.

The transformation drills of ALM drill all these forms in the belief that the patterns will be laid down in the brain through forming ’habits’. The cognitive code folks believe that if the learner understands the way the language works, its rules, he’ll be able to apply the rules to the vocabulary and produce created sentences. After all my work and reading and listening to other people, I don’t see that that happens.

tprs SEEMS to work, from the testimony, b/c students are deeply engaged. The condescending remarks about goofy story lines and so forth make no dent with me; a good teacher knows how to reach her students, whether they’re grammar/translation teachers or tprs teachers. If the teacher is sensitive and reads his kids, they know what lines of stories get the kids involved in focusing on the story, not on the language. That’s crucial, according to K. Personally, I’ve seen this in the classroom. But proving it to those who haven’t and who don’t trust people to learn without being given a set of rules to follow is beyond my capacity. If it’s junior high, it’s fart jokes. If it’s senior high, it’s romance and combat. If it’s elementary, it’s fluffy things. Whatever engages the students.

And I guess this is where I parted company with many of my colleagues at my school. When I saw intelligent kids who loved their physics class and wanted to talk about history and the Beatniks and the future of rock and roll go dull behind the eyes with the sort of detailed grammar explanations I loved to go into, I just stopped doing that. Not altogether, but I began leavening it with little narrations the students could follow. You know pretty much how I developed vehicles for classroom discussion, be it Destinos or some personas the students developed.

I never got to the point where I could carry these techniques out perfectly but I got pretty good at it. Now at my new school, I’m able to do so much more and the students are learning so much more. When I go back Jan 5 I may ask the kids to give me their logs back and I’ll quote a few. BUT, 20 years ago our ESL person loaned me two video tapes of K lecturing when I had just started teaching Russian and I watched them over and over and over. Without K, I question whether I would ever have got out of the push to refine my grammar explanations and my grammar activities b/c I love that stuff, too.

And finally (I’m putting this – part of it- on my blog b/c it kind of gushed out and it seems to paint a decent picture of my views on this), what I’ve stressed on flteach over and over is that you guys on the List give your students tons of CI. No one has any proof that that is sufficient and in a classroom setting, it probably isnít; some Monitor use is necessary (as K says). Nor does anyone have any proof that instruction in grammar only works (and I have examples of teachers who do just that). Most of us use a mixture but that doesn’t prove either that input alone or grammar instruction alone works or doesn’t work.

What I think is important is to start from pre-80s data on language profluency after classroom instruction. If we can agree that it was ineffective, then we can seriously seek more effective ways of teaching under our working conditions. I would love to do that but somehow on this and other Lists, people peg me as some sort of fanatical K supporter and most of them can’t tell you what K says.

Some had me pegged as some sort of crazed socialist I guess b/c in their world, there were such people. Gad, I’m from small town Ohio, working class people, unpolitical. I’m just a plain old liberal Democrat like millions of working class Americans. It’s just that I held onto it as I got an eduation and became a professional. That doesn’t make me a left-winger. A lot of Republicans don’t like Bush and it doesn’t make them lefties.

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