How To Raise the 4%

What I’ve been doing recently raised some questions and suggestions in my mind. The lessons in my book on Greek (Anna Farmakides’ A Manual of Modern Greek) are short narratives and dialogues. I read them over several times until I have total comprehension (she glosses most everything on the right side of the page). I find this works even when I read material in other books, i.e. I recognize and “know” the words. Further evidence of my having acquired this vocabulary comes with the glossary I am making where I come up with the word in Greek from an English key or head word.
I thought about how this might be seen as a kind of comprehensible input, not in the CI fashion but by repeating the reading until it is all clear. It got me to thinking about the conundrum cited by teachers favoring a grammar syllabus who complain that we CI types credit CI for language proficiency and dismiss the grammar instruction. That is exactly what we do. How do we know which contributed, if at all, to proficiency? I thought about my own experiences, often cited on listservs and my blog, of acquiring language: French came first b/c I got a girlfriend my senior year of h.s. who was monolingual in French, plus I interpreted for a judo instructor who knew no English. Despite no further study in French, French always lept off my tongue without thought at a decent communicative level.
What about my Russian and my Spanish? I hadn’t thought much about them. What was my CI for them? First of all, it wasn’t classic i+1 CI; it was more like i+2, 3, or 4. The Russian came in the form of reading a lot of vocational education journals in Russian for my Master’s position paper. Years later I spent several years translating from Russian into English, onto a cassette tape, material on weight training for my trainer. Over time, that was a lot of i+1, 2, 3…. i.e. tons of reading.
What do grad students who finally reach a point of some proficiency in the language do? They read lots of assigned literature, much of it at an i+2, 3, 4, etc. level. If they persevere, they will reach some level of proficiency through so much reading; thus the claim that they learned L2 via input rather than grammar. The problem, of course, is that you are now operating well below the 4% level, that is to say, hardly anyone learns L2 except those going on to grad school.
My Spanish input came via radio programs on my car radio as I drove around on my job. I kept a dictionary handy and jotted down words and looked them up at stop lights. I listened primarily to discussion programs, often ones dealing with social service issues, the field I worked in. So I was getting input in context, a context I knew well.
In addition to those specific sources of input, I read in Russian and took courses, and I had many opportunities to speak Spanish in my work. Me and another counselor [OK, mavens, Another counselor and I] even ran a group for depressed middle-aged Hispanic women and charted in Spanish, just to drive home the point that a community mental health center in the barrio should function in both languages.
Now that I am retired, I do not have to rely on chance encounters to test my language proficiency, I spend a lot of time reading, listening, talking to people, and thereby observe and monitor my proficiency level. I thought about the boy, most likely Asperger’s Syndrome, who had read the entire first year Latin book by the end of the first week. Aside from his ability to concentrate and obsess, he had a drive to understand. If he was Asperger’s, we could note that those folks have encounters with language unlike those of normal people, thus making them curious about its workings. He went on to a pretty high level reading ability in the language over three years.
Most students resisted reading. I recall one red-headed girl who announced to me with joy that she had read the story in Spanish a second time at home and understood more of it! And that, to me, is what makes a 4% in the sense I usually do NOT use it in: the person who goes through 4 or 5 years of grammar study and actually does acquire the language: they read and thus give themselves the input, CI and higher, that their classmates do not get. From what I’ve seen, the only way learners can routinely acquire another language now is via TPRS. It shelters vocabulary as I do by reading an elementary grammar book, but not grammar, and it is engaging the engagement for me is my close to unique obsession with language that allows me to read shallow material with avidity.
The first thing that made me rethink my legacy methods of teaching was my first year; I was teaching Russian and had started the class off the first couple of days speaking only Russian to them. Then I got down to “real teaching” and 9 months of grammar. At the end of the year, what they knew well (and these were hand-picked students, the best of the best) was what I had said to them 9 months earlier. Amazing (again, that word). Over the years, I infiltrated more and more CI into all my classes, all my languages, and I hope that more than the 4% benefitted from that.
I will throw out a couple of lures to get discussion going: my Macedonian experience, my 13 hours summer crash courses in Spanish, my five weeks in Russia, not to mention the 20 hours of German that resulted in not much.

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