A Write-up on Language Teaching

A write-up on language teaching A write-up on language teaching

My intention was to write a short precis of this topic but found that impossible b/c I have had conversations on it so often in so many settings (classrooms, conferences, seminars, on-line listservs and blogs, face-to-face encounters) that I anticipate the objections and wish to forestall them. One example: “My first Russian class had difficulty with…..” “I’m sure it was a small class.” No, it wasn’t. “I’m sure the students just weren’t up to learning such a complex language.” Yes, they were. They were the best students in a large high school. “Well, maybe their motivation wasn’t all that great.” They were almost all LDS kids whose church had just got the word from Gorbachev that he would let Mormon missionaries filter into the Soviet Union across the Finnish border and they saw themselves as being selected for the honor of being among the first.
Get the idea?
In addition, I want to show how I made choices in how to teach and am not just regurgitating something I have read, that the decision came out of my own personal experiences and so I need to go into those experiences.
A simple statement must first be made: anyone teaching or learning a foreign language (FL) is approaching the task from a theory of language learning and more broadly,  the field of learning psychology. Whether it is consciously held or not, the theory dictates how you are going to learn or teach.
More recently, the term acquisition is used more and more and learning is often seen as a more structured, classroom-oriented way. This usage is tainted by its association with the approach I’ve taken b/c many theorists and academics and teachers are less than thrilled with the approach; nevertheless, I’ve noticed it being used more and more to refer to any process by which a person develops ability and proficiency in another language. A dichotomy is proposed by some positing first language acquisition, as an infant, as different from later language acquisition of a FL or second language. While there are obvious differences in conditions, some others propose the process in the two situations is essentially the same.
More terminology: the word structure is used variously by linguists and classroom teachers: linguists are talking about the instantiation of meaning in forms, e.g on-going action in an imperfective form of the verb. Teachers in classrooms are referring to methods of classroom management and control, a major issue for teachers of high school age students, where many of our FL teachers work. But for FL teachers specifically, structure also refers to grammatical forms and what some researchers have labeled ‘focus on formS’ [the capital s is purposeful], i.e. the instruction focuses on matters such as endings on words and the placement of various parts of speech in the sentence. A good deal of the effort to reach teachers in workshops revolves around broadening the scope of their focus.
The two major understandings of teaching or acquiring a FL are the interventionist and non-interventionist. These terms are not often seen but I like them b/c they sum up the essence of each understanding. The interventionists have several theories to support them and I will go over those. The late 19th century saw the domination of one theory of learning that led to a specific way of teaching FL. (Prior to that the theories were not as rigorous or scientifically developed but we will look at what serious scholars thought about FL teaching then) Over the decades, people have changed their minds about the theory for two reasons: the theory goes out of fashion or the results are poor. Examples of the former are “faculties of the mind” and behaviorism; an example of the latter is ALM [audio-lingual method]. The practices under these theories continue to be used in the classroom and we’ll look at these vestiges later.

Another terminological issue involves the words theory, approach, method and technique. E.M. Anthony gave us definitions in Approach, Method, and Technique in English Language Teaching 17, 1963) but the definitions are found in one of the best textbooks on FL teaching, Shrum and Glisan’s Teacher’s Handbook. That book will show you the panoply of theories, approaches, methods, and techniques along with the history of various movements in FL teaching. How people learn is the building block of psychology – how they learn to walk, eat, recognize people, fix a lawn mower engine, learn in a classroom. Language learning theory more specifically is where, in my opinion, the real split occurs between interventionists and non-interventionists. The interventionists see learning/acquiring a FL as like other academic subjects: history, literature, biology, math, and so forth. [there are special comparisons between language and music we will avoid here] The interventionists believe we need to lay out for the student the structure and nature of the FL.
An approach is based on a theory, whether articulated or not, consciously held or not, and determines from the outset how the teacher will teach. Someone who decides to learn French by going to live and work in France has some faith that in that way they will acquire the language. They may not know the mechanism by which that will happen but they believe it will and non-interventionists would agree with them. [Note use of ‘they]

Now that you have an approach, based on whatever theory of learning you hold, you then develop a method. So if you chose the behaviorist explanation of how people learn, then you will see FL acquisition as a matter of habit formation such as pairing masculine endings of adjectives with masculine nouns and the teacher has students repeat this pairing over and over, what they call practice or drill (the latter two are not quite synonymous). That is the approach but the method by which the teacher imparts the language may be the aforementioned Audio-Lingual Method (ALM) or the classic classroom drills and chants or drill and kill, writing conjugations on the board and filling in worksheets (what I call pin-the-ending-on-the-verb) and highly structured conversations – many different ways but with the underlying understanding of habit formation with reinforcement (like throwing fish to a seal; maybe M&Ms to our students).
Under this hierarchy of theory>approach>method, the last stage is technique. So if the teacher selects behaviorism as the learning theory with the approach based on that and the Audio-Lingual Method as the method, the technique may be dialog memorization with two students memorizing one part of the dialog each and dialoguing with each other, perhaps in front of the class so the other students could listen.

Non-interventionists, as I understand it but I am not an academic, base their approach on a theory promulgated by one of major linguists of the world, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky turned linguistics upside down, destroying both structural linguistics as a theory, a theory that had ruled since Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th century, and the behaviorist view of language. Behaviorism declined sharply, due in part to Chomsky’s demolition of the behaviorist approach to language……….. again, as I understand it. For all his brilliance, Chomsky nevertheless posits something to explain language acquisition that seems like cheating: the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), located somewhere in the brain and lodged there through the evolutionary process. Chomsky does not know what goes on in this black box, just that language goes in in the form of input and what comes out is comprehension and production. Chomsky does this because he does not want to get hung up on locating the part of the brain where acquisition occurs nor on how it occurs; he just knows it occurs.

He derives his claim for a LAD from the observation that infants get a “paucity of input”; they receive nothing like the amount of input necessary to account for the explosion of language that occurs from 1-5 years. Chomsky tells us this implies something in the brain that is preset by evolution to receive the signals from the environment that tells which “switches” to turn on and which to turn off. Underneath all that lies Chomsky’s Universal Grammar. All languages stay within certain parameters (John McWhorter, my favorite linguist, has many books which describe the vast complexity of languages but points out that there are some things no language does) and so all human beings follow the same path of acquisition via the LAD.

The key to language development is inventing with language. Gorillas can “do” language and when they create, which happens sometimes; it is very exciting. But that is the sine qua non of language, to create with it. An example: my two grandchildren were riding in their car seats past the stock yards. They saw the cows and my wife said ‘cows’, then she said ‘stinky’. One said, ‘cows’ and the other said, ‘stinky’. Then they both put it together for ‘stinky cows’ and kept repeating it howling with laughter. They had created something.
So he posits a series of on/off switches as parameters, i.e. what sets the LAD on the path to acquiring a particular language. The input the learner hears is processed in terms of these switches, so for instance where the verb goes: is it before the object and after the subject in a normal (technical term: unmarked) sentence or does it come at the end of the sentence? Either way, that switch, let’s say end-of-sentence like Latin, Japanese, or Urdu, implies other features of order in the sentence, e.g. the placement of prepositions. Now, for second language acquisition, the big question is, can those switches be reset or once verb-between-subject-and-object choice is turned off, is it forever off? Since we know people who have learned a second language just about to perfection, we know some override must be available [by the way, two names offer examples of old wives’ tales about language acquisition: Jerzy Kosinski and Vladimir Nabokov. John Simon proffers Nabokov as someone who mastered English as an emigre when in fact he had English and French governesses and spoke both languages as well as Russian in his early years. Kosinski was revealed to have had his books translated and edited before publication because his English was not up to original writing. Unfortunately, there are lots of myths and stereotypes circulating about language acquisition].

Under what conditions does the LAD kick in so that people begin to acquire a language? Not only acquire but invent, as the Nicaraguan sign language case illustrates. Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct tells the story of how under the dictatorship in that country, deaf people were left to their own devices. In each family, in each village each deaf person reinvented a rudimentary sign language. When the Sandinista rebels took over, they established a school for the deaf but being international pariahs, they could not attract specialists to develop a sign language. Children swept up into the institute from far-flung villages began combining, on their own, their various invented sign languages. What emerged was a full-blown sign language, much elaborated on by succeeding generations of deaf kids. (People who think sign languages are some sort of code and do not have complex and VERY DIFFERENT grammars from spoken languages miss this wonderful story) This shows that language emerges despite the most straightening obstacles.

I use ‘acquire’ because you can study French and learn to use indirect object pronouns and features of pronunciation, syntax, etc. without the language doing what TPRS adherents call “falling out of the mouth”, i.e. the focus must be on the message, on what is being said, not how it is being said. Adherents to a grammatical syllabus who feel they learned the language that way will balk at being told they acquired the language when they read so many books in grad school and lived in a Francophone country, but that is exactly, to the non-interventionist, how the acquisition took place….. after all the grammar study. More about TPRS later when we talk about techniques.
The non-interventionists have only two methods: natural learning i.e. being in the environment where the language is spoken, the speech community. John DeMado wanted to learn French so he went to France and got a job in a factory making light bulbs. The old lady selling potatoes in the market place learns several languages up to the level of proficiency she needs to sell her potatoes. One lady told me her husband, as a boy delivering milk in Pennsylvania, had to know enough of 8 languages to be able to take orders. People in South Africa have an expectation that when you visit people in their homes it is only courteous to speak their language, so people there typically know several and often 5-7: Xhosa, Ndebele, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Cape Creole, etc.

The other method is to erect a structure of introduction to the second language (L2) in the classroom similar to what the learner would encounter living in that speech community, The difference is the teacher can parcel out linguistic structures selectively and with an eye to total absorption of them before moving on to new structures; the natural environment cannot provide that, so in most ways, the classroom is the better place to acquire the language in a non-interventionist mode. The classroom also prevents what is called fossilization, where the learner stops acquiring at the point where they get their needs met, i.e.proficient enough; they don’t need anymore. We teachers would like students to reach a higher level of proficiency.
The interventionist approach calls for much more history and description of theories because it is still the dominant mode of teaching. The ancient Romans brought in Greeks to teach their children Greek. In the Middle Ages, Latin was the dominant language among the educated. I was reading Samuel Pepys’ diary (mid 1600s) where he mentions communicating with people in Latin, both written and spoken. But by then, educated people had learned Latin and even acquired through massive amounts of reading, years of study. This is much like the grad student who has read many volumes in L2 and that is what we non-interventionists call input. But earlier, children about 5 0r 6 would go into a monastery where the monks would gently speak to them in Latin and it was a real speech community and Latin became an acquired language used by every cleric. (read Diane Musumeci’s Breaking Tradition)
Another terminological note: very often the term “pick up” is used, as in, “I did a rotation in Thailand and picked up some Thai.” They may turn out to speak a lot of Thai but would not say they learned it or studied it because it was not in a classroom. Comparing these people to those who studied the language in an institution like the Defense Language Institute, we find the latter do not reach good levels of proficiency. (that was particularly noted in the Russian department at ASU) Another story comes from an international expert in FL teaching, Betty Lou Leaver, who tells of the young girl who she interviewed regarding her language background. The girl informed her that French was her language because she had studied it in class. Leaver pointed out that she had lived in Moscow for some time and probably knew some Russian. “No,” the girl assured her, “I never did get Russian. But I do know French because I studied it.” So Leaver told her a short story in Russian while the girl rolled her eyes, saying, “I’m not going to understand you.” Then Leaver asked her to recap the story in English, which she did flawlessly, all the while asserting she didn’t really understand it.

The same Leaver got a panicked phone call from one of her instructors in Prague teaching Czech to a class of American businessmen. After three days they rebelled, saying they weren’t learning anything. (those taught via non-interventionist methods often don’t “feel” learning taking place: no tests, no drills, no abstract grammar principles, what Frank Smith says students learn what real learning is: hard and boring) So Leaver told her to have them write on the board all the Czech words they know; after they had filled three chalk boards they got the picture.

Another example is the lady I worked with who had studied German years ago under a German nun who spoke to them in class, sang with them, taught them poetry, etc. When her class took a trip to Europe, each language had a student assigned to interpret for the group and she was the only one able to conduct business for the group in her language.
The essence of objections to the interventionist approach is, “You don’t learn to ride a bicycle by learning about the gears and sprockets and steering mechanism; you learn to ride a bicycle by riding it.” That, of course, assumes a theory of learning, to which we turn in earnest now.

Beginning in the 19th century, theories of learning were developed in the new science of psychology. Before that, as Musumeci so well describes, several innovators like Guardini, Comenius, and Loyola all wrote up methods that remarkably track the communicative and input-based methods of today. However, the classroom teachers quickly demanded a grammatical syllabus (letters available in archives show this), in part because it puts the teacher so totally in control of the class when the students must learn so many grammatical rules, endings, etc. But now a theory of learning involving so-called faculties of the mind came to the fore and Latin and Greek teachers, the only foreign languages taught then, developed curriculum modeling the faculties of mind. The analysis or “parsing” as it was called dominated the instruction. Lawrence Levine in his “The Opening of the American Mind” mentions one Harvard professor of classics who insisted his students understand the content of what they were reading and after several reprimands for not sticking to grammar was fired.
It is not that modern languages were not acquired before the advent of a curriculum for modern languages. Businessmen wanted their sons to take over, but they needed to work with their peers in other countries and so needed to speak those languages. This was done by sending the boy to work with a business partner in that country, thus learning/acquiring the language via what I labeled the natural method of non-interventionists. Other cultures had traditions of language study: the Arabs for classical Arabic to read the Koran, the ancient Indians to maintain the purity of the Rig-Veda, the Jews to read the Torah, etc.

Once a demand for modern languages arose and they were introduced into the high school curriculum, the only way to get them accepted was to model the teaching of them on the classical tradition. Since all students then had already studied 5-7 years of Latin and several of Greek, it was thought that the modern languages were simpler than the classical and so could be learned much faster, thus our two year tradition for modern languages in high school. Around this time, a new method arrived from Germany called the grammar-translation method. The idea was to learn the language by translating from it into your own language and then eventually back from your language into the new language.

The time-line for this is now into the 20th century and things went on like this in the schools, including the universities, up until WW II. For the war effort, students of French and German were needed to interpret and translate. The shock came when it was found that the students of FL could not work with the French to combat the Germans, could not interrogate German prisoners, etc. After all, they had been analyzing isolated texts in German or French or Italian and then discussing the analysis in English. This shock produced a flurry of efforts to do a better job of teaching languages for proficiency but those efforts ran up against the hierarchy of entrenched methods up until the 60s. The two World Wars produced many changes in academe, in history, in literature, and in FL studies. The 60s revolutionized so much in so many ways they are regarded as a watershed moment in our history and around the world. Nations previously dominated by foreigners were gaining their independence; world trade was expanding vastly as a result of the organizing efforts of The Wise Men (Acheson, Harriman, Boland, McCloy, Nitze, the Dulles brothers, not to mention active presidents like Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy and even the besieged Nixon. Overall loomed Roosevelt), and international operations became the watchword of corporations as much as of companies. The need for knowledge of other languages was bigger than ever thought of.
Enter proficiency. The grammar-translation and other scholarly methods of language archaeology lost their cachet and practical use of a FL rose as the corner stone of teaching. These traditional methods were not really traditional, as I have shown, but had arisen out of classical studies. More and more, educators lost interest in archives and literary works and set up programs of study abroad, aping the earlier manner of businessmen to educate their offspring in other languages. [an aside here: in England at least one of the main functions of finishing schools for girls was to rid them of their colonial accents. They had been raised around slave children and spoke that patois, much to the horror of their parents. Thus was called up a need for grammar manuals and elocution instruction, leading to the plethora of school books purporting to teach proper grammar but written by people with no knowledge of the principles of English, let alone of linguistics. They bequeathed to us nonsense like saying “the closer of two objects but the closest of more than two” or not starting a sentence with a conjunction and not ending one with a preposition, much of the baseless drivel founded on the principles of Latin. To this day, those who do not understand this historical distortion of instruction in our own language insist that such howlers as the shall and will distinction and the can and may distinction are marks of good English]

After ALM lost popularity due to poor results, the profession turned to cognitive psychology which offered an approach called cognitive code. I would say cognitive code is the most widely used approach now without most teachers even knowing the term, let alone its origin. It is mixed with vestiges of ALM and even grammar-translation. The thrust of it is that language is a code and codes have rules, algorithms, etc. that can be discerned in the language, distilled out, and then taught to learners. Example: French uses a with the infinitive if the infinitive has a passive sense, i.e. j’ai quelque chose a faire = to be done. It is possible to teach that rule but doubtful that anyone can apply it. It seems to me that that is why FL teachers spend most of their time on broad grammar topics like perfect and imperfect, etc. especially focusing on endings because that is easy to teach (facile d’enseigner or a enseigner?) and grade and test. Behind all this is the notion that if you can break something down into steps, you can teach it, step by step. That’s a powerful model. But language acquisition does not pursue those lines, a step by step process like the order of operations in algebra. But Frank Smith points out that just because you can analyze an act into steps, that doesn’t mean that was how it was learned. Just because a speaker uses fronting and left-detachment and passive voice and indirect object pronouns and redundant pronouns and recursive constructions and so on doesn’t mean they can be taught as discrete units and mastered step-wise.

The best example I’ve encountered of the desire to reduce grammar to a formula is the session at a conference on ‘how to teach the preterite and imperfect in Spanish. The room was packed, about 200 teachers – a huge turnout for a session – and the presenter started with some examples. The room erupted in babble as teachers argued with each other over the “proper” tense to use in the examples. These were all Spanish teachers and many of them were native speakers of Spanish. You would expect at least to see native and non-native speakers arguing, but even native speakers were arguing with each other!! And they expect the students to nail this on an exam?

In the early 80s Omaggio starts talking about proficiency, gaining proficiency by teaching communicatively. An example of the many clever techniques of communicative teaching is the information gap, where a pair of students work to complete a task and one student has needed information and the other has other needed information and they cooperate by sharing their information to complete the task. That made sense because that is what communication in real life seems to be. Alice Omaggio-Hadley’s book, Teaching Language in Context: Proficiency – Oriented Instruction came out in 1986, just when I started teaching FL. She laid out hypotheses with corollaries and then discussed current methodologies in light of the hypotheses. Of course, she defines language proficiency extensively in the context of the four skills and takes on the accuracy issue as well as testing and cultural content. Pretty hefty and eye-opening for a profession whose methods often led to events such as the one described by one teacher as having fallen asleep while reading from a text to the students, but escaped embarrassment when she realized they had all fallen asleep before she did.

So the hope was that teaching for proficiency via more communicative methods would not only be more effective but would make for a more active learning environment. In Omaggio’s book she reviews two methods that would later, in the 80s and 90s, come together: the Natural Approach and Total Physical Response. The former was promoted by Stephen Krashen and the latter evolved into TPRS. In Chapter 2 of the book, she reviews a number of approaches in detail, including how well they conform to proficiency standards and what the criticisms of them are.

In the late 70s and early 80s, teachers and other FL educators were beginning to wonder if perhaps the way people learn to use a FL is by using it, as tautological as that sounds. But it goes back to the bicycle analogy: it could be that no amount of cognitive pondering and manipulation will “teach” you how to ride a bike, it is your brain and body working together that brings you to the point of balancing properly, not verbal instructions and explanations nor drills. Developing Second Language Skills: Theory and Practice by Chastain contains a description of the cognitive code approach and it is worth quoting as we leave the interventionist approaches: “This knowledge base includes not only students’ present understanding of the new language, but also their understanding of how their native language works, as well as their general ‘knowledge of the world.’ Students must be familiar with the rules of the new language before being asked to apply them to the generation of language. The foundation or competence, must come first. Performance will follow once the foundation is laid.” Considering that Quinn’s grammar of English has 3500 rules, the daunting task awaits the student of learning a considerable portion of them before being capable of performance. hmmmm Other methods and approaches are described like the Direct Method and its derivatives, Suggestopedia, etc. None of them have demonstrated efficacy. But then neither have any of the non-interventionist methods and approaches, but we will look closely at one that has a mass of practitioners who open their classrooms up to scrutiny.

In the 70s and 80s, Stephen Krashen saw non-English-speaking students learning English on the outside and not in the classroom. He reviewed the theory and decided that what he saw was actually the way people acquire another language. The key to his approach is that people acquire a language when they understand messages in that language. It begins with observable items in the environment and actions. Over time, more and more becomes part of the construct their brain is laying down. The trick is to transfer this natural acquisition to the classroom. The classroom has an advantage: the presentation of messages to the learners can be done slowly and in a structured manner, building on prior knowledge. Students having acquired ‘whale’ and ‘eats’ and ‘shrimp’, and using the utterance ‘the whale eats the shrimp’, I can create with language and say ‘the shrimp eats the whale’, making a joke. And so it builds.

Krashen eschews the eclectic method because if you think you know how language is acquired, why deviate from that method to bring in methods you believe are not effective. It makes sense but it enrages a lot of teachers who pride themselves on their eclecticism or think you are being arrogant for claiming to know what works.Eclecticism  sounds like you are being judicious, fair, middle of the road, you’re giving your students the full spectrum, you’re not missing anything.

Krashen developed five hypotheses and these have been thoroughly criticized by theorists in SLART and even some academics who think Krashen nailed it with these hypotheses say his research designs are no good. Yet Krashen is the name recognized throughout the world for bringing us the input hypothesis, known more commonly now as CI for Comprehensible Input.

Hypothesis #1 Input is required to acquire a language and the input has to be comprehensible, the ‘understand the message’ core idea. It does no good to talk to someone using words they do not understand. Give them the meaning in their own language, go slow, and demonstrate the meaning of the word each time you use it. That is the best input.

Hypothesis #2 Learning is not acquisition. Learning is a conscious cognitive process that does not activate the LED and so the learned material must always be consciously retrieved, whereas people who speak a language they have acquired are thinking about the topic, not about the language they are using.

Hypothesis #3 the Monitor is the original name of Krashen’s set of hypotheses. The Monitor Hypothesis refers to the manner learners access learned material; it is not available for unconscious retrieval but must be “thought about”. I use the word ratiocination, the convoluted thinking you go through trying to remember if that verb takes the dative or accusative case, etc. Once a student had come to visit me after his mission to Moscow (LDS, not CIA) and we were ‘searching’ my book shelves for a book and I said ya ishchu knigu, using the accusative case. He corrected me to ‘knigi’, genitive case. I said he might be right, I’d check. Sure enough, the genitive is used for abstract objects as in ‘I’m looking for peace’ but accusative case for concrete objects like a book. So my acquired Russian had kicked in over his book learning.

Hypothesis #4 the Affective Filter serves the absence of anxiety required for acquisition to take place. Motivation and self-confidence play a role as well.

Hypothesis #5 the Natural Order hypothesis determines when features of L2 are acquired. That order seldom matches the order presented in textbooks. Often features assumed to be easy, such as the -s ending on English 3rd person present tense indicative verbs are actually late acquired. One of students whose native language is Chinese could never figure out why her bone-headed English teacher would mark her wrong for putting an -s on “we” verbs and leaving it off on “he” verbs and tell her only to “look it up.” She asked me, “Isn’t -s for plural?” Well, that is grammar. And we Spanish teachers teach the ser/estar distinction very early and evidence shows it is late-acquired. So what exactly then is the point in marking it wrong when a student writes ‘ser cansado’ instead of ‘estar cansado’? They both mean ‘be tired’, one just sounds real funny. And I digress here: I have heard so many teachers whose native language is not English complain about their students making errors like that when their own L2, English, doesn’t sound so hot. One Russian teacher loved the phrase, “For God’s sake”, but she always said, “God’s for sake”; cute but still WRONG!

Krashen has many YouTube videos and you may want to look at a couple of them. That leads into my personal language learning and teaching background. Why would I choose the non-interventionist approach?

I recall in my childhood in the 40s I had a Book of Knowledge book showing Indian signs on their teepees and what they meant, so I would spend hours making up sentences from them. In eighth grade I took a good conversational Spanish course. In high school, now very interested in languages, I took Latin then French my sophomore year and German, 5 semesters in college. To this day, German is the language I know least.

I attribute this fascination with language to my relationship with my dad (my parents divorced when I was 5 and he had been gone during the war). He was a manager in hotels and would take me into the kitchen and introduce me to all the foreigners who worked there: Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, French, Swedish, Chinese, etc. His parents had come from Italy and he shared some of the language and culture with me. Living in a small Ohio town at the time, this was an exotic world and no doubt engendered my interest in cultures and languages.

In college our Russian teacher had been recruited from science because she was Ukrainian. Sputnik had just gone up and the country was aflame with need for Russian. But she only knew to teach grammar and grammar is very easy for me, the thing I like best about language. She did nothing else so I dropped the course after 3 semesters of making As and learning little. A few years later a friend took Russian from a new professor and was learning it (using “learning” advisedly), so I pulled out my old textbooks and then Russian got ahold of me and I learned it well enough to teach it in later years.

But the real key to this non-interventionist approach choice I made when I began teaching is French. I had had two years of high school French with the typical result, i.e. some understanding of grammar, some vocabulary and a good stab at pronunciation. My junior year, second year in French, a French family moved in nearby and the teacher sent her best student and me  to welcome them; me, because she knew I would talk to the people. It turned out the man had been a judo instructor in France, so I told him my ROTC club needed a judo instructor. He took the job but needed me to interpret! I threw myself into the fray and did OK because in a year or so he had a dojo in tony Scottsdale and later became a real estate agent (everyone in AZ has a realtor’s license).

That same year I met a woman 10 years older than me who was apparently looking for a boyfriend, a young one. She was a live-in maid whose cubicle had an outside entrance so I would go over there and spend hours in bed with her, although she never “consummated” our very sexual relationship. Lord, nowadays she’d be brought up on child abuse charges. What was important though was that she spoke only French. We’d go places together and so forth and so I had an opportunity to use a lot of French.

After high school I did not use or study French again but when anyone started speaking French with me they would get an automatic response in French from me. As the TPRS people say, it just fell out of my mouth. No thought about French, just about what we were talking about. Once some Portuguese teachers came to our school and my wife and I agreed to host one. They all spoke French so when the French teachers in the district and me [normal English, formal written would be ‘and I’] met them at the airport and were speaking French and I chatted with them, the French teachers exclaimed, “I thought you were the Russian teacher! You ought to teach French.”

I also took a graduate class in French literature and had no trouble with the class being conducted in French. Reading a lot of novels for the class, I wound up getting copies in English to make sure I understood what was going on, so my French cannot bear the weight of lots of literature all at once, but that’s not how I learned it. More recently, my grandson’s friend in karate class speaks French because his parents are from Canada, so the parents came to visit. Ever after that, when they’d see me at a karate event, they would want to speak French with me, so I must be fluent enough that people who are more comfortable in French switch to that language with me.

I went into teaching as a social studies teacher but the principal noticed my credits in Russian and asked me to teach a Russian class. As I mentioned in the opening, LDS missionaries were going to be allowed to slip into the U.S.S.R. and my school had a lot of LDS kids who were excited about the prospect. Years later I was told so many missionaries came out of my classes that the Provo, UT center shut down the flow from that ward or stake (like a Catholic parish). I taught Russian for 20 years. I don’t know how “good” my Russian is or my French, but when I started teaching Spanish, a professor at ASU was getting certified in giving the Oral Proficiency Interview. She tested me at Advanced Plus. Only Superior is above that and my Spanish has improved greatly since then. So I have some questions about just how accurate such tes

That first year, I started off the year chatting with the students in Russian to give them an idea of what the language was like. I used techniques similar to other approaches like pointing to myself and then to students, putting pictures of my family on the board and talking about them and then asking them about their families, etc. After about three days of this, I settled down and got “serious”, teaching grammar the rest of the year. At the end, I gave a final on which students did alright but obviously did not really grasp how to make sense of the Russian EXCEPT on a section where I recapped the conversations from the first of the year. There, they did fine, recalling most of what we discussed nine months earlier! That got me to thinking.

A thunder clap came in the form of the supervisor of English as a Second Language programs for the district who handed me a couple of tapes of lectures given by a guy named Stephen Krashen. I took them home and watched both of them; then I watched them again, then over again, then over and over and over. I must have watched them 20 times, absorbing what he was saying, mainly that people acquire languages when they understand messages in that language.

Over the years, adding Spanish and Latin to my class load, I did my best to implement that approach to teaching. Communicative teaching was the major mode of instruction in the 90s and early 21st century but in the early 90s a method or technique called TPRS was being used by a team of teachers at a private school near Phoenix. A colleague of mine latched onto that early on and we discussed it, went to demonstrations, etc. I never really installed it thoroughly although I experimented with it. I was trying all sorts of things and it was only in my last years that I found myself using techniques that fell more and more under the rubric of Comprehensible Input, making everything comprehensible to the students.

I was aided in all this by an excellent Latin textbook I adopted early, Cambridge Latin Course. It illustrates a set of sentences and follows a boy in Pompeii and his adventures after the eruption in Egypt and Britain. It can take three years easily to cover. It lends itself beautifully to talking about the boy and his family and his dog and his adventures, plus you can do communicative activities like having students write letters from various pov like the boy writing to his friend in Egypt, etc. When I started at Seton Catholic, all my classes were Latin, so we got Cambridge and the classes took off. I started with eleven students in first year and a year later I had 25 and the years after that 50. I gave As but there were two extenuating circumstances: only the top students took Latin in a school where you had to get through an interview before being accepted and all my students could read and understand spoken Latin, much to the amazement of the Catholic staff that had had many years of Latin but could do nothing with it. My students thrilled to reading the inscriptions on old missions here, naming their fish in Latin…. so many parents telling me how happy they were with their students’ enthusiasm. One family had a conference with all their student’s teachers early in her freshman year because she had learning disabilities. When my turn came, I just said, “Let’s see what she knows” and began asking her questions in Latin. She responded thoughtfully and stunned her parents. Learning disabilities have nothing to do with FL acquisition unless you pursue a curriculum heavy in parsing.

Krashen likes TPRS very much. It fits his hypotheses very well. It began around 1990 when a Spanish teacher, Blaine Ray, was getting nowhere with his classes trying different techniques. One was TPR, Total Physical Response, where the teacher gives commands in L2 and students respond. But that only took him so far so he spontaneously added zany stories and students began learning. Blaine heard Krashen and so he called it acquisition. Over that decade it began spreading, especially in the West (Blaine was in Montana and is Mormon, so I think there is a bit of an LDS connection there since so many FL teachers in the West are Mormons who learned the language on their missions). Arizona had two centers, the private school in the Phoenix area and Jason Fritz down in Tucson. By the turn of the century, a listserv for FL teachers using TPRS was formed (moretprs), most conferences had TPRS presenters and TPRS practitioners had several conferences of their own. Over 7,000 teachers are on the TPRS listserv, a fraction of the number actually using it, and the name was changed from Total Physical Response Storytelling to Teaching for Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.

When you introduce the Comprehensible Input methods or techniques like TPRS, reactions are typically of the, “but they need to know the mechanics” type, how the gear shift works, how it is connected, etc. You can’t ride a bicycle without knowing that. Then another kid goes whizzing by on his bike and you yell at him, “How does your gear shift work?” and he yells back, “Hell if I know.” He’s just riding. It’s like saying ‘la sagesse’ instead of ‘le sagesse’ – I don’t know why, it’s just the way you say it.

But the reaction can be much stronger, as in, “Why should I give up two millennia of language teaching tradition that has served the civilization well for some new-unfangled, untested, unproven, hair-brained idea of some teachers who probably don’t know the grammar themselves and that’s why they are happy with some pidgin gibberish from their students.” When a teacher says he has had successful classes and students who score 5s on the A.P. and you ask him what percentage of his students gain any level of proficiency at all, even just greetings and other courtesy expressions, his reply will often be along the lines of, “Well, you know, not all students are motivated and they don’t have the work ethic we had.” Then you press the issue and ask if he is saying students used to have a higher work ethic. Then we’re off into the “everything since WW II has gone to hell in a handbasket”. I even proffered to FL Teach the chapter headings from an Ancient Greek textbook in which the deficits of the “current generation” were laid out in agonized complaint. Then I revealed the date: these comments were written in the 30s and they were about the generation that went on to win WW II and be denominated the greatest generation.

Teachers don’t like being asked to demonstrate the efficacy of their teaching. I would like to see the OPI given to each student at the end of each year (very expensive). A U of A professor of Russian took Russian majors every year to Moscow and told the sad tale of how even seniors were unable to give their age in Russian (to me 19 years) nor answer the simple question, “Where does your father work?” The reward system in universities does not encourage adjuncts, grad students, let alone professors to focus on teaching. Too bad. My Seton students had had 6-7 years of Spanish and could say only “Can I go to the bathroom.” A few knew the days of the week. That’s it, after so long.

I hope this gives you some idea of why I fall back on my French experience as evidence for the truth of the comprehensible input model of language acquisition and the validity of the learning/acquisition dichotomy in Krashen’s theory. Without Margie and Maurice, my French would be where my German is after five semesters in college.

It is my impression that most university level instructors have little interest in teaching introductory classes, the first three years, and even less in exploring better methods of teaching the language. Once the few students who survive arrive through the fire, then they are interested in recruiting students for their graduate programs where the real work begins: the analysis of linguistic structures and the plumbing of the depths of literature. That is what the professor became a professor to do.

High school teachers, OTOH, often attend conferences (if they can afford it or their district pays for them to go) where they hear about new teaching methods because that is mostly what h.s. teachers teach, introductory this or that. Only in AP and the IB programs do the students actually read literature.  (here I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill public schools, not elite private schools from which students fly to Switzerland every summer for seminars) Therefore, it is entirely possible that a method/technique like TPRS might break through as more and more students arrive at the universities handling the language in a way the professoriate has not seen before. We have some cases reported of TPRS students being rejected from programs on the basis that a third year high school student “could not possibly…..” etc. Under the old system – no; but under a new regime. c’est possible. On verra.




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