One Student’s Reaction to Acquisition

My student in Spanish introduced me (via Zoom) to her former student, an impressive young man majoring in linguistics. Talking about our lessons, she mention several of her reactions, similar to what I’ve recorded from her before.
One thing was she had no idea it would take so long to learn the language. We’ve been zooming regularly for one half hour five days a week since late June, so six months. It will be interesting to compare her progress to my granddaughter’s at this point since both will have put in about the same number of hours of instruction. (see tprs update for what I am doing to get all her lessons on this blog). I reiterated that one of the top TPRS/CI teachers said it is toward the end of the first full year, that’s about 130 hours of instruction in a year. If we are at 60 hours now and can reach 120 hours by summer, she may be emitting Spanish spontaneously by then. (that is no fluent conversation but more likely full responses to questions).
Then she said the pictures I use bind the meaning of the word for her. She sees the picture and has the word. It’s not that I have a picture for every word, more like one for a situation e.g. a camp site or a character. The pictures act as an anchor for the meaning. She is beset by the need to be right and almost every time she hesitates in a response, the one she finally comes out with is right. “Trust the Force,” I say to her, i.e. trust the LAD.
BTW, I will continue blogging under TPRS but my method is more broadly CI.
If you follow my lessons with my granddaughter, Nyah, you will see where I deviate and then eventually move away from strict TPRS. With my granddaughter I used props like large diagrammatic maps of places that I can’t use easily with Zoom. Once my student and I can start meeting,, I can do more of those things…….. but, as I write this, I’m beginning to think of some things I can do with Zoom.

Nov. 19, 2022. That was Dec. 30, 2020, almost two years ago. Thus it has been two and a half years. Let us review. 

My student is a retired English teacher who committed to learning Spanish from the beginning. As stated above, she has been surprised at how long it has taken to get a grip on communicating in Spanish. Such underestimation of the time required to learn a language is common. She has had two experiences with using the language: one as a volunteer in a reception center for immigrants and the other on a trip to Costa Rica where she was enrolled in a language school. More on that later.

I entered onto this journey with several motivations: one was gratitude for immense service she had rendered my wife and me. Another was to try CI methods with a second student and chart the progress. And yet another was the pleasure in watching someone grow in a language. So an update is needed.

After about a year, my student shifted to 4 half-hour sessions a week. The fifth day she volunteered in a center where over time she became, to her consternation, their interpreter. It’s amazing how many well-educated people have no ability to communicate in Spanish despite no doubt at least two years of instruction in the language. Eventually we changed our mode of instruction. I had been unreeling a tale of connected characters augmented by an extensive set of picture files. As noted above, the pictures cemented the meaning of words. Sadly, due to an anticipated change of residences which never took place, I got rid of thousands of such pictures. (I don’t believe they can easily be duplicated. If anyone is interested, contact me here and I will explain the origins of the whole picture file approach and of its constituent parts as well as how I used them). Fortunately, my students liked that we had begun to read a novel and she elected to restrict our lessons to that. More on that, too. 

We began meeting only twice a week but still for two hours total. That has worked well for both of us. We are reading Isabel Allende’s El Amante Japones. We are well into it and her comprehension level is above 80%. So truth be told, she is reading a novel without looking up words and then we go over the same passage as she reads out loud in Spanish and then translates. We do almost no grammar although I am working on a way of anchoring the major grammatical features throughout the reading.

A major block to her openness to an accurate evaluation of her progress is her student perfectionism. She is the type of student who would panic over missing one item on a test. No matter how I try to convince her that she will never avoid unknown words in Spanish just as she finds unknown words in English, she still interprets lacunae in comprehension as signals of failure. Nevertheless, she has some humor about it, recognizing the inaptness of such a mind-set. 

Otherwise, she has grasped the function of tenses and even their formation without much formal instruction. I am beginning to ask her more structural questions.

In May she and her husband travelled to Costa Rica where she was registered in classes, she in a higher level than her husband’s. From the beginning, before she even left here, it was a mess. Some administrator interviewed her over the phone and said she understood a lot but her grammar was terrible. For someone like my student, that was such a blow (and so completely unprofessional) that she would have cancelled right then had she been eligible for a refund. It got no better on arrival. She was placed at the same level as her husband whose Spanish has for years been limited to Hola. After wasting a week wrangling with the admins, she finally got into a class that suited her and she enjoyed it.

 The administrators noticeably kept shifting her around to accommodate their staffing needs, i.e. teachers of classes that needed students got my student, whether that class was appropriate or not for her. She kept me in touch while this was going on and I encouraged her to keep fighting for the level that would benefit her and she has the personality to do that. Once in the right level – and still she was more advanced than her fellow students but the teacher was excellent for her – she thrived/throve. As well, she walked around town and got more “practice” in real communication.

Her experience with the language school was disappointing to me because of the lack of professionalism on the staff’s part. The cost is considerable and you would think they would train the teaching staff and provide them with materials. But what am I saying? “They” don’t do that in any school I am aware of. So much seems to depend on what we might call the culture of the department, at least at the university level. No matter the methodology recommended – giving due to academic freedom – basic materials should be made available at the university level. I have no such expectations of the public school elementary through high school levels. There, little in the way of funds or even attention is given to FL instruction; the mere fact that a certified teacher “knows” a FL is enough to place them above the level of the typical administrative oversight. At charter schools there may be more attention paid; at the private school I taught at I had three and a half years of zero supervision and thrived/throve; and then a hands-on administrator arrived with old-school ideas about how languages needed to be taught to open parents’ pocket books and I left after a year of that. 

My granddaughter’s experience in Korean at the university level is different. She has tough courses and instructors, all native speakers. My only quibble is they seem a bit removed from mainstream FL teaching (might be a good thing) and pursue their own system of teaching. But it seems successful. What irritates me is their unorthodox terminology in explaining grammar as seen in my granddaughter’s text book where predicate adjectives are so labeled but attributive adjectives are called “noun-modifying”. Well, so are predicate adjectives noun modifying. Strange.

At any rate, my points are these if you want to lean a FL:

Unless you are somewhat sophisticated about language when a textbook would help you i.e. know that letters and sounds are not equivalent e.g. the Korean s sounds like a t when final, then find a teacher. There are books on how to work with a naive native speaker (or anyone who knows the language well enough to speak it with you) but your personality has to be strong enough to get him/her to follow your instructions on how to teach you. A trained teacher is probably better than nothing, but if they insist on grammar drills and long explanations of how the pronouns work, get them to just talk to you following the books on how to work with a native speaker. I’ve seen people waste a lot of time learning about noun-adjective agreement and the whole project just dribbles away into the sands of frustration. OR, you can buy an ordinary Modern X for Dummies book and get in touch with me and I’ll help where I can.

Next point: it takes for friggin’ ever. You will most likely never get to the point where you are totally satisfied with your level of performance. Language reflects our brain and computers have yet to be able to handle language the way a five year old human can. We’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.

Next point: consistency. Forget a two hour weekend class to fit your work schedule. If it is not daily, you will lose the chaining of input that gets registered UNCONSCIOUSLY in your brain. Do not forget: language is not a consciously cognitive activity anymore than walking or riding a bike is. If you are thinking about the language as you are talking then you do not have control over that level of language you are using. (Composing is a different matter; my FL teaching/learning guru calls thinking about the language as in composing an essay the monitor; you monitor your usage) If you do not have a class or teacher, fine; you are not limited to their schedule and can discipline yourself to study/read/speak/listen every day for about a half hour or at least 15 minutes.

Next point: Do not bring with you to FL study those ideas about language most of us pick up along the way, notions of pure or proper language, notions that mistakes in usage are deal breakers (one scholar researched what features of speech in Spanish on the part of foreigners disturb native speakers most: it turned out some things did and some did not. Among the latter were some of the cherished shibboleths of FL teachers. We put up with Indians who say, “I am doing the laundry every weekend”, making it sound like he/she is planning on it where they should have said, “I do the laundry….” Just not a big deal and as you mature in use of the FL you’ll straighten those things out), that older forms of the language are superior, etc. If you are in Turkey and want to know how to say, “Where is the bathroom,” you pick out a Turk who knows some English and ask him without checking his pedigree.

Next point: Do not expect to master the pronunciation unless you are under 14 and have access to the FL daily. Just learn to make yourself understood and think of all the professional people in your life who have sometimes quite strong accents and make far more money than you do. 

Next point: Do not worry about learning to compose essays and poems. One wag said the only thing he ever wrote in French while in France was a grocery list.

Next point: if I think of another one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *