Todd & A Series On CI (Part 13) – “Language Acquisition Magic”

“Language Acquisition Magic”  …I don’t really like the phrase anymore.

  1. It makes it sound like acquiring a language is easy; and I DON’T think that’s true.
  2. It also makes it sound like there is a perfect formula for how to teach a foreign language; and I don’t think that’s true either.

However, I used the phrase several months ago while writing a series on comprehensible input and, in today’s post, I’d like to explain what I regret and DON’T regret about using it. Here’s the phrase in it’s original context:

“Making input comprehensible and meaningful (to foreign language students) can cause language acquisition ‘magic’ to occur.”

What I DON’T regret:

In class, there are instances when I watch a student use the target language without even realizing it. It almost seems like L2 slips out of their mouth by accident or without expending intentional intellectual effort. Here are some examples:

  • One reluctant student blurted out, “I don’t want to,” (in the target language!) when he got randomly chosen to participate.
  • A 1st grader said, “sit down,” and, “quiet,” (in the target language) to an off task classmate.
  • A 4th grader said, “That’s not for you! That’s for me!” (in the target language) when I playfully stole his pencil.

It feels like magic, when those things happen, because:

  • we never formally covered that L2 content in the curriculum.
  • it seems that some students said those things without even realizing that they were speaking another language. (I notice that this happens more with the youngest learners.)
  • often, the students that said these things are not the stereotypical “overachieving students.” Sometimes L2 phrases like these popped out of the mouths of the ones that have been known as the “quiet” students.
  • the process of acquiring those L2 phrases wasn’t difficult. It didn’t involve copying, memorizing, drilling or homework. I would wager that most students felt like it was even fun and enjoyable.

Now for an important SIDE NOTE devoted to answering the question, “What is causing this “language acquisition magic” to occur?”

The answer, summed up in one word (and over-simplified) is: *PAIRING.

Pairing what?” you may ask.

Pairing a piece of incomprehensible L2 with an equivalent and meaningful form of extralinguistic input. It can be ANY form of extralinguistic input. (i.e. *representational, *gesticulated, *inflectional, *constructed situational and/or *incidental situational.)

It’s also effective to pair incomprehensible L2 with other linguistic input, namely L1 input (aka: translation) or comprehensible L2 input (aka: a definition or using context clues). However, when a teacher starts pairing in this way, the pairing experiences start becoming less “magic-like” and more “academic-like” or “study-like.”)


What I DO regret:

Besides the 2 regret-statements that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I regret including the bold part of the statement:

Making input comprehensible and meaningful (to foreign language students) can cause language acquisition ‘magic’ to occur.”

I regret including the phrase because I think I used it incorrectly. I think I’ve had an incorrect (or at least an incomplete) understanding of what it means to make input comprehensible.

Up until recently, I THOUGHT making input comprehensible went something like this:

Sr. Howard thinks, “Okay…the students are about to walk into my classroom. I need them to stand up in the middle of the lesson, but they don’t know the L2 word for, “Stand up.” Uh-oh. What am I going to do? Hmmm. (Pause) Oh! I know! Maybe I can make the input comprehensible to my students by gesturing or motioning for them to stand when I say the L2 word for, “Stand up!” Yes! That will work marvelously! I’ll make the input comprehensible with the use of a gesture!”

I no longer think that’s correct. A gesture doesn’t make an L2 word comprehensible. A gesture, instead, offers the student another available form of input that he/she can use in an attempt to find meaning. Even if a student stands up, when I gesture and say the L2 word for, “Stand up,” it doesn’t mean that I made the L2 word comprehensible. It simply means that the gesticulated input that I used was comprehensible. More than likely, the L2 word remains incomprehensible. Furthermore, the L2 word will remain incomprehensible until the student can perform the appropriate physical response without the cue of an available form of extralinguistic input.

Here’s the same situation but with a change in vocabulary that indicates a more clear understanding of what’s happening for the learner:

Sr. Howard thinks, “Okay…the students are about to walk into my classroom. I need them to stand up in the middle of the lesson, but they don’t know the L2 word for, “Stand up.” Uh-oh. What am I going to do? Hmmm. (Pause) Well, it’s not likely that anything I do in class today will make the L2 word for, “Stand up,” comprehensible. It will likely take more time than we have during today’s session for that L2 word to become comprehensible. It will take repeated instances wherein that L2 word is paired with an equivalent and meaningful form of extralinguistic input. Once the students have experienced enough of these pairing instances, they will be able to perform the appropriate physical response without the extralinguistic cues. Until then, however, I can use these cues to communicate meaning even though my L2 input fails to communicate meaning.”

 

 


 

So at the end of this post I think I’d like to throw out the original sentence:

“Making input comprehensible and meaningful (to foreign language students) can cause language acquisition ‘magic’ to occur.”

…and use this revised sentence instead:

“Providing engaging instances for students, wherein pieces of incomprehensible L2 are repeatedly paired with extralinguistic forms of input, can be great fun for both the teacher and students in a foreign language classroom. It can even make parts of the L2 acquisition process feel less work intensive for the learner while still allowing for exciting performance results that, in the best of instructional moments, feel almost magical.


Señor Howard

Señor Howard – www.SenorHoward.com/blog – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd


*Disclaimer: These terms are my own and I’m using them for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that these are the terms found in formal, academic writing.


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