With students who are not used to being immersed in a L2 environment…:
…there are times that I sense the need to use MORE gestures and facial expressions and use FEWER L2 words, phrases and sentences.
When I’m starting to get too many looks (from students) like this…
…it’s my cue to start doing more of the following:
Sometimes, instead of affirming students with L2 phrases like, “Nice Job,” “Great work,” and “You really do great in L2 class,” I will simply smile, clap and give an energetic thumbs up.
Sometimes, instead of saying the L2 phrase for, “Come here,” I will simply use a hand gesture to get the student to come.
Sometimes, instead of making a request in L2 like, “Would you please pass out the papers?” I will simply hold up the stack of papers and use hand gestures to show that I want the volunteer to give one sheet to each student.
Sometimes, instead of reprimanding Roger in the TL by saying, “Roger, make sure your eyes are on the screen!” I will simply snap my fingers while looking sternly at him and then point to the screen in order to redirect his off-task behavior.
Sometimes, if a student is brand new to a 90+% TL environment, it’s necessary (for a while) to use LESS L2 and MORE non-verbal methods of communication.
This strategy is one of the ways that I avoid students looking at me like this:
It’s a strategy that I use to avoid students blurting out comments like:
“I didn’t understand a word you just said!”
“Excuse me. I don’t speak ______ (name of L2).”
“Huh!? What!? I don’t know what to do because I don’t speak your language!”
Strategies (like the ones above) really help!
Recently I asked my students to hold up 1 finger if they felt “always lost” in L2 class and to hold up 10 fingers if they felt “never lost” in L2 class. Every single student held up either 8, 9 or 10 fingers!!! Generally, almost all of my students know what’s expected of them and know exactly what to do. These results are possible because I use strategies like the ones I will discuss in this blog post.
With that being said, there are occasional times when a student of mine will give me a blank stare when I least expect it.
Recently I was SURE a student would be able to respond when I said, “Stand up,” (in the target language) especially because I even used my hands to motion for him to stand.
I thought I was making it as simple as possible. One short command. One very obvious gesture.
However, he gave me a blank stare. NO RESPONSE.
I thought to myself, “How much more obvious can I make it?” “If this simple, obvious hand gesture doesn’t make the L2 input comprehensible, then I don’t know what will!”
A lot of times I get the blank stare especially when I have a new student that transfers into the district. No matter what I gesture…no matter how obvious I make it, they just stare at me. Their facial expressions say, “Who is this guy? What is he doing? What language is he speaking? What in the world am I doing here? I have no idea what’s going on?”
I’m making it as meaningful = as possible…but the student is completely lost.
Here’s another example:
This happens every week or two. I’ll ask a student a question like, “What’s your name?” or, “What color is this?” (in the target language) and the student will not know what I’m asking or what the answer is. In order to help him out, I tell him the answer. I ask him to repeat the correct answer after me.
Simple enough, right? However, the student gives me a blank stare. NO RESPONSE. He can’t even repeat the correct answer that I ask him to repeat.
I think to myself, “Hello!?!? – “Repeat” is a target language command that we use dozens of times every class! How can you be giving me a blank stare for, ‘Repeat!?!'”
So I try the Two-Hand Method to get him to say the simple, one-word answer after me.
The Two-Hand Method fails and the student gives me a blank stare. NO RESPONSE.
A lot of times, in scenarios like these, every other student in the class is thinking what I’m thinking, “Hello!?! All you have to do is say the exact same word that Sr. Howard is saying.” Occasionally a compassionate peer will address the confused student in English and tell him, “Just say what Sr. Howard is saying.”
What is happening in these situations?
Why do I get a blank stare / no response?
I’m using the most simple of gestures! Why does the student look at me with a blank stare even though I’m doing everything I can to “make the input meaningful?”
The reason I’m surprised, in situations like these, is because there are a couple of things (regarding the nature of input) that I’m not keeping in mind.
More specifically, I’m not keeping in mind that…:
1- …an individual can receive multiple forms of input at one time…
2- …one form of input can affect a person’s ability or willingness to respond to another form of input.
As an example, consider Andrew (in the picture below):
Andrew is playing his new video game. He loves it! Ever since he got it for his birthday, it’s all he wants to do whenever he has free time. He hardly does anything else. He loves the graphics. He loves the adventure. When he’s playing, he’s in his own “video-game-world.”
What do you think happens when Mom tries to call him to the dinner table?
“Honey…it’s time for dinner,” Mom says.
No response from Andrew.
What’s happening here?
Is Andrew ignoring his mom? Did Andrew not hear his mom? Did it register in his mind that he heard his mom said something, but his video game adventure kept him from really processing WHAT she said?
For the purposes of this discussion, the specific details of what Andrew experienced are irrelevant. All we need to consider is that at the moment of Mom calling him to the dinner table…:
1) …Andrew is receiving not one form of input, but two (or more) forms of input.
2) …one form of input is affecting Andrew’s willingness/ability to respond to the second form of input.
What are the specific and different forms of input that Andrew is receiving?
The first form of input is coming from his video game. (Let’s call it Input #1.) His video game might be flashing words on the screen. (i.e. You have 2 lives left!) His video game might be producing L1 words and phrases. (i.e. You’re dead! Game over.) Even if his video game is not producing L1 words (or written phrases/sentences) there are still situations/scenarios that Andrew is interpreting. (i.e. The enemy has Andrew’s character cornered. Andrew thinks, “Ahhh! What should I do now?!?”)
The second form of input is coming in the form of his mom’s voice. (Let’s call it Input #2.) She’s in the kitchen, calling for him to come to the dinner table.
The input from the video game (Input #1) is so exciting to Andrew, so enthralling, that it’s limiting his capacity to pay attention to other forms of input that are being directed to him. He’s either:
- so engrossed in the video game that he doesn’t even process the input of his mom’s voice (i.e. unable to respond) or
- he values his ‘video-game-playing time’ so much that he’s willing to disregard his mother’s wishes in order to continue playing. (i.e. unwilling to respond)
So WHAT does this have to do with L2 class?
What does Andrew (and his video game) have to do with my L2 student giving me a blank stare when I say, “Stand up,” and motion for him to stand?
Just like Andrew received multiple forms of input in the example above, my L2 student receives multiple forms of input when I say, “Stand up,” and motion for him to stand.
Input #1, for my L2 student, is my L2 command: “Stand up.”
Input #2 is my non-verbal hand gesture: I motion for him to stand.
(Important side note: It’s VERY IMPORTANT to note that Input #1 is incomprehensible to my student. This is important because incomprehensible input has the potential to do to my student what video games do to Andrew:
It affects his ability or willingness to respond to other input.)
Here’s what I mean:
At the moment that I gesture and give the L2 command for “stand up,” here’s what I’m thinking in my head:
“Student, I know you don’t understand the L2 word I’m using. I know all of this L2 is brand new to you. But don’t worry, I will make it easy for you. First of all, “Stand up,” is such a short phrase. It’s not like I’m asking you to follow multi-step directions. It’s just one phrase. Second of all, to help you find meaning (although I’m using incomprehensible L2), I will use a gesture. It’s a simple gesture. All I’m doing is motioning, with my hands, for you to stand. That way, even though you don’t understand the L2 phrase I speak to you, you’ll be able to make sense of it because the hand gesture is so simple.”
Even though that’s MY experience…it’s NOT MY STUDENT’S experience. Here’s what he’s thinking in that same moment:
“Huh!?! I’m frozen. I’m overwhelmed. My anxiety level is high. I have no idea what is happening. All I heard was a jumble of sounds. This is really uncomfortable for me. I have no idea what that jumble of sounds means. How am I supposed to know what to do right now!? This is embarrassing. Everyone is looking at me. I hate this. How am I supposed to respond if I don’t know what that jumble of sounds means!?!”
Behind the blank stare are feelings and thoughts like these.
The overwhelming nature of the incomprehensible input makes it so that it’s attention-consuming. Just like Andrew wasn’t able to think about anything besides his video game, often a student (who isn’t used to being immersed in L2) will be unable to think about anything else when they hear incomprehensible input.
The L2 phrase, short as it may be, is nothing but an overwhelming jumble of sounds. It’s incomprehensible, unsettling and so confusing. Even though there is an accompanying, simple hand gesture, there’s nothing else on my student’s mind besides, “What the heck was that!? I have no idea what Sr. Howard is trying to say.”
Just like Andrew wasn’t able to respond to his mom’s instruction (because his video game was too all-consuming), my L2 student isn’t able to be helped by my simple hand gesture because my incomprehensible L2 command is too all-consuming.
How does the “occasionally use MORE gestures and LESS L2” (as described at the beginning of this post) help overwhelmed students like this one?
The strategies listed at the beginning of this post can help. These strategies train students to look for meaning in new places. Students are used to relying on language to gather meaning in a situation. However when they are introduced to an unfamiliar L2 environment, their ability to gather meaning from language is eliminated. But there are other ways to find/gather meaning. Students can find it in other forms of input like gestures, facial expressions, body language, etc. However, as I mentioned above, they won’t have the capacity to notice or pay attention to these extra linguistic forms of input if they are too overwhelmed by your incomprehensible foreign language. At the beginning of their L2 immersion journey, (while they are still afraid of hearing your “jumble of sounds”) make it easy for your students to notice those helpful extra linguistic cues by occasionally refraining from L2 use.
Once the students become more familiar with finding meaning through extra linguistic input, and once the students become less overwhelmed by the sound of unfamiliar L2, the teacher can start using the target language without getting looks like…
What else can we do to help overwhelmed students like these?
There are so many tips on this blog for helping students that are overwhelmed in an L2 immersion setting. Check out some of the posts below for tips:
The THEORY behind the “occasionally use MORE gestures and LESS L2” practice.
Todd is a stick figure and he is helping us with our current blog series on input and comprehensible input.
Check out the pictures (below) that help explain the theory behind this “occasionally use MORE gestures and LESS L2” practice.
Todd can receive verbal/linguistic input.
Todd can receive non-verbal/extra-linguistic input.
Todd can receive multiple forms of input at one time.
Sometimes Todd can successfully process (and appropriately respond) to simultaneous and multiple forms of input.
Sometimes Todd receives one form of input that affects his ability to respond to another form of input that he is receiving simultaneously.
Language Acquisition Theory Statement:
…it’s possible for a student, especially one who is at the beginning of their L2 acquisition journey, to be overwhelmed by a piece of incomprehensible input…
…it’s possible for incomprehensible input to be so overwhelming that it keeps the student from being able to pay attention to, and process, other forms of input (which a teacher introduces in an attempt to encourage L2 meaning)…
A teacher should…
…train a student (using some of the strategies listed in this post) to notice ways he/she can find meaning in an unfamiliar L2 immersion environment by using available non-verbal (extra linguistic) input.
The conversation is just beginning.
Over the next several weeks, the posts on Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language will delineate the massive implications that simple sketches (like the ones above) have on foreign language teaching and foreign language acquisition.
Todd will help me discuss and/or continue to discuss…:
- …the nature of input and comprehensible input.
- …different forms of input and comprehensible input.
- …a qualitative analysis of the various forms of comprehensible input and their usefulness in facilitating foreign language acquisition.
- …making input comprehensible.
- …how making input comprehensible and meaningful (to foreign language students) can cause language acquisition “magic” to occur.
- …obstacles to making input comprehensible in a classroom full of students.
- …strategies for overcoming the making-input-comprehensible-obstacles that exist in a foreign language classroom.
- …a comprehensive rubric for assessing the effectiveness of a foreign language teacher.
See what others are saying about Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language.
Señor Howard – www.SenorHoward.com/blog – @HolaSrHoward
Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd
Your voice is valuable! Share your target language teaching experiences!
Leave comments below or add to the conversation on twitter by using #TL90plus (for “staying in the target language” comments) and/or #langchat (for general language teaching comments).