Robert on Language Acquisition 5

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32 thoughts on “Robert on Language Acquisition 5”

  1. “Many people think that students who learn this way take longer to get the language. That perception is colored by what people are testing. Yes, students will take longer to verbalize a set of rules. They will take longer to acquire massive amounts of vocabulary. But they will much more quickly be able to understand the language itself and interact with you in it. And they will much more quickly be able to use the language. Fluency isn’t knowing a lot of words, it’s being able to use a few words so that they sound natural to a native speaker. ”

    That is key…my grammar-based sister and I argue over the relative benefits of our respective methods of teaching, but you have explained in a nutshell what a student trained in CI methods will look like. A CI student is more like a bud ready to blossom–I’ll take that any day over a cut flower that looks alive but will wither and shrivel to nothing when the class ends.

    1. “A CI student is more like a bud ready to blossom–I’ll take that any day over a cut flower that looks alive but will wither and shrivel to nothing when the class ends.”


  2. Melanie Bruyers

    Robert, I am very interested in hearing about this right now, after attending the Krashen workshop in Mpls. a couple of weeks ago, I have been thinking how to incorporate this into my class. He said direct instruction of grammar and vocabulary and spelling, except in very small, simple doses is ineffective. He also said for a beginner, a TPRS (or TPR or Natural Approach) class is the best place to be and then for an intermediate, the best thing is to visit the country or read, read, read things you like to read and have content based instruction, assessing content, not language.

    So, if in say levels 1 to 3, I do the steps of TPRS with lots of personalized, low-stress comprehensible input of listening and reading and mixed tenses and chunking my structures and then in level 4, I have content based instruction, where we read and discuss different topics and literature, then am I doing the right thing for what we know of language acquisition?

  3. Yes and I like the distribution of focus through the levels. We all know that extensively reading and discussing readings in the TL in the upper levels is a natural platform to reach and enjoy after all that listening and simpler reading done earlier.

    And we also need to keep in perspective how even 500 hours of exposure, what we call four years of language in high schools, not counting all the interruptions and stuff, is just a drop in the bucket of what is really required. So we need not get carried away with AP exams, which are not given to small children even after four years of 24/7 input.

    Pease clear up this term though, as I am a little obtuse on this term:

    …content based instruction, assessing content, not language….

    1. I can’t speak for Melanie, but I think it’s just an extension of the end-of-class quiz idea. When you ask your questions, you don’t ask students about the language (e.g. “Is ‘voudrait’ indicative?”); you ask them about the content of the story (e.g. “Did Bob fly on a red elephant with big ears?”). Same thing here. When I asked my upper levels about “Erlkönig”, I asked about their understanding of the content, not about the mechanics of the language.

      If the 10,000 hours to mastery figure is correct, then we get students for about 5% of what they need.

      OT and BTW, I visited my student in the hospital again. After the appendectomy they were ready to release him, then had to perform another operation. He had a cyst, totally unrelated to the appendicitis, but they discovered it when doing an MRI after the appendectomy. It was pretty large, so they removed it before it started impinging on his other organs – said he had probably had it since birth. This operation was much tougher on him than the appendectomy, and they just took him off morphine this morning. We talked for a bit, and I told him not to worry about German – just come to class and be there mentally as well as physically. He’s in my fifth period, so I also told him to be sure and tell me if he was running out of steam the first couple of days back.

      1. Grant Boulanger

        RE: Content-based Language Instruction (CBI)

        From the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the Univ. of MN


        •CBI is “…the integration of particular content with language teaching aims…the concurrent teaching of academic subject matter and second language skills” (Brinton et al., 1989, p. 2).
        •CBI approaches “…view the target language largely as the vehicle through which subject matter content is learned rather than as the immediate object of study” (Brinton et al., 1989, p. 5).
        •CBI is aimed at ‘the development of use-oriented second and foreign language skills’ and is ‘distinguished by the concurrent learning of a specific content and related language use skills’ (Wesche, 1993).
        •CBI is “…an approach to language instruction that integrates the presentation of topics or tasks from subject matter classes (e.g., math, social studies) within the context of teaching a second or foreign language” (Crandall & Tucker, 1990, p. 187).

  4. …if the 10,000 hours to mastery figure is correct, then we get students for about 5% of what they need….

    And yet 99%+ of professional language educators go for mastery in that 5% (more like 2%) of time. That is hubris available to them. The four percenters play along in the charade. A small child hears the language 24/7 for five years, and we think that, bc we have modern methods and computers and really neat books that we can lower that number down to 300-400 hours. We can’t. And we can’t learn a language through conscious analysis of same. We are so misinformed. We are going about it all wrong. It is all pride.

  5. “10,000 hours …..we get 5% of that.”
    Thank you for bringing this up. I have questions (many!)
    #1. where can I find the research that states that 10,000 is required for fluency/mastery? (I am trying to support my statements at work.)
    #2. I read somewhere that students need 200 hours each year for the ACTFL levels, i.e. 200 hours = Level 1 Proficiency; 400 hours = Level 2 Proficiency.
    Then I found the NCDPI World Language standards and they have it broken down to: 130 – 150 hours = Novice Mid for Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, etc. but at that number of hours they suggest a student is at Novice Low for Presentational.
    (See Page 12:
    I like this breakdown, because we have split our levels into 1A and 1B; 2A and 2B.
    Now, NC suggests that they should hit these exit levels of proficiency if they have an UNINTERRUPTED course of study involving that many hours.
    In our school, if you took Level 1B in the Fall, then you would “technically, in-a-perfect-world” have received 98.3 hours of instruction (based on 70-minute blocks every day); however, if you took 1B in the Spring, then you would have received 99.6 hours of instruction. Add them up, and you get 198 hours in the whole year, if you took 1A and 1B or 2A and 2B all in the same year. SO…..realistically that might not happen because of scheduling, so one could end up with INTERRUPTED sequences, thus setting them back some hours. Therefore, I think the 150 is a realistic assumption (also given there are absences, assemblies, “brain check-outs” –where the student is just not mentally in class that day!)
    #3. With all that said, our principal is asking us about an alternating day schedule, and how that would affect the proficiency levels. Our thought is: obviously they would lose half the hours, BUT they would be guaranteed the full continuous year of learning the language at one level, WITH a day in-between to “process and digest” what they have learned.
    SO, what are your thoughts (all of you) would an alternating-day schedule be more conducive to language learning or the A/B schedule with the caveat that they may miss one or two semesters in between their course of L2 study?
    #4. Do you all think (if you have looked at it) that NC DPI is a realistic model of expectations of proficiency? (we are still waiting for our state to finish its WL standards) Can you recommend any others?
    Any and all feedback is most welcome!

    1. 1, That number, nor any number, is accurate. I think it is more like 18,000 hours. The trouble with finding the exact number, therefore, is that there is none. All we know is that it is a shitload more than we think. What is proficiency? What does that mean? Look at what Novice Low and Intermediate Low REALLY mean. This discrepency, this heresay of numbers, is normal – we have gotten together over the years with Krashen, who comes to the national conferences every year, we have talked with him, numbers get thrown around, ideas get formulated, and, as in all things connected to academic research, it becomes a blob as new information is presented by Bill VanPatten types and everybody at the university level takes it really seriously instead of going into a high school class and jsut telling a story. This whole conversation makes me think of Le Petit Prince. I would say ask SK this summer at Breckenridge or in Las Vegas or Laurie or Robert or Jody what do you think – but be be careful on quoting any one figure for anyone – it is probably wrong. It makes them happy to use a number but it isn’t going to be correct. Tell the person that Slavic says it is a “shitload more than you think”. Whoever wants the exact number isn’t going to get it. That is really looking at a tree and not the overall forest, by the way. We need to back up a little and see the entire picture and I know you know that. Don’t fear people who ask for exact data too much. They are tree huggers, not forest huggers. We are not tree huggers, in the sense that we don’t get bogged down in details. Leave that to the researchers. We just deliver CI every minute we can. This bothers me, all this data shit. It isn’t helping the kids. I would offer my own data: I took pictures of all the faces of my students from 1988 to 2000 (the year I met Susan Gross) and then from 2000 until 2000 to 2012. I measured the smiles on their faces for over smile distance from ear to ear at the end of the year. I did not meaure smile angle, just distance from ear to ear, from year to year. The first twelve year period measured, from ear to ear, 5,672 meters of total smile distance less than the second twelve year period, in total conglomerate smile distance. That meant that group 2 learned more bc when people are sad they can’t learn as much. I was boring and a shitty language teacher during the first block of time, and all the way back to 1977. The only kids who went on with me were white females, mainly, and 65% of them got 3 or above on the AP exam over those years, but none of them cared. I cared bc I wanted to look good for my employers so that they might approve of me and tell me I am good. Those students were on the AP mill and I was their enabler. Stupid kids quit my classes. Only smart ones went on. So there is my data – total smile distance. It’s more accurate.

    2. 2. I find those numbers too low by thousands of hours. Of course, my goal is actual acquisition and I can only get my students a few yards down the yellow brick road on that in four years of high school instruction. I can’t get them anywhere near to Oz. I just don’t have the time. I would love to just sit down with the people who came up with those numbers and get some definitions first. Then I would offer my smile research data. Think they would go for it?

    3. 3. Yeah this is only my opinion and I am in the upper right quadrant of the Myers-Briggs so keep that in mind. We need Harrell and a lot of others to weigh in with serious facts, bc my smile data, which measures pleasure in learning and self confidence, cannot possibly be accurate, particularly since I made it all up.

      My response to the question of alternate days is that the more total minutes of compelling input, the more they learn and it doesn’t matter how the minutes are arranged, except longer 90 minute classes, in my opinion, are better, as I have recently done both. In 45 min. classes, you barely get the story off the ground and it is quiz time and off they go.

      1. I agree with Ben here on the 90 minute class, for two very important (to me) reasons:

        1. Less time spent on the beaurocratic stuff (quiz, attendance, etc) and more time on CI that you can get deeper into.

        2. Less overall days spent with this particular person (me), because I begin to wear on kids after too many days of checking in and checking out and grading and all that stuff (and vice versa, they can begin to wear on me). I actually have a deal with my school that, because they can only offer me half time (small school), I work one semester a year. So, this year it is Spring, followed immediately by Fall. Then I will have one full year off (the following Spring/Fall) at this school to do other stuff, teach in other settings, learn in a different environment, and recharge my batteries (and give kids a chance to romanticize Spanish and their teacher a bit… and no I’m not being self-deprecating, just realistic, the monotony/redundancy of most schooling is one of its worst characteristics in my opinion).
        *I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m bragging here, I know I have a somewhat ideal situation, for me anyway!

        1. I am happy to hear about the 90-min block vs. 45. I have craved having the block schedule for a number of years, not really due to any scientific evidence but just because I wonder if less transitions per day would be beneficial to the stress and anxiety levels of students and teachers. I am obviously talking about myself when I echo Ben’s statement about the 45 min. class. I am trying to do FVR, then either PQA or the story (as per the most recent schedule suggestion), the quick quiz, and I do also like to have a few moments of “chatting” where I ask simple questions about the weekend or whatever is going on–usually at the very beginning as they are coming in–like last week when V’s mom had a baby girl!!! That was super exciting, especially with an all-girl class 🙂 AND…the 5 min at the end for the metacognitive piece, which I have not been doing regularly. Gah! I don’t want the time to feel crammed, and so I am trying to slow down all around, but it is really hard with a 45 min. period. I do have a 90-min block once a week, and I LOVE it because it never feels rushed.

          I also agree with Jim about redundancy. I am preparing to “lobby” to get 3 students from my “level 1” class to be able to join the “level 2” group next year (so…level 2-3) because the “level 1” kids have actually had 1.5 years of class with me so I think it would feel like they have had me for 3 years, and I think it would be better for them 1) socially to be with their classmates and 2) to have a different teacher. Fingers crossed on this, as there is no “other teacher” as of now.

          1. …I am trying to do FVR, then either PQA or the story (as per the most recent schedule suggestion), the quick quiz….[and]…. at the end for the metacognitive piece, which I have not been doing regularly….

            Jen this is perfectly described. Earlier today I wrote about the need to have a general flow to class that is not dominated by a new “activity” all the time just to keep variety for the kids. All activities are not created equal! The variety doesn’t come from the activity itself but from the flow, the cloud, the meandering river that is language which can be achieved in the class sequence you describe above:

            1. SSR
            2. PQA that is highly personalized
            (3. Dictée)
            4. Quiz
            5. Metacognition Discussion

            To me, this format allows for tremendous variety and yet is stress-free. It is usually too much to do in one 50 minute class, so I select out certain things, usually dictée, and am thus assured lots of input in the form of reading and listening, with the assessment piece in there as well.

          2. Yes. Live and learn. I started the year with this basic structure but then I kept changing stuff and “trying new things” when I hadn’t even established a nice rhythm. Like, all of this was new to the kids, and then I was afraid or insecure and so I had to kick up the “new and improved” a notch. Sheesh! So there was a period of “oh, let’s try this” and “ooh, I just heard about this…very fun…!” Bad idea (for me, and that is something I struggle with anyway). Yeah, it was all fun. And it was all CI, so it wasn’t a total loss, but for many reasons like simplicity, sanity, and most importantly creating space for each student to shine his/her light, it was too much. And it is a practice so I always have another chance tomorrow 🙂 And another chance to really start over in September.

          3. …it is a practice so I always have another chance….

            It is very much like a yoga practice or any other practice where we recognize that there is no goal, just a daily practice. And so, to echo your point and using the yoga practice as an image, jen, why should we get into a bunch of advanced asanas when we know that those few basic ones, for example those found in the Sun Salute, are rock star poses that bring the strength and flexibility that we need to survive these hell states called American schools?

            This method is really very simple, and yet we continuosly try to make it complicated. Here’s what my kids did today: they read, a mood was established through the music, we did some PQA on a verbalizer a kid wrote* (I tried to make it compelling to them but did not despair when it wasn’t all that interesting to them), I didn’t (have time to) do a dictée, then I quizzed them, brought out the metacognition posters (it is so important that that be done at the end of class only to not interrupt the CI), collected the (quiz written by a superstar) exit tickets, and that was the class. Simple. No fancy alternatives to make myself crazy trying to implement. No gadgets. Just in your face CI. I like it!

            *Jimmy bought a dog. The dog wanted to be a fish. Jimmy taught the dog how to be a fish.

            I presented it to them with the target structures (bolded here) in red. I got mega reps on each one. When we realize that we can PQA a few structures for hours, we gain great confidence in the process. In the metacognition part of class, after they all nailed the quiz, I asked them if it had helped them that I went so narrow and deep with the red structures. They said yes. I asked them if I went too fast – they said no, I didn’t. I knew they weren’t lying bc I didn’t go too fast. I knew that bc I was teaching hard to their eyes with lots of little yes or no questions for everyone, keeping them on their toes. I held them all accountable to my French. It worked. I taught the three structures. Did I want to teach the rest of the words? No – we don’t do that. We teach the target structures and nothing else.

  6. The idea that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert is not limited to languages. The concept is that if you spend that many hours doing anything you will have mastered it. Here’s a link that discusses the reasoning behind it.
    Basically, someone was trying to say that mastery of anything takes a lonnnnng time. I’ve heard this applied to horse-riding and airplane piloting. It takes 1,000 hours of practice before pilots are allowed to fly solo (which is not mastery) and Parelli estimates that someone who hasn’t spent 1,000 hours on a horse’s back is not ready for what he has to teach. I found this discouraging when I first started riding because if I only had an hour’s lesson a week, that meant I might be ready to start learning how to really interact with a horse (communicate?) in ten years. As language teachers, it may help us to realize that our students will not be and cannot be perfectly bilingual after four years of language classes. And I think it helps explain why some students who engage in a passion that gives them far more exposure to the language than most students are so far ahead of the others.

    1. I recently heard an interview with “Sully” Sullivan, the pilot who landed the aircraft in the Hudson. He said that it happened only because both he and his co-pilot were experienced flyers. Had he had to tell the co-pilot what to do, it wouldn’t have turned out as happily. I don’t know how much flying time each of them had, but it was a lot. I also know that my riding improved dramatically when I was hired by Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament® to ride every day for a 3-4 hours at a time. No matter how many hours the “magic number” happens to be for any given individual, we are not going to get there in the amount of time we have in a high school course of study.

  7. (hence the name Le Chevalier de l’Ouest, by the way)

    …no matter how many hours the “magic number” happens to be for any given individual, we are not going to get there in the amount of time we have in a high school course of study….

    This is of critical importance for our blood pressure and overall mental health. There are actually AP teachers out there (I was one) who think that nothing less than burn zone work will do for their AP kids. They think that hard work can do the trick, get the scores, show the acquisition. None of that is true. We need much more time than what we have in four years of high school. What is true is that we learn languages naturally, unconsciously, at a speed that mirrors our own personal acquisition patterning, as per:

  8. I have been thinking more and more about this and have started to explain it to some of my more mature students. I can’t teach them a language. If they are serious, they will become autonomous in their acquisition. I no longer go into class thinking that my goal is to produce bilingual speakers. My goal is to help my students become autonomous, so that they are able to listen to the language and read in the language without my help.

    1. OH YES! I have the same line of thought. I think my job is to create the atmosphere and provide a structure, and be fully present for the experience. I interact, direct, coach, recognize, applaud and stop the motion when things are getting off track. Oh, and laughing. Much laughing. (Well that is what I aspire to anyway. I will find out later in the week, as a colleague/friend is visiting this week so I’ll be able to get some feedback from her!)

      I had the same philosophy when I coached track & field / xc. I figured that if I were doing my job well, the ultimate success would be that the kids would no longer need / rely on me.

    2. “My goal is to help my students become autonomous, so that they are able to listen to the language and read in the language without my help.”

      I have told my students the same thing; the sad thing is that many of them tell me that they won’t really have the motivation to continue–for example, the open-ended 30 minute homework–when they don’t “have to” do it for class.
      Very few seem to have enough internal motivation to continue–and they’ve done so well. I don’t understand it. Maybe my students are the exception.

    3. Love that word autonomous, Judy. It’s so real. it cuts through a lot of illusion that we have about what we can and cannot do in the real world of our classrooms. They have to want to learn. So when half of them don’t exhibit that for whatever reasons here in May, it’s o.k. for us to hope for autonomy in some and not berate ourselves if we can’t reach the others and just deliver the CI to the best of our ability. It’s even o.k. to feel sad if it doesn’t work.

  9. you know, all this resonates with me now — after grading my yearly “family tree projects”. In the past the writing piece was good, but the speaking/pronunciation piece was horrific. This year I found the opposite. The kids’ pronunciation was incredible! BUT (and this makes me worry — tell me not to!!!!) their written language was not that wonderful. Did it make sense? yes. Was their grammar, i.e. adj. agreement, spelling, syntax all correct? no. BUT…when they spoke it, and/or when I asked them questions about their family members, they were able to answer in (if not completely correct) in very understandable phrases. and this was the second half of Level 1.
    Have we been having fun this year? yup. Have I seen wider smiles (or any at all!) compared to years past? yup. So, I will stop worrying about their syntax and adj. agreement and spelling for the rest of this year. any ideas of what’s the best thing for a final? (only worth 10%).


    1. I would ask why only 10%? Oh wait, I know. It’s because the kids didn’t learn anything and the teachers throughout the building who decide on the weight of finals know that. If they made it 50% of 80% of the final grade, they would have to fail almost all of their students. The 10% is CYA for crap teaching. On the other hand, I could film a story for a final and, looking at the three modes as indicators of comprehension, grade the class with great accuracy. It is what Ted Sizer was trying to go for in his Coalition of Essential Schools with his Common Principle #6 requiring “Demonstration of Mastery”. Coalition schools can’t do that, and I would bet that most go with the 10% cop out formula, just like non-Coalition schools. We who use CI all year actually are more like Coalition of Essential Schools classrooms then they themselves are.


    1. Can you describe this? Are you doing an oral class story and then a reading, like the regular routine? Or is it a big story that they read? Translation?

      Sorry to be dense. I want to do something really simple and uncomplicated.

  10. When a kid turns one year old, we don’t give them a test to see what they know. Nor do we do that when the kid turns two. Was it SK or BR that said that you can’t make a pig grow any faster by weighing it more often. I think SK. We have conditioned ourselves to believe that summative testing in the form of finals is a good thing. It is not. It has no value for anyone involved, unless it is the purpose of the teacher to make kids memorize a bunch of stuff that they will forget witin weeks, and grade according to who was willing to do the work and not necessarily who did any actual acquisition, which we know, since it is unconscious, is impossible to measure in a summative way. So, since all I did in my classes this year was keep us in our weekly routine of presenting three structures, PQAing them, rolling into a story from there, then reading the story and discussing it, why not do the final on that? I just do another Matava story. It is a time to enjoy the kids and celebrate the year and all we have accomplished. I time to say goodbye temporarily or for good that is positive. We gain a few hours of CI when we do this and we don’t just waste the time.

    1. Yeah, even in my pre-CI days, I always made my finals “fun.” I would basically make up a bunch of goofy questions about random stuff that came up in each class, usually about the kids themselves or about those moments when something truly interesting or bizarre caught our attention and we’d end up using that as “curriculum.” I would consider my “exam” successful if the kids laughed out loud while taking it. I say keep the stress level at 0!

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