jGA 1

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34 thoughts on “jGA 1”

  1. Hi James

    Thanks for sharing. Reading this really made my blood boil!

    “1) It argues against the language acquisition device (LAD). If the mind doesn’t have a special capacity for learning language, then language needs to be taught like other skills. So lots of practice at “skill building” is fitting and even necessary.”

    As we say in French : “ça c’est la vérité de la Palice” which is the equivalent to say that when affirmations are so obvious they are absurd.

    So if I don’t have ears, I can’t hear and if I don’t have a tongue I can’t speak. Duh!
    That sentence there ( if the mind doesn’t have a special capacity for learning language) does not mean anything to me b/c :

    1) How and who determines if we have such a capacity. Please show me the brain research that shows who has it and who doesn’t have it. Or may be I misunderstood that statement all together.

    2) How about all our kids in special ed who are otherwise classified as slow learners or with any other cognitive “deficiencies”. Why is it that they thrive in comprehension-based classes?

    May be I shouldn’t have a tongue!

    1. Your (2) there is really important. Students with IEPs who otherwise struggle with “skill buidling” in algebra or chemistry do well in CI language classes. Therefore skill building isn’t necessary for learning a language and would outright harm some students.

    2. The 2 is very interesting. I had a student that was very “learning disabled” and had a hard time in most classes. He was one of my best students.

      1. I ditto that; I have a very intelligent dyslexic boy this year who is doing very well in my CI class, but struggled in grammar class last year. And he is a joy to teach.

        1. Yes, and this kind of thing is why I am sorry that kids with testing for learning development issues are exempted from foreign language at my school. I think CI instruction would be a wonderful thing for them.

  2. James, you have given me some real insight into this, and I will find this useful as I prepare my paper for the APA conferences next January. Recall the conversation I shared with several of you recently about the 4 percenter who observed that he could speed translate faster than he could read, so, he genuinely wanted to know–why would he bother to learn to read the language rather than just keep speed reading.

    This is a perfect example of how the (young) adult mind gets in the way of its own learning. My response to him, and to myself, because I can be this way, too, is that we owe it to ourselves to allow this part of us to develop–this language acquisition part of us, the LAD, and doing the constructed meaning thing too quickly, too often, hinders that, and thus hinders second language acquisition.

    1. Robert Harrell

      I would guess that it’s harder to persuade students of Latin that acquisition is better than learning that it is to persuade students of a modern language – and that is hard enough. We who teach German, Spanish, French, etc. can always adduce live encounters with native speakers in which “speed translation” is inadequate for the situation. If all the student ever intends to do is read the language, it would be harder for him to see the value of acquisition – which is perhaps less utilitarian but definitely more satisfying.

      As I wrote that I realized another issue with our current approach to nearly everything: it presupposes that “the bottom line” is most important and outweighs all other considerations combined. We lose sight of the practicality and importance of impractical things.

      1. Robert, I love that line “We lose sight of the practicality and importance of impractical things.”

        As the business model is tightening its grip on our New Tech school culture, utilitarian is the default mode. Anything else needs justification for using up school time and resources. And yet, we supposedly highly value creativity…

        lori f.

    2. Really interesting dilemma. Just today I was thinking I need to have a chat with a 1% in my level 2 French about the very topic of speed translating. In your previous post I realized that this is what she may be doing. I have noticed some deterioration in her writing. I have actually held off on writing for the most part, but I did one maybe a month ago and was shocked to see some random infinitives sprinkled throughout the page. She could not possibly have heard or read the sentences that she wrote. I was thinking of asking her about whether she is aware of translating as she speaks / writes.

  3. “Basically, teenagers and adults are too smart for their own good. They, or at least some of them, will try to think about it too much. They want to be a smarty-pants but a smarty-pants will never become fluent in a language by being a smarty-pants. A smarty-pants needs to get over himself (or herself) and engage the input.”

    Boy that rings true. I have a few of those in the 7th and 8th grade classes. I even had a 4th grader say in class yesterday, “I’d learn this better with a worksheet.” Really? He couldn’t even tell all the things that were happening in the way I was teaching… he wanted to memorize numbers in Chinese and I wanted him to experience the whole language with a sentence that included a number. I’m sending a note to his parents and I will talk with him at greater length if he says this kind of thing again. He’s an obviously bright 4%er.

  4. The children will never be able to change the way they think until their teachers change. The kids have been trained otherwise, into a very left brain place. God bless them. It is far from their fault, of course.

    We who realize that languages are acquired in the whole brain – unconsciously by focusing on the meaning and not the words – are just now beginning to turn the oil tanker around in mid ocean to actually show students (can anyone say jGR?) how to use their whole brain to learn a language.

    A propos, I read this quote from Abraham-Hicks Publications:

    …your joy factor will remain constant as you are continually refining your ideas of what you want, and that’s why it is so important for you to get everybody else out of the equation. They’ve got their own game going on; they don’t understand your game. Give them a break; stop asking them what they think. Start paying attention to how you feel…. [emphasis mine]

    Abraham-Hicks Publications

  5. Robert Harrell

    Having been exposed to languages through a variety of approaches, I can appreciate some of the distinctions and advantages of different approaches. In seminary I studied Greek, Hebrew and Armaic and can translate and analyze those languages – I learned them but have not acquired them.

    I acquired German once I lived in a country where it is spoken.

    Last summer I began acquiring Russian. As I sat under the tutelage of Katya, I deliberately set aside the adult, rational mind that wanted to know the rules, etc. Instead, I concentrated on the Comprehensible Input that I was receiving. We met for a couple of hours each day; after four days I was able to tell a story in Russian without looking at the guide words on the wall behind me. It was, of course, based on things we had repeated in class, but I added some details of my own. At the end, one of the native Russian speakers present rushed up and hugged me, commenting that I had all of the grammar correct. I still have no idea what the grammar rules are; I just know what sounded right.

    These sorts of experiences provide me with a charm, as it were, against the slings and arrows of outrageous grammar mavens. I know the truth of allowing the subconscious mind to process language while attending to meaning. Just wish I could persuade more of my students of this.

    1. Jeffery Brickler


      You pose a good question. You learned and therefore can read several languages, but you only acquired German. Can we say that most people are not able to learn and analyze languages the way that we linguaphiles do? Can we say that everyone can acquire a language, but not learn and analyze it. My experience would say that these statements are true, but my experience is not definitive data.

      I am trying to acquire my Latin now. I remember when I tried to write in Latin for my Prose Composition class. It was unbearably hard. I was no good at it and my professor generally made me feel like crap. It wasn’t a matter of grammar as much as idiomatic language. I am now trying to acquire Latin and I want that experience for my students.

      It is definitely not easy to keep the smarty Mcsmartersteins from trying to control the language. It’s a matter of arrogance to think we can control it, but people do. I always like Ben’s metaphor about how language acquisition is tucked away from man so that we can’t muck with it.

      1. Kevin Clemens

        Jeff – I’m right there with you. I don’t think I really acquired any Latin in college. What limited amount I truly know that I have is a direct result of teaching in this way.

        This is why I think Latin CI teachers producing comprehensible (and compelling) stories is so important: it’s as much for the students to acquire Latin as it is for us.

  6. I have noticed a fourth part of their argument, by the way. Here it is:

    4) Authentic resources are the best possible vehicle to deliver input to students. Foreign language teachers need to expose their students to the culture and so the language encountered in class ideally will have written by a member of the “target culture.” So we need more magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc. written by native French speakers from France, for example. The little stories created in TPRS classes are cute and nice and all but are too narrow; our students need a more profound taste of the language which can only come from native speakers.

    I remember reading something by Krashen a while ago along the lines of: “It’s easy to find compelling stuff that’s not comprehensible (like the Aeneid) and comprehensible stuff that’s not compelling (like easy textbooks stories). The problem is finding stuff that is both comprehensible and compelling.” I’m pretty sure he goes on from there to say TPRS is the best method he’s encountered for providing that kind of input.

    I am noticing this push for authentic resources is really very strong now in the circles of teachers I’m engaging.

    1. Robert Harrell

      It’s a big push from College Board from AP. However, an AP reader told me that “authentic” to them also means published within the past three years, at least for the Language and Culture Course. Where does that leave compelling and comprehensible reading from previous years?

      At the Summer Institute I attended in 2011, the presenter told us that in the reality of our classrooms, the emphasis on authentic texts should not exclude graded readers. She suggested that we use the readers as course organizers and “pre-reading” preparation for short forays into “authentic literature” in the lower levels and even in the upper levels, but with more brought in from authentic sources as we move up. For example, I wrote my medieval book as a level 3/4 reader. We read a chapter and then look at “authentic resources” that deal with the theme(s) of that chapter. After reading Chapter 1, which deals with bullying, outsiders, stereotypes, identity, etc., we read and watched “Spaghetti fuer Zwei” (Spaghetti for Two), which deals with prejudice and how a mistake helps a kid overcome his prejudice against immigrants. I built my entire second semester AP course around the book, using it as a springboard to other things.

      Many of my colleagues, however, think that the emphasis means using “authentic texts” exclusively.

      1. Jeffery Brickler

        As Latinists, we always talk about authentic texts. Often the words, “Real Latin” are bantered about. I think that this means that it isn’t classical and therefore it’s not Latin. I of course love authentic texts. They are compelling, the language is cool and can be fun to “read.” However, most students cannot read these texts, but as we say, “speed translate” them.

        I think that authentic texts can and should be used, but not to exclusivity to other texts. We need to scaffold up to those texts. In upper levels, students can begin to read those. I wonder if neo-Latin texts are considered authentic. Are the Pope’s tweets authentic? Is Latin written in the Renaissance authentic?

        In the Latin AP, students are not only supposed “to read” large parts of Vergil’s Aeneid, but also Caesars Gallic Wars. In addition, they must be able to answer questions about literary devices, historical context, etc. Wow! It’s not wonder that only the most elite kids ever are able to do well on it. I’d be interested to see how much Latin they can do after the exam. They become very good at playing the game, but have not acquired very much Latin at all.

        1. I survived my undergraduate and graduate degrees by cribbing translations. There. I said it. So I don’t believe the Latin teachers who say their senior students read classical authors after three years of grammar and vocabulary. It’s impossible.

    2. Kevin Clemens

      James – this issue of “authentic” resources reminded me of something Bob replied to a question I posed on the PLC in September:

      “authentic is such a nasty word–I usually ask a classicist to tell me which Latin is inauthentic and then watch them grumpf.”

      I think we Latinists are particularly challenged by this, as there is a deeply ingrained sense of what “LATIN” is (i.e. what the 4% of the 4% say that it is). I’ve struggled with this greatly this year. I think it will be an ongoing battle.

  7. I will use James’ four points as talking points in any discussion in which I feel challenged by someone about CI.

    Just to be clear, I don’t “go there” to defend CI with people anymore, preferring to walk away, but just in case I do want to return the fire, I now have something real to say, thanks to the four points James makes above.

    All I have to do with these points is commit them to memory, say them to the person or audience, and then, having described what they do, THEN I respond with what we do, in direct contrast to their point, as described below.

    I will memorize these points and practice saying them in front of the mirror to be able to instantly play them like four cards onto the tlap of any defender of the old ways. Boy, I needed this years ago!

    Here are my own slightly simplified versions of James’ points – just simplified versions for me – with key ideas in bold print for ease of memorization and James correct me if I don’t have each point quite right or you see anything else that needs to be rephrased:

    (Remind me to publish James’ points here as an article called The Modern Argument Against CI in Schools. I see this article as up there with jGR in potential service to our cause.)

    1) They say: The mind doesn’t have a special capacity (LAD) for learning language. Thus, language needs to be taught like other skills. So lots of practice at “skill building” is fitting and even necessary. I say: The mind has a capacity to learn a language but the way it chooses to do it is unknown to us because it takes place in the unconscious and therefore we have no control over it. By focusing on the message and not the words, thus transferring the process of learning the language to the deeper mind, we learn the language in a way that we cannot consciously understand or even talk about and certainly in a way whose order we could predict. Therefore, in class we need only provide as much comprehensible input as possible – that is all we need to do.

    2) Their point: The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) – which states that we learn languages best and most naturally before a certain biological age – is accurate. The CPH “turns off” at a certain point in life. High school students are beyond the critical period and lack the LAD and so must be instructed in the language, instead of experiencing it. My point: Learning a language is and was meant to be a life long process. People can learn a language at any point in their life as long as they hear and read enough of it. It’s not like in history adults over the age of 30 who have immigrated to another country have never learned the language – they have. Now if you want to talk about accent, that is another thing.

    3) Their point: Teenagers are more capable of making gains by thinking about language because their first language can act as a point of reference. High schoolers are more capable of learning by thinking and doing. They can hold on to the grammar and vocabulary and manipulate things and think about them and from those things fluency will eventually come. My point: When the conscious mind is involved in language, it can never be acquired – it can only be learned about. Again, it cannot be acquired. Moreover, those who can learn it are only a very small percent of the student population. (There is not much of a response a traditional teacher can make to refute this point – they are fully aware of their immense (and documented) failings in retention of students over what was intended by the school to be a contiguous four year program for ALL their students from ninth grade. All they need to do is look at the 8 white girls and 4 white boys in their level four classes to see the proof of their hypocrisy in favoring kids who have been trained in conscious analysis and are masters of that game through their privileged status in society.)

    4) Their point: Authentic resources are the best possible vehicle to deliver input to students. Foreign language teachers need to expose their students to the culture and so the language encountered in class ideally will have written by a member of the “target culture.” So we need more magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc. written by native French speakers from France, for example. My point: Students who have not acquired the language via comprehensible input cannot read those texts because authentic reading of authentic texts emerges from an extremely complex series of unconscious processes that occur in the deeper mind over years, processes that no human man could have designed that are connected to having heard the language in massive amounts first. By not providing enough auditory comprehensible input, the teacher who expects real measurable results in the reading of authentic texts is just wrong.

  8. Also Sabrina’s airplane image needs to be an article and I am working on that. Wow. Such talent in our midst! And we have some David Maust wonderfulness coming up in a few days, with some video, so look can forward to that as well.

  9. I have a couple of IEP kids in my Intro block. They have no prob understanding and reading. Output is tougher, but for the first time they LIKE being in a 2nd lang class. They are doing well.

    I also find it interesting that the mentally challenged/special ed etc kids are better at English (even if it’s their 2nd or 3rd lang) than the French 12 four-percenters.

    You all have read Chomsky, whose argument is that there is a Kantian mental architecture– his “language organ”– built into our heads that aquires languages. Chomsky’s position has been buttressed for sixty years now, but it’s been challenged by people who say that, basically, the brain is more like a massively complex computer that intakes masses of language data and “crunches” it, thereby acquiring vocab and generalising grammar rules.

    A friend of mine who did her PhD in linguistics did her dissertation on this and found something VERY interesting. In studying toddlers’ acquisition of nouns that belong to a number of categories– e.g. “School,” which can mean a building, a process, a verb, or the idea of education– she found that they figure out when and how to use the noun in appropriate categories WITHOUT seeing nearly enough examples for the so-called “statistical machine” to use for its calculations.

    For example, a parent can tell a toddler “we’re going to school to pick [your brother] Johnny up. He’s been doing school all day.” The toddler will know that school here means both the actual building AND the process of getting his education. They ask the kids questions to see how they understand the two meanings of “school.” So how did he learn this? Well, he didn’t do it in a Skinnerian way, and his brain could not have had enough data– esp early on– to have deduced a rule from a set of examples. He also wasn’t instructed in it. So he learned it via a very effective Chomskyan unconscious mechanism. I am simplifying, but that’s the gist of it.

    So, long story short, while there MAY be some room– in SOME older people, SOME of the time– for conscious instruction, it’s abundantly clear that acquisition passeth all understanding, and that there are some incredibly complex things– like homonyms in different noun classes– which the brain picks up.

    So when my neighbour, grinding away avec la methode comunicative plus some Grammar, whines that her brilliant lesson– complete with dice game, about how to use les verbes au passé composé avec la verbe “etre”– bombed, I ask her “how come you’ve never, ever said “I enjoy to run”?


    1. Robert Harrell

      In the online German-English forum in which I present, the Germans often ask about the gerund/gerundive in English. Most of them learned English through rules, so they are trying to find a rule that covers all the instances, which just isn’t going to happen. Chris mentions a typical case, and to take it further:
      Why is it “I enjoy running” BUT “I like to run” OR “I like running”? Eventually the English speakers in the forum wind up saying something like, “You just have to hear and read the language enough to know when to use what.”

      That doesn’t mean that we can’t come up with “rules of thumb”, but they are always limited in scope and effectiveness. I once had a Spanish teacher who called these things “gentle lies”. They are lies because they don’t explain the language fully, but they are gentle because they help you through most cases – sort of like “i before e except after c or when pronounced like a as in neighbor and weigh”; consider, though, that that Keith Stein kid is either weird or a foreigner, but I don’t want to forfeit my leisure time to seize a skein of threads of thought not worth a heifer, I’m just not that feisty.

    2. I just re-watched the video, and there was a lot that I had forgotten. A couple of take-aways for me:
      1. After two years (and thousands of hours) of hearing language, Deb Roy’s son was able to produce just over 500 words. What are the ramifications of this for language acquisition? (I think this is one of the areas where first-language and second-language acquisition may differ, i.e. we may acquire words faster in our second language. That ought to be researched.)

      2. From about 6:00 to 8:00 minutes in is key to me, especially from 6:50 to 7:30. Here he talks about “caretaker speech”, its complexity and the relationship to the production of a new word. In every case, the production of the new word coincided with a dip in the complexity of the caretaker speech (as measured by sentence length). I don’t think this means that we suddenly shorten all of our sentences in class, but I do think it means we need to be listening to our students and vary the length. If we can sense when a student is close to acquiring a new word, structure, whatever and can hone in on the essential part of that, it can help the student make the acquisition.

      3. It is all part of social interaction. Roy talks about “feedback loops” and how his son affected his environment. That takes me back to the Interpersonal Communication piece in a new way. It can’t be just: you are engaging in Interpersonal Communication when you listen to the teacher and respond appropriately (though that is certainly a portion of it); it has to also be, the teacher is conscious of student feedback in order to “vary the landscape” and assist the student, i.e. the laborious system of collecting data that is currently in place within schools is much too slow and cumbersome to be truly effective in adjusting instruction. The feedback and adjustment have to be instantaneous and in real time, and while in real life this is often unconscious, in the classroom we have to make ourselves aware of both the need to adjust and how to adjust.

      4. The “wordscapes” show frequency of words in places. I think “locating” words in our classroom helps acquisition. (I have long believed in “place memory” as well as “muscle memory”.) By greeting my students at the door, I help them acquire the words of greeting by adding a context. I may consciously move to the door at the end of class to wish them farewell so that they associate that place with those words.

      A few random thoughts on the subject.

      1. …if we can sense when a student is close to acquiring a new word, structure, whatever and can hone in on the essential part of that, it can help the student make the acquisition….

        Robert this point and others you raise in your comment above bear directly on a new article I just posted this morning about “Compact R & D”.

        It also bears on Sabrina’s great insight about how kids just plain need more reps in a narrow and deep way, more reps that go narrower and deeper than we have surmised up to this point in our ongoing discussions about what makes the best kind of CI.

  10. I wonder about feral children and their ability or lack of ability to acquire grammar in language. In the little that I have learned about feral children if they did not acquire their first language by a certain time (CPH) then language will not be acquired fully. The child may acquire a very low level but doesn’t increase. I believe that everyone has a language acquisition device(LAD) but in the case of feral children why don’t they eventually achieve language? Is there an age that one must acquire their first language? Or have there been feral children that do achieve language? Or is it that the damage is so deep physically or mentally?

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