On Memorized Dialogues

Q. A teacher wanted to use the Invisibles Extend phase strategy of interviewing students and so she came up with some personal interview questions for her level 1 and 2 classes. From there, she wrote a list of grammar items that they would naturally need to use (possessive adjectives, etc.) to answer that list of questions.  Your comment?

A. The research doesn’t support doing that. It is one thing to learn demonstrative adjectives and how they work on paper and actually being able to implement them in speech. The distance between mere mental command over grammar items and a student’s ability to speak them is immense. It is because (a) mental command and speech command happen in different parts of the brain and (b) the amount of time to turn listened-to context into spoken context is thousands of hours, not fifteen or twenty.

Q. So her kids are not ready to provide responses to any interview questions?

A. If they had had CI since their first year and are now upper level students there might be a chance that they would be ready. But it wouldn’t be because she explained the grammar to them and given them worksheets, but rather because they had heard and read the language for the years before. All that CI would drive the correct unconsciously-derived verbal responses. It’s actually cruel to ask them to output until they have had FAR more input than most teachers think they need. It’s like mocking a child of 10 for not being able to win a medal in the Olympic marathon event. They’re simply not ready!

Q. How so?

A. Well, think about it. The research is clear that people acquire languages via comprehensible input. We also know that learning about the language, its grammatical features, etc. doesn’t work, not just because the research says so but because it has been a proven failure over decades. So now this teacher is sending the message that if she teaches them the grammar they will be able to speak the language. That is effectively lying to them. The research doesn’t support this approach.

Q. So it’s a mistake to even teach any grammar ever?

A. I wouldn’t go that far but almost. It is quite possible that a few upper level students might one day enjoy studying the grammatical features over which they now have unconscious command as a result of all the comprehensible input they have experienced. But there aren’t many people like that. Most just want to use the language to communicate. There are people who like to know how the engine of a car works, but not that many. Most people just want to drive the car.

Q. So this teacher has made a mistake?

A. A big one, really. She will find out the results of her plan when she looks into the eyes of her kids during the interviews. The eyes of the ones who even understand the question will go up and to the left, searching for the grammar concept that they need to answer the question. But they won’t find it, because there is almost no connection between the part of the brain in which they consciously go to look for the proper spoken response and the part of the brain where language is correctly consciously generated, which is nowhere near any part of the conscious mind.

Q. Can you explain that shifting of the eyes a bit more?

A. When they do that it means that they are searching their conscious knowledge data base for the right answer, but they will not be able to answer it (very frustrating for them) because the response is not in the part of the brain they are looking in, but rather in the unconscious mind.

Q. That makes me think of the chef analogy you made earlier in your book on the Invisibles.

A. It’s like that. The ability to speak a language does not have its origins in the upper floors of the house (the conscious mind), but rather down in the basement where Mrs. Patmore works her magic along with Daisy and the other qualified cooks. All she needs are the supplies, the comprehensible input, and that’s what we do. We are nothing more than the servants and drivers of the CI delivery trucks who get the food supplies and deliver them to the kitchen.

Q. So, unless the answer is provided without their thinking, automatically, her students will be unable to provide her with the answers she wants, correct?

A. Yes, the way you said that is correct. And don’t forget that for that to happen requires thousands of hours of input before there can be any meaningful – read authentic, not memorized – input.

Q. So, it is best to just keep providing input and not think about teaching what they would need in terms of grammar in order to be able to speak.

A. Literally thousands of hours of input, far more hours than we have available to us in our teaching situations.

Q. That really shoots a hole in the idea of making kids memorize things in the language.

A. The main thing that you want to avoid is memorization of dialogues. Kids do it in good spirits for the grade, but inside they are rebelling because it feels wrong to them. And I would use that word again and say that doing so with language students is cruel, because it doesn’t bring any lasting results. When kids speak memorize words, they are not communicating.

Q. Do they even know what they are saying when repeating memorized words?

A. I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter, because by the end of the week they’ve forgotten it.



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