I’ve been following (and calling into) Bill VanPatten’s Second Language Acquisition (SLA) show since its debut last Fall. I’m proud to say that I have the honor of being the first SLA Quiz winner. Yes, it’s on my CV, and yes, the first prize was a branded bag of tea. I edit the episodes so busy people who don’t have an hour to listen still get some nuggets of wisdom. This past week’s episode was important. I had to listen to the show again (even AFTER I edited it), as well as send Bill VanPatten two or three emails to clarify a few points. Here are some takeaways with major implications for teachers who facilitate acquisition in their classrooms:
Control over Internal Constraints
The one thing we have control over, when it comes to acquisition, is the quantity and quality of input we deliver to students. Why? Acquisition is internal, so we can’t guarantee it, or improve it by doing anything. The only thing we can do is make sure students understand what they hear and read, and give them lots of target language. Beyond acquisition, teachers can explicitly teach anything they want to, but MUST recognize that when they do, it’s different from acquisition. Teaching students to write or speak in a more native-like way, for example, is not the same as input interaction. That might have a purpose, but that purpose is not language acquisition.
Communication can be Partial
When we focus on meaning but lack a purpose, we teach in a partially-communicative way. Partial-communication prepares students for full-communication, and many times is a necessary step along the way. Besides the cognitive-informational purpose to communicating (i.e. obtaining information for an immediate or future task), Bill mentioned the role of a psycho-social purpose (i.e. relationships, team-building, bonding). At a party, chatting with someone has a psycho-social purpose; BOOM, fully-communicative. Given the fixed classroom context, however, a classroom activity with the purpose of learning about each other in the target language might be only partially-communicative if…
a) nothing is done with that information, and
b) a psycho-social purpose is not clear.
Bill wrote to me that “people learn about each other for a reason,” but a classroom context usually doesn’t include purely pyscho-social reasons. If/When it does, full-communication takes place.
We distinguish between partially- and fully-communicative activities because the absence of purpose leads to a focus on acquisition, and not communication, which could back fire and actually inhibit acquisition (see below). If a follow-up discussion from a partially-communicative activity uses the information students learned about each other, and then the class interacts with that information, say, by giving genuine opinions (e.g. why do you think John owns 17 pairs of New Balance shoes?), then it becomes fully-communicative. Note that Personalized Questions & Answers (PQA) would get the job done, here. Still, no one expects a classroom to be fully-communicative ALL THE TIME, anyway, so stopping short of a purpose isn’t the end of the world. It’s important to recognize, however, that partially-communicative activities COULD result in a pattern of language “practice.”
Focus on Communication
By focusing on communication, acquisition will happen. If, however, we focus on specific language (e.g. grammatical structures, vocab lists from textbook, etc.) ONLY for the purpose of acquiring that language, we might not get to the point of communicating at all, and our activities risk becoming language “practice,” which does not actually lead to acquisition. A focus on messages will result in the acquisition of the language used to express those messages. A reminder that communication is the a) interpretation, b) negotiation, and c) expression of meaning.
Aside from recognizing that we can’t control what students acquire, a major implication is to reflect upon certain teaching practices (i.e. strategies, techniques). For example, the next time you park on a sentence and circle the verb, person, and detail for 5min, ask yourself if 1) there was a communicative purpose, say, during La Persona Especial/Discipulus Illustris, or 2) was it actually just to “get reps” on a particular grammar structure? If you find yourself always arriving at the latter, and also realize you ask students to use the particular grammatical structures in their Timed Writes or other activities, you might be “practicing language,” which does not actually lead to acquisition. Note that you can still target grammatical structures, if that’s your thing, but you should do so in a meaningful way. The solution is to give a purpose to the circling. Start by asking why students would need to hear the targeted grammatical structure, anyway. If there’s no reason, given the context of what’s happening in the classroom at that moment, or what will happen in the context of the classroom in the immediate future, focus less on “reps,” and more on the purpose of why students need to hear the “reps.” You might find that your targeted grammatical structures aren’t necessary.