Let’s Make A Deal

I once had a native Spanish-speaking colleague propose a deal; in order to improve his English, he was to speak only English to me, and in order for me to improve my Spanish, I was to speak only Spanish to him. Without wanting him to know how I reaaaally felt about language acquisition so soon after meeting, I hesitantly agreed to the terms.

The results were disastrous.

Our conversations amounted to meaningless chit-chat, a series of “error” corrections that raised my affective filter beyond safe limits, and absolutely no improvements to my Spanish whatsoever. In fact, I never remembered his corrections, and eventually lost interest in expressing myself in Spanish to him altogether.

It should’ve been the other way around. In order to improve my Spanish, I needed to hear my colleague’s Spanish…not try to interpret his English, or try to express myself in a language I was still working on understanding!

You see, my colleague was interested in that old idea of “practice” that Bill VanPatten keeps warning us about, which assumes that the only way to improve speaking was to speak. This is logical, but one of nature’s cruel jokes. The sad part is that my colleague—a language teacher—hadn’t been trained to know the difference between the explicit information and subsequent practice exercises on “page 32” of the textbook, and the implicit processes that actually take place in our brains when communicating.

It doesn’t even matter that instead of written exercises, our “practice” was face to face in real time—something many confuse as “communicative” just because speaking is involved—since all that’s needed is input and interaction.

The fix would’ve been for my colleague—as a responsible language teacher—to speak to me in Spanish while giving me the opportunity to interact with him at my own level. For a true Novice, that might look like checking in with me by asking yes/no questions.  For someone at a higher proficiency level, that would look different.

One thing for sure, is that the teacher would need to be what ACTFL describes as “sympathetic to the language learner.” That includes responsibly refraining from unsolicited “error” correction. As Bill confirmed yesterday to the caller really into charts and explicit grammar instruction, the role of all those “rules” and corrections of “rules” is affective—not effective for acquisition—and only in the minds of students who think they need them (but actually don’t).

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One thought on “Let’s Make A Deal

  1. A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon found herself living across the hall from a French volunteer who spoke rather good English. They decided that he would speak to her In French and she would speak to him in English. They had great bilingual conversations all the time. When I introduced her to my (native French speaker) husband he commented on how much better her French was than mine. (Previously the Peace Corps trainers had put us together in the same category.) When I met her French colleague, his English was excellent, with only the slightest accent.

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