Something Strange…

Before I started teaching in 2013, I joined the moreTPRS Yahoo list serve. Then in 2015, I joined Ben Slavic’s PLC. At that time, there were daily—DAILY—conversations about Second Language Acquisition (SLA), with really tough questions being asked, answered, and debated ad nauseam. Then Tea With BVP was launched, with weekly shows until 2018—here are my clips down to the nuts & bolts. N.B. That show was rebooted in a different iteration as TalkinL2 until just about a year ago. Needless to say, I learned a great deal in those five years; far more, in fact, than in my MAT program (no offense, just a result of SLA expert-lacking faculty nationwide).

I cannot overstate this enough when I say that those early years were simply *crucial* in the development of what we all learned about SLA, and teaching languages. Furthermore, what we now know has also been around for like 10, 20, 30, even 40 years beforehand! That is, most scholarship in the last decades haven’t really changed the game of what’s been discussed since the 70s. The problem? This stuff wasn’t (isn’t?) mainstream—at all. That “golden age” of my SLA development involved the constant interaction with perhaps 200, maybe 300 teachers, almost all of whom I can reach out to with a click. I also had direct access to researchers, their ideas, as well as teachers implementing and arguing about what is, essentially, “best practice” for teaching languages in schools. When we didn’t understand, we emailed and got answers. And we were fringe. Having been exposed to the same ideas over and over—not just Krashen & VanPatten—thankfully from a variety of perspectives courtesy of Eric Herman, a solid understanding of universal truths (as much as we can call them that in the field of SLA) was being discussed.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a LOT of disequilibrium that nearly everyone had to face (e.g. “wait, so you’re saying that…”), and it was not without major headaches. After all, teachers’ worlds were literally being turned upside-down (no, I do mean literally like what you thought was the cause was just a result). Even the researchers’ ideas were challenged—by “mere” teachers no less—and fruitful discussion emerged, like when Carol Gaab demanded a concrete response about whether co-creating a story was a communicative act (i.e. had purpose). N.B. Yes, it is; entertainment. There was significant growth at that time, but it wasn’t all roses. We could call a spade a spade, or at least all come to agreement that a heart was definitely not a spade, and then talk about how to make that heart into a spade. Granted, this was within the fringe group of hundreds of teachers who had that shared experience, but there was definitely some kind of “tell me if what I’m talking about is complete nonsense” agreement. Whatever it was, it now feels like he heyday of theory to practice and critical looks at each others’ teaching.

Then…

At some point, the shows stopped, the conversations waned, and that fringe group was busy putting all that theory into practice. Teachers began winning awards, sharing what they learned, and the fringe ideas started getting noticed and taken more seriously. Still not mainstream, but more seriously. More teachers can articulate the difference between input and output, for sure, and more teachers can identify the communicative purpose of any event. However, the daily, difficult conversations that fringe group experienced years ago became weekly, then monthly, quarterly, then tax-quarterly, then something totally infrequent. I mean, there were daily posts in what then became the move to Facebook groups, but nothing on the level of “help me understand this,” “that’s not actually true,” and “wait, what do you mean?!” kind of posts in the moreTPRS emails, and Ben Slavic blog.

Then…

There came a point when it was no longer accepted to question the ideas—not people—that were being shared. What used to be the typical “what makes that CI?” and even “yo, that’s not CI at all” was met with utter distain, and I do mean distain. That even became the case when such ideas were being discussed in Latin groups, a language you’d expect to be behind the times in contemporary pedagogy, right? It turns out that for a while, the ideas were well met, and lightbulbs went off. But then, even things in those groups started taking really strange turns—periodically—as if interest was growing much faster than new understanding, ushering in waves of more resistant teachers. Was it just keeping up with the trends while not reaaaaally believing? I dunno.

I cannot say when all this started to change, or what influenced it, but every six months or so, I’d forget that teachers are less interested in calling a spade a spade anymore, or worse, assume that calling a spade a spade is somehow personal—When was *that* ever the case? I started to observe people getting upset at the kind of posts and ideas that resulted in so much learning years ago. It’s baffling. Years ago, someone would be like “what do you mean? That’s not CI,” and then things would work out, no doubt with bruised brains, but would work out, eventually. Sure, no one’s ever liked being told they got something wrong (e.g. “oh please, please, please tell me I’m confusing X with Y!” said no one, ever), but I’m not sure when it went from understanding that a) this is a learning process, b) that it’s OK for people to tell you you’re wrong, and c) that discomfort will surely be a part of wrapping one’s head around SLA, to outright resenting it as if everyone’s lobbing insults left and right. Are we really willing to connect our misunderstandings about things to personal worth?! That’s unhealthy. Teaching is a profession, and professionals need training. Sometimes, those in training are doing something wrong. Who’s gonna let them know? It’s like the NYC motto “if you see something, say something.” Everyone’s better for it. Also, right now I feel old, like in a “back in my day…” kind of way, wondering how anyone survived any kind of professional discussion about how languages are and aren’t learned.

Speaking of Now…

I find myself wondering if new fringe SLA-teacher groups have popped up in places I don’t know about, and whether they’ve barred letting someone know certain ideas don’t make sense, are misleading, or are downright false. Directness has never been an issue. Why now? I also find myself wondering if there are any new fringe groups around at all!? Are the FB groups I’m in the cutting edge of language pedagogy?! If so, I wonder about the implications…

  • Are the tough questions not being asked…anywhere?
  • Are people mixing up ideas because they’re on their own, seeing as the tough conversations aren’t welcomed?
  • Can those who resent such discussions ever be open to them?!
  • Is no one willing to admit their interpretation is just flat out wrong?
  • Is this somehow related to alternative truths and facts that now plague the US?!

Something gnawing at me tells me there might be a void in SLA understanding if more teachers take on a “you do you” mindset, which although is awesome for selfcare, in a professional setting validates anything any teacher ever does, including bad practices. Are we bound to reinvent the SLA-teacher wheel over and over?

4 thoughts on “Something Strange…

  1. I love this post. I feel the same way. No one is asking the hard questions anymore. Now that CI has become the standard in so many places, no one is asking why anymore. It’s like it’s become a religion. CI is amazing. I use all the best ideas from CI. Almost everything I do in the classroom now I learned from CI teachers and CI conferences. I am forever changed as a language teacher. I’m bucking the norm, challenging how it’s always been done, going rogue, but there are glaring holes in CI that every one seems to ignore. I drank the koolaid and went all in for the last couple of years. It was disastrous. My students felt lost and confused about where we were headed. My Spanish 4’s started using infinitives again when they talked to each other.
    So, I’ve gone back to a mix of CI along with high frequency vocabulary and regular verb conjugations and it’s going gang busters. My students’ ability to read, write, speak, and understand has gone through the roof even in this crazy COVID year. This year, I’ve learned to teach the language through culture rather than stories. It’s so much better because it’s a two for one. We can always improve. We can always become better. We need to never think we have arrived because that is the day we will stop learning.

    • Thanks! And this is a good example. Hopefully you understand that I’m talking about the concept…

      I’d not waste any time whatsoever on those verb paradigms. What you’re describing sounds like the “J curve” of a language development. The students learned infinitive, then started using them everywhere even when another form is expected. That flattens out over time and with more input.

      I’m positive the grammar grind produces what looks like improvements in accuracy, but all the evidence we have about that shows that it’s just short term.

      So, if you like and want to teach verb charts, go ahead, but if you’re teaching verb charts as an adjustment based on innaccuratr student output, that’s misaligned. I feel compelled to disclaim that the idea is not bad, and you’re not a bad person but it’s just might be for the wrong reason.

  2. THANK YOU! Our department has embraced the need to combine ideas and use them – it is not a straight proficiency based or comprehensible input in isolation environment. 🙂

    Lisa Neff Wahl Maysville 6-12 World Languages Teacher Gifted Intervention Specialist Quiz Bowl/Quiz Team Advisor

    ________________________________

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