Language Is Acoustical, Not Intellectual

This quote from Berty Segal, who invented the questioning process before PQA even existed, is another way to say that learning a language is an unconscious process (Krashen). It was commented on here by PLC member Nathanial Hardt. I turned his comment into an article for ease of reference under the Unconscious category here. The careful reader will take much from this post and thank you Nathaniel for writing this:

Hey Ben:

I posted that [quote from Segal] on my wall to remind me of the need to talk to my students in Spanish in a way that they understand and to engage them. It is so easy to intellectualize language. It is so easy to make comments about similarities between L1 and L2. It is so easy to analyze and to share knowledge about the language. But language is acoustical. It goes from the ear to the unconscious.

It is there to remind me that I don’t have time to be erudite, because language is not intellectual. I only really have time to engage students, making statements, motioning for reaction, asking questions, expecting answers, providing answers when they have none, interviewing individuals, sharing my findings with the group, etc. And that time passes so quickly.

I see this “acoustical” component as a direction for something to do so that the unconscious business of the mind can do its work. Of course, there is also the visual component (reading), which is an extension of the acoustical. And there is all of the writing on the board which helps to transition from acoustical to visual.

And as you point out, is so complex when taken altogether. It should be the bulk of a teacher preparation program. (But the university would probably intellectualize it all and make it so unpalatable that nobody would want to try it. It is probably better for them to focus on useless forms so that new teachers are desperate for relevance and results.)

I am so grateful for this PLC. It is helping me refocus this year with a better PQA than I have ever had. Also, as I have shared some ideas gained through the PLC with a colleague he has refocused and taken courage. In fact, in our department meeting today he made the comment several times that, as a department, we have failed to have the discussion about how students learn. Hopefully, that discussion will be forthcoming. In the meantime I have the opportunity here for relevant discussion with likeminded colleagues.



5 thoughts on “Language Is Acoustical, Not Intellectual”

  1. ” I only really have time to engage students”

    nathaniel, thank you for this. This is a huge truth. When we think about how little time we actually have with our students and how much time it actually takes to get them to a strong intermediate level, we really do only have time to engage them in meaningful, relevant language and let the brain do what it’s designed to do.

    The simplicity of this statement is what is most powerful.

    All the extra BS – the intellectualizing of the language, the requirements put on us from above, the over focus on production as proof of learning, the splitting hairs about how to grade nad what to grade… it’s all like entering a Starbucks and being oeverwhelmed by all the options.

    When we just focus on engaging them with meaningful, relevant language, it’s like asking the barista for a small cup of black coffee and then getting the hell out of there.

  2. I had the wonderful opportunity of sharing TCI with a group of interning teachers at their weekly methods class at the University of Southern Maine.

    I am not sure this will come across correctly in Spanish but it was such a moment that I would like to try to share.

    I was going through the differences between “learning” and “Acquisition” When finished I used this example.

    I had recently realized in class a really cool way to present the soft and hard c/g in spanish.

    I wrote
    CA (cah)
    CE (say)

    CI (see)

    CO (koh)
    CU (kuh)

    on the board. Then I said “class, have you met “CA-CE”? I pointed to a female student. I said “class say hi to CA-CE”.

    I then pointed to a boy and said, class, have you met “CO-CU”? I said, class say hi to COCU the class said hi to CO-CU.

    I then sad, class, CACE CI COCU. When I say CI i point from my eyes as if to “see”
    I continue with CACE CI COCU until the class has heard it enough……

    I then wrote:
    GA (gah)
    GE (hey)

    GI (he)

    GO (go)

    GU (gu) (goo) (goo)

    I then introduced the class to “GA-GE” class, have you met “ga-ge”? This is GA-GE.

    Class, GA-GE, GI GO GU-GU and I have “GA-GE” make a “goo-goo” face

    and we played with that and had fun with it….

    Once I had done that with them I explained that for years I had tried to explain the “rules” of how to know if the c/g are hard or soft in Spanish. I used to tell students “before an I or an E the C is soft and sounds like an S. Before and any other letter they are hard….

    A light went on! They got it. I explained that if we approach language as acoustical students get it very quickly. My students will NEVER have a hard time with ga, ge, gi, go, gu or ca, ce, ci, co, cu because they will always remember “ca-ce ci co-cu” and “ga ge gi go gu-gu”
    Words like gato, gente, gira, goma and guante or cama, cena, cine, cola and cuna are now not an issue….

    I think that was the turning point… They really got that “rules” don’t work, but if we can play with the language, make it compelling students will pick it up very quickly…

    Not sure if that all makes sense but it sure seemed to illustrate perfectly the acoustical nature of L2 acquisition.

  3. Grant – thank you for this article! I enjoyed reading it; however, isn’t it just TPRS by just another name (acronym)? If you REALLY look at it – it is!! I think the “old traditionalists” just see TPRS as teacher standing and acting out gestures in L2 and telling stories about different wacky-colored animals. If it was still that, I would not be doing it — that is FINE for a level 1, but once you start getting juniors and seniors, they want more serious stuff. And, hasn’t TPRS evolved for the upper levels into TCI — using the language in a COMPREHENSIBLE (that is OUR operative word!) way to make the CONTENT compelling for all?
    When we use the TPRS Publishing books or movie talk, we are also introducing structures and vocabulary that they (students) will need to access comprehensibility of the lesson(s)/theme/unit.
    I think what is most difficult for this paradigm shift to happen, is what the authored nailed: teachers feeling uncomfortable with having to acquire content KNOWLEDGE. That is scary for these traditional teachers who boast that they are “Grammar and Literature” teachers! That IS all they know!!!! THAT is what makes them hate TPRS/TCI so much…..they have to adjust their learning.
    It’s a scary process! I, on the other hand, am scared that I need to know MUCH more language!! I can talk about a subject till the cows come home, but am afraid that I will run out of vocab in L2 in the process!!! 🙂 But, my L2 vocab has increased exponentially since I have been using TCI.
    On page 1126, in the last paragraph, he states, “Genesee argues that that content ‘need not be academic; it can include any topic, theme or non-language issue of interest or importance to the learners.’ ” He then states that it must, however, be at the cognitive level of the learner. This is where I struggle — I can bring things to the cognitive level of the learner, but their grasp of the language in Level 1 or 2 is NOT equivalent to their cognitive level and that is where I struggle with lesson planning!
    I do agree that this paradigm shift has to be a top-down mandate rather than bottom-up suggestion. TPRS practitioners have for year been trying to get this message across! I went to a workshop given by Toni Thiesen a couple of weeks ago (sponsored by our textbook publisher) and this was the type of learning she was suggesting. It is also the new mandate coming from our State level WL Dept.
    Did any of this make any sense? My mind is going off in several directions this morning! I’m sorry!!

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