Real Production

I got this – on output – from Robert:

I subscribe to the ACTFL SmartBrief. The December 27, 2011, issue had a link to an article about a mother who took her young son to Paris because she wanted him to learn French and grow up bilingual.

Here’s the link to the article:

Here are a couple of key paragraphs as the mother describes her son’s acquisition of the language:

It was not long before French began to take root in him. I would hear him talking to himself in French, even singing, as if he were tentatively trying out this new identity. First it was just words, then phrases, then sentences. To start with, I could tell he was just repeating things he had heard, but these words, phrases and sentences soon became the building blocks of communication.

And what a pleasure to be a witness to this new language of his. He didn’t get hung up on grammar and did not over-analyse alien constructions. He had no difficulties with pronunciation and rolled his “r” almost perfectly from the first. There was no pain and no struggle. Though he had unrealistic expectations (on his first afternoon in Paris, he said: “I haven’t learned French yet, have I?”), I felt as if I were watching the acquisition of a language in fast-forward, and I was impressed.

The real change came two months in – until that point he had still been shy about talking in public – and I can date it to the day after his grandparents arrived for a visit. These were his English grandparents, who spoke no French. Wilf struggled to get his head round this. Was there really something he could do that they could not? He revelled in his new superiority. Next day he walked into school, head held high, and stood up in front of his class and – for the first time, he spoke up. How strange that the arrival of our most English guests had precipitated this newfound confidence.

Here are some observations from me:

1. Note the “subvocalization” and “self-talk” before real production. I think we need to find a way to help our students understand and harness the power of that.

2. Note how the child’s progress matches the ACTFL guidelines: words, phrases, sentences. At first they are lexical and repetitions of what he has already heard. (Can we say “Novice Level” anyone?) Later he uses these as “building blocks” for communication. Grammar instruction puts this precisely backwards, dumping huge loads of “monumental ashlar stonework” on students before they have even played with the “Legos of lexemes”.

3. Note that the mother equates speaking a new language with a new identity. One of the AP Themes (get ready for this, Spanish teachers) is “Private and Public Identities”. We should be aware of how learning a new skill – language, sports, theater, music, crafts, whatever – changes our students’ identities and perceptions of themselves. This speaks directly to what Ben has written about allowing students to adopt a new personality in our classes. (Mildred A and Mildred B, for example) [ed. note: for more on Mildred see]

4. Note the lack of emphasis on overt, direct grammar instruction. This child’s experience more closely mirrors that of our students – and there is still no need for grammar instruction. This, rightly seen and understood, is yet another nail in the coffin of language learning by grammar instruction.

5. Note this sentence: “There was no pain and no struggle”. This is language instruction as it ought to be.

6. Note what sparked output – the realization that he could do something others could not. He now belonged to an elite, he was part of a special group. I think this may be another aspect of classroom instruction that needs consideration: How do we show our students that they are capable of doing more than they think? Some of our students will simply open their mouths and let the language fall out, but not all will. It isn’t because the language isn’t there, it’s because of other inhibitors – many of which we don’t even know are there. (I have a student who arrived to class late one day; I gave him the choice of going and getting a tardy or telling me in German why he was late. At first he was going to simply go take the tardy, but with a little encouragement from me and the rest of the class he gave me a comprehensible explanation – and basked in the knowledge that he could put that kind of language together. This was a level two student who had failed Spanish and so was convinced that he couldn’t speak another language even after a year and a half in German.)

7. Note the preparation the child had received. His mother was trying to rear him bilingually, but he was adopting English as his mother tongue. Still, having heard all of that French from his mother primed him for the immersion experience. I take two things away from this:

a) In our classrooms, we are truly preparing our students for continued learning. As exciting as their gains in the classroom are, we are but laying the groundwork; when they go to a target-language environment, they will have what they need to “acquire language on fast-forward”. Grammar instruction does not do this – as we know from much anecdotal evidence – so not only wastes valuable class time but also fails to prepare students for later acquisition. (This has been the experience of my students who have gone to Germany, on their own and with various exchange programs: they are both better communicators from the outset and better prepared to continue acquisition than their grammar-trained peers. One former student has told me numerous times how much better prepared to speak and acquire the language he was than his fellow exchange students. When he returned, his German was immensely improved.)

b) For those on the list who are trying – or wanting to try – to rear bilingual children, this should be an encouragement to continue with it even if the children don’t seem to be taking to the other language. At some point put them in the target-language environment and watch the seeds of language blossom.



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