Trust the Net

Non-targeted structures may or may not be acquired by the students – we don’t care. Our only focus is on the targeted structures and repeating them at least once in each statement or question we say no matter what. In the case of Circling with Balls, each activity drawn on a card by each student is the target structure. In the case of a scripted story, it’s the three structures targeted by the author of the script.

In the case of an L & D class devoted to discussion about a French painting, the instructor is advised to  pick only one or two structures and hit them hard, thus going narrow and deep with those structures and avoiding the serious error of going shallow and wide, which takes the class right out of bounds.

The activity doesn’t matter, the repetition of the targets does.

There is another term we could use – “net structures”. These are the even smaller, less noticeable parts of a sentence that get into the flow of the language because they belong there and are essential for the students to learn correct grammar, which is properly spoken language and not a two dimensional filing exercise as was thought in the past.

Net structures can’t be presented in a conscious, visual way like targeted structures, but they still occur and the kids still hear them and, eventually via repetition on a completely unconscious level, the kids acquire them.

This is the way Krashen says it all works, unconsciously. And in my view this is the way it works and let’s get over thinking that the conscious mind has a place in acquiring a language. For more on the Net, and that we learn languages in our Unconscious faculty, search those bolded categories here.

Here is an example taken from Circling with Balls. We learn from looking at the cards that:

Randy plays soccer and Jane reads.

Now those cards can be circled in a variety of ways like this:

Class, Randy plays soccer. (ohh!) Does Randy play soccer? (yes) Class, does Randy or the teacher play soccer? (Randy) Correct, class, Randy plays soccer. (ahh!) Does the teacher play soccer? (no) Yes, class, the teacher plays soccer! (ohh!) That’s right class, Randy plays soccer and the teacher plays soccer, but there is a problem! Randy plays better than the teacher! (ohh!)

Now, that last sentence has the one targeted structure (plays soccer), and then it has those other words: better than, teacher, there is, problem. the, a.

So, when we present comprehensible input, we must learn to focus when we speak on the big fish constantly (plays soccer), ignoring the very small fish, leaving that part of aquisition to the students’ deeper minds which are always unconsciously trapping and processing everything (later in sleep) in a nearly mystical process that we need to just stay out of.

We have to trust the net to catch the fish it was meant to catch, as it were. It is a very tight net so few words get by, but the fisherman (the Language Acquisition Device) has the final say in what fish are kept and what fish are thrown back into the ocean.

Since we just don’t know how all that works, we have to leave it alone. That is why I don’t plan what I teach. What do I know about when the mind acquires what? Krashen’s Natural Order of Acquisition speaks to this.

Again: those small net structures stick in the mind by a process that we can know nothing about. When we try to get involved with that process, we do so at great expense to our students’ confidence. There we are, rushing to explain everything in English and, even worse, testing them on net words, which is brutal.

How about everybody give up the testing on individual words? When you say that you are merely trying to assess whether they have learned the words, you sound like a teacher. Let all that go, just speak to them in L2 and get over your teacher self. Language teachers, if you haven’t noticed, have a pretty bad track record of teaching language.

I don’t think of our crowd as teachers so much as renegades who differ from teachers in the sense that our students show real gains and sign up for our classes the next year, and we don’t really teach, we just speak the language to them and have them read a lot. That brings the gains, not anything connected to the archaic concept in language education that we can actually teach someone a language. That’s now how it works.

When we don’t trust the net we plan and we speak lots of English, explaining everything in a way that is bewildering to our students, and we explain from fear that they won’t learn and in the very explaining our students can’t learn. It’s a paradox.

Our students have a much higher chance of acquire much of what we say as long as we could just let the unconscious mind alone process everything it heard or read that day, all by itself, without all our meddling, that night in deep sleep, down there in the magical language factory of the unconscious mind.

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14 thoughts on “Trust the Net”

  1. Great point. Last night, I had a middle school student (grade 8) at a parent conference tell her parents and me that she gets “all the big words” we use in class, and that now, she is starting to notice the “little” words. I need to daily remind myself to not “mess with the unconscious mind” and get in there and start explaining everything. Breathe slowly and continue slowly in the L2.

  2. I understand this! I’m seeing it with my beginners. There are some connector-type words and other non-English kinds of words that come up all the time in Chinese (I mean all the de’s and le mainly). I have been just using them and, when asked, saying as brief a description of what it means in context. They have been understanding without my focusing attention on them, and I’m certainly not testing on them.

    I am also sharing quotes (posted by Eric Herman in the Forum) on acquisition with my classes from time to time. One on acquisition being an unconscious process, and language being stored in the brain in a subconscious way, provided good discussion. It is so different from the norm of other classes & their parents’ expectations, but it seems to be resonating with the beginner classes. They sense the experience. It has helped many of them to relax and focus on the message, not worry about how conscious they are of specific words or sentences. I am really excited for them.

  3. In Latin, and somewhat in German, too, the net doesn’t take care of little words as much as it takes care of the endings of words. Latin words change their endings based on the grammar of the sentence.

    I had a big success today, one of those monstrous celebrations that was really very quiet and so natural. My quiz writer in an early morning Latin 1 class wrote the beautiful question, “viditne Emily Buggs Bunnyem prope tentorio?” (Did Emily see Buggs Bunny?)

    (Now “tentorio” should be “tentorium” but that’s super new so it’s no big deal.)

    What’s totally awesome is the -em ending on Buggs Bunnyem. It’s there because it’s the direct object of the sentence. I’ve never told them that, but they have heard it many many times. We didn’t even mention Buggs Bunny in class, so this was an original question from the quiz writer! All we talked about in class was how

    “Emily Mickey Mousem vidit” (Emily saw Mickey Mouse).

    So she took that question and totally hit a grand slam by making it about Bugg Bunny AND ALSO USING CORRECT GRAMMAR! I told her how great of a job she had done but even then I don’t think she realized that she had done something really special. Talk about The Net, dude. That will make my whole weekend.

  4. The term Buggs Bunnyem has made my evening. That and the idea of a kid pretending to be a bow in a story. Do we really need data to prove how wonderful this CI stuff is? I mean, really, Buggs Bunnyem? A kid being a bow? What’s not to love right there? That’s enough!

  5. I think TCI may better be marketed as “optimized immersion.” The 90%+ CI in the L2 is how we get the unconscious to do the work. I had 2 sixth grade kids tell me today: “After Spanish class I’m thinking in Spanish the rest of the day.” That comment made my weekend. I don’t have to give homework, because the brain unconsciously does homework outside of class. You won’t and can’t “hear” Spanish in your head if your class isn’t CI immersion.
    I’m finally spending more time (4 classes in a row) on the same target structures, using all 3 steps of TPRS and IMTranslator and Textivate. The language is sounding to the kids now like their first language! Today we did a Realtime Retell (I type my questions and the class chorally answers, while I check for comprehension whenever I sense we could be losing someone and infrequently do a grammar pop-up) and my sixth grade class put up a BIG number. After 25 minutes, there were 760 comprehensible words typed on the screen in front of them. So cool. Almost immediately, I sent both the student comment and the 760 number to my Principal. I often email my Principal about CI and about my class successes, whether he wants to read it or not. haha.

    1. Wonderful about your students, Eric! I find sometimes kids are answering questions from me (if I’m asking for meaning in English) partly in Chinese — they catch themselves, and say it again all in English. Apparently those words were so clear in Chinese that they came out as part of a “translation.” Another thing that happens is they speak in Chinglish for a translation – they drop the conjugations and words used in English that don’t exist in Chinese. I think that’s part of the same brain process. It’s fascinating.

      Terry Waltz (Chinese teacher in New York) uses exactly that to describe her instruction, “Optimized Immersion.” Maybe it’s another term to use, so since “Comprehensible Input” is being taken over by non-comprehension-based teaching. And it might show more clearly how highly we value use of the target language during class.

    2. “After Spanish class I’m thinking in Spanish the rest of the day.” …I don’t have to give homework, because the brain unconsciously does homework outside of class.

      Insightful connection. Anybody I know hopes the HW will have them think about Spanish for several minutes after class. But the rest of the day. And then, as Ben said, “the students’ deeper minds which are always unconsciously trapping and processing everything (later in sleep).” 8-16 + hours of HW.

      And to tie back into Ben’s post that all comes by focusing on a few phrases.

      1. I just had a student say, “I have a really hard time switching back to English when I go to that class after German because I’m still thinking in German.”

        Thinking in German – yes!

        1. Showing that you indeed are staying tough in the language and not veering back into L1 like I do so often. On those days when I do stay in the language, I hear such comments. I hear them as often as a few times a year. Someday I will learn. Sigh.

      2. In road biking or distance running, the body continues to process the workout for hours afterwards. It’s the same thing. Give the mind/body what it needs, and it will take care of the rest. This brings to mind a word with special meaning that Bob Patrick and I share as perhaps the sine qua non of all pedagogies – trust. Is it possible that we of little faith must at some point accept that we have stumbled into a way of teaching that is now driving many of us into the position of finally trusting in the simple fact that teaching can be crazy in the very best sense, in the real sense, and not in the sense that we are crazy now? And can we get crazy enough to be free in our classrooms and let our freak flags fly? Can we be free of fearing our days as teachers? Can we go in and feel happy and just enjoy what we do? It is possible now. All we have to do is be crazy in the real sense. And stop worrying. And trust. And can we handle doing that in life as well?

        Related: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe500eIK1oA

  6. Beautiful post Ben. I’ve never really thought about it exactly like that before.

    James, I agree with Ben… Buggs Bunnyem… YES!

    Also, Eric, nice call on “optimized immersion”. I’ve often referred to it casually as “immersion light”, but I think your term is right on. Also, watched a bit of your video of “Afraid of the Package”… nice, calm, collected, in control, repetitive, using actors, involving everyone… Great Example of TPRS!

    On a side note, I got my Central States language conference pamphlet in the mail the other day, and among the Workshops that will be given, several explicitly stated the 90% ACTFL position in the workshop description. This meme is spreading. And, Laurie Clarque will be presenting on Embedded Readings. If you live around St. Louis, go to see her workshop.

  7. “we don’t really teach, we just speak the language to them and have them read a lot”

    So many good points in this post. It has been 5 days since I have logged on–bogged down with “professional” stuff. So this was like a breath of fresh air.

    The “we don’ really teach…” comment really struck home. I was talking with my former dept coordinator today. He is starting over with CI. He is really fired up, especially with his average level Freshman class (they have no previous language experience). They have been working with “voulait manger” (wanted to eat), the kids are picking it up. As we all know, the kids don’t even realize they should be excited about using the imperfect. When asked “why?” at a certain point, a girl responded that the character either is or was hungry–a connection which had not yet been made in the story.

    Then my colleague told me, “I don’t even feel like I am teaching. We are just having a conversation.”

    It was amazing because I had thought those same words (and never got around to posting them) about a month ago.

    Thanks to this PLC, I have been motivated emboldened to pursue this path more wholeheartedly. And as a result of things that I have shared with my colleague he too moving back to what he knows is best for his students.

    Thanks to all of you.

  8. This is well timed Nathaniel. I had gotten bummed out last week because I thought that this post was of huge importance and only three people commented on it and I thought that few of us actually “got” the Net. So that had at least something to do with that funk I got into. Now however all is good. I’m just going to keep posting on the Net more and more. Me and the Net. We are brothers. The Net holds my teaching up in space. I land on it when I fall in class. I bounce on it when I teach. As the fascia separate bone from bone, cell form cell, organ system from organ system in the body, so also the Net gives me the free and natural (no planning needed) organizational system to make my teaching work for me in the way that you pointed out of just talking to the kids and that your friend experienced with “il voulait/he wanted”. The Natural Approach. Don’t leave home without it!

  9. I think this was a Net experience but not sure- it was cool regardless.
    End of year so we’re doing some whole group Textivate chapters from Brandon Brown.
    There are some games where the kids have to fill in missing vowels from words. I noticed that the students had so internalized the cadence that they were accurately rewriting the text. Lo, la and le all exist in Spanish (and in the book), but they didn’t have issues or confusion. Clearly these were captured in their Net, at least in the context of BB. I never taught indirect object pronouns other than to say ‘this means that.’
    Also, their choral reading is phenomenal. They love to do it, so we did it with the Textivate games. I recall how frequently some Ss used to mispronounce words like que and quien before T/CI. Now though, they have an acoustical filter – they won’t say it if it sounds wrong. Soooo cool.

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