An Interview with James Asher


Total Physical Response (TPR) is a teaching method developed by the work and research of Dr. James Asher. His contribution to teaching with comprehensible input has changed the lives of thousands of teachers and students worldwide. Even though TPR as developed by Asher, is not my principal method of delivering comprehensible input I incorporate it when needed. His work is the foundation of which TPRS has been built. In this interview, I enjoy his candor about the state of language instruction and his conclusions about how the brain operates.

Most of the students that come into the language classrooms nowadays are mostly concerned with taking two years of a foreign language to fulfill a graduation or college requirement.  In a 20th century model for learning language we might have used words like memorize, study, work, and translate. As Asher points out, this type of learning happens on the left side of the brain. When we ask our brains to do such tasks we are consciously pushing our brains to learn languages. This accounts for what Asher says is 1/6 of our brain power. Talking, reasoning, arguing, and debating occur by using our conscious/left brain. Understanding this leads me to make decisions about how to best teach in a way that facilitates the ability of my students to demonstrate proficiency.

If our students engage the right side of the brain which accounts for 5/6 of our brain power we can facilitate easier acquisition of language. When students listen to comprehensible immersion the pattern-seeking right side of the brain goes to work. Asher mentions that if we ask the right side to work for us, it will work day and night. Here is how we can categorize language when looking at the brain. Students do not need me to study or memorize language, they can do it without me, I seek to utilize class time to engage right brain thinking and learning.

Learning (L)                Acquisition (R)

Explicit, conscious                      Implicit, subconscious

Formal situations                        Informal situations

Uses grammatical rules            Uses grammatical ‘feel’

Depends on aptitude                  Depends on attitude

Simple to complex order           Stable order of acquisition

                     of learning

The field of neuroscience will continue to evolve and change, that being said, I find it important to understand some of the brain science in order to justify best practices in language learning. There are more complexities to how we learn than simply making distinctions of the 2 hemispheres of the brain. Nonetheless, the appreciation for how subconscious minds acquire language and make meaning of language is fundamental to teaching and learning a second language.

For me, there is no debate about whether students learn language best by direct instruction, word by word analysis, intentional classification of the parts of speech and syntax or frequent immersion in meaningful language while interacting with high-interest meaningful text.

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