Feeding the Acquisition Monster


As teachers find their way with strategies and techniques for implementing and providing comprehensible input in their classrooms they will often come to questions such as, “How do I teach the capitals of Spanish speaking countries using TPRS?”  or “How do I teach subjunctive?”. This is a common dilemma as individuals might be at the crossroads of transitioning to a paradigm that focuses on teaching for proficiency from a paradigm that treats a language class like another subject.  “Language has its own pedagogy and should be treated as such.” (VanPatten).

Each teacher will have to decide how they best want to use the 180 days of classroom teaching. What are the goals of the program/course?  If the goal is Proficiency (the ability to comprehend and be comprehended across a range of familiar and unfamiliar contexts) then the teacher will have to decide where topics like this should fit.

One might argue that capitals of Spanish speaking cultures have little to do with acquisition but students should obtain global awareness.  That may be true and it is a fine point to make…it should be recognized that time away from creating conditions that lead to proficiency will have a result.  Creative teachers out there will / can implement strategies that expose students to culturally relevant topics and language at the same time.  Every context will be different.  A one-size fits all silver bullet doesn’t exist nor should it.

There are authors and educators out there like Martina Bex, Mira Canion, and Carol Gaab that do a very nice job of creating hybrid materials that focus acquisition and cultural content.  More and more teachers are doing this better each year.

The question remains how do we feed the Acquisition Monster?

Bill VanPatten discusses that communication should have a purpose and that Communicative Classrooms involve the expression, the interpretation, and the negotiation of meaning with a purpose in the context of a classroom. One could create communicative events that encompass such topics as capitals of Spanish speaking countries or anything related to content.  Endeavors to do so lead me to think of what Stephen Krashen often discusses about input.  He says that input should be “so compelling that the learner forgets that they are in another language.”  I wonder if my students ever cared to know about Spanish speaking capitals? I wonder if that is of high-interest topic in general?

Another idea that I have heard for years is something that Carol Gaab has said.  She often says, that “the brain craves novelty.”  I think further about what Warrick so eloquently surmised by saying that in order for acquisition to occur that learners should “be fed a rich-diet of comprehensible input.”  Also weighing what Blaine Ray discusses about TPRS curriculum.  He stresses the importance for TPRS curriculum to have a bias towards high frequency language.  This is very pragmatic considering that in a 4-year program teachers have less than 600 hours of instructional contact.

All of these individuals have worked in the field of language acquisition with ties to classroom teaching.  The majority of class time should be spent interacting and engaging in conditions that feed the acquisition monster.

The Acquisition Monster is hungry for linguistic data.  Linguistic data comes in the form of messages that students listen to and read while attending to the messages for meaning.  If teachers approach class time with the mindset to spend days, weeks, and months at providing comprehensible linguistic data via communicating with students acquisition will happen over time with great success.  If students are deprived of the nutritious comprehensible input there will be little evidence of proficiency.

Some students might be able to perform at language. These must be viewed as what they are: synthetic situations for obtaining a grade. Practice and memorization of language has little to do with proficiency. The present + practice + test model is one that does not seem to yield generations of proficient language learners…at least any that I have met.

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