How to Acquire Language

I want to explain the difference between the way I teach and the methods that many other language teachers use. You should know that I have been teaching English as a Foreign Language since 1967 and in over fifty years I have been trained in and have used many different strategies, both as a teacher and as a student of other languages. My current practice is based on my observations, my personal experience and the latest research. One of my guiding lights is Dr. Stephen Krashen. Since the 1970’s he has been articulating the difference between Learning a language and Acquiring a language.

To understand the difference, you need to know that our mind has two different ways of functioning. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize, wrote a book called Thinking: Fast and Slow. Slow thinking is what we do with our conscious mind. It is what we do when we study, when we memorize, when we struggle to understand how something functions, when we try to solve problems. Slow thinking requires effort and burns calories. Fast thinking is automatic and effortless. Remember when you were learning to drive a car (or ride a bicycle). You had to think about your hands and feet, about when to shift gears and which pedal to use and when to signal a turn. After a few years you could drive a car or ride a bike without thinking about the mechanics; you could drive a car while you were planning what to prepare for supper. Driving had become automatic and effortless. That is the difference between slow thinking and fast thinking.

I recently read a story in a book by Patrick Rothfuss called The Wise Man’s Fear which illustrates the two systems. A professor is teaching some of the best students in the university. He shows them a rock and gives them paper and says “In fifteen minutes I will toss this stone. I will stand here, facing thus. I will throw it underhand with about three grip of force behind it. I want you to calculate in what manner it will move through the air so that you can have your hand in the proper place to catch it when the time comes.”

After allowing the students to work on their own for five minutes, he encourages them to work in groups. When the time is up the students confess that they don’t have the answer.

The teacher opens the door and sees a young boy walking by. He calls him. When the boy enters the room, the teacher cries, “Catch!” and tosses the stone to the boy.

“Startled, the boy snatched it out of the air.”

Then the teacher faces the students and says, “In each of us there is a mind we use for all our waking deeds. But there is another mind as well, a sleeping mind. It is so powerful that the sleeping mind of an eight-year-old can accomplish in one second what the waking minds of seven members of the Arcanum could not in fifteen minutes.”

Traditional methods and many “communicative” methods are directed at the waking, conscious mind or “slow thinking”. Any teacher who asks their students to memorize vocabulary, grammar or conjugations expects you to use “slow thinking”. The strategies which I use are directed at the sleeping mind or “fast thinking”.

The question is, how to we reach the “sleeping mind”? How do we acquire language that is spontaneous and automatic without memorizing grammar rules and verb conjugations? Well, how did you acquire your native language? You did not acquire it through studying verbs and memorizing vocabulary. You acquired language by listening to your mother and the people around you.

Dr. Krashen has said that language is acquired through Compelling Comprehensible Input. When you are a very small child, everything your mother says is compelling because she is the most important being in your world. And mothers automatically, instinctively try to be comprehensible. When we don’t understand they repeat, demonstrate and gesture until we do understand.

That Compelling Comprehensible Input is an effective way of acquiring language is becoming very evident today with internet and Netflix. I’m sure you know someone who has acquired a language by listening to their favorite series. My own granddaughter, who took Spanish in school, acquired English by listening to Pirates of the Caribbean and High School Musical, then Gossip Girl. Later, when she did take English in school, she had a near perfect score.

Compelling Comprehensible Input can also be written, which means language can be acquired by reading a good book without ever memorizing a verb conjugation. The more you read, the better your grammar will be.The more you listen, the better your pronunciation will be.

Many teachers require production, both oral and written. The real reason for this is their need to give grades. Some teachers say that students have to speak and have to practice writing. Yet there are many proven cases of people who have acquired language only through listening, without ever practicing. Production, whether oral or written, is a test. It shows us where the student is, the level that they have attained. Speaking and writing in school may be needed for grades, but they are NOT necessary for acquisition. Speaking and writing are not input, but output. Dr. Krashen calls such tests “weighing the pig”. It can be interesting, even necessary, to weigh the pig in order to measure its growth. But weighing the pig does not make it any fatter. It does not matter whether you weigh the pig every day, every week or every month. The pig will not weigh more because you weighed it more often. Students who enjoy speaking may feel more confident, but they are not acquiring language by speaking. The quiet student who never speaks but listens attentively is acquiring just as much, perhaps more.

You may have heard that I don’t teach grammar. It is never on my lesson plan. But if you have a question about grammar, I will be happy to answer it. I have learned that students always remember the answer to their own question, so I never refuse to answer a question. But I don’t waste my time and yours by answering questions that no one has asked.

So, as I see it, my job is to furnish you with compelling, comprehensible input, both written and oral. And your job is very simple. Your job is to let me know what interests you and what does not and your job is to let me know when I am not being comprehensible. Together we can make sure that you receive the compelling, comprehensible input that you need to acquire language.

Do you want to learn a new language?

During the week of July 20th to July 24th, The Agen Workshop has organized the following on-line language classes:

Elementary Spanish for primary school learners with Jason Fritze.

Intermediate Spanish for heritage learners and middle school students with Jason Fritze.

Mixed level French with Sabrina Sebban-Janczak and Daniel Kline Logsdon-Dubois

Beginners English with Tamara Galvan

Reading a Novel in English with Sule Yilmaz

Beginners Mandarin with Annick Chen

Beginners Arabic with Fadi Abughoush


The Spanish classes with Jason Fritze are designed for younger students and will last one hour a day for five days.

The other classes will also be given during five days. Each day there will be an hour’s session followed by a half hour break followed by an second hour long session.

If you wish to sign up for these classes as a student, go to

If you have already registered for the on-line conference as a teacher, you may observe all the classes without any additional charge.

During the week of July 27th- July 31st we are offering :

Beginners French with Alice Ayel.

Beginners German with Kathrin Shechtman.

Alice and Kathrin will be using the Story-Listening method.  The sessions will last 30 minutes with an additional 30 minutes for feedback and questions from observers. They are open to everyone who has registered for the On-Line Agen Workshop 2020.


a wonderful problem to have

There are currently over thirty presenters who have offered to participate in the On-Line Agen Workshop program. It will take me at least another week to organize their proposals and begin to finalize the program. I’m excited to see so many people from around the world offering to make this conference a success. Here are some of their names. They represent fourteen different countries and we hope to see more before the list is complete.

Laurie Clarcq         Adriana Ramirez         Hélène Colinet               Liam Printer

   Kathrine Shechtman             Michelle Whaley          Dahiana Castro

Fadi Abughoush    Jim Tripp       Kirstin Plante       Robert Harrell

Janique Vanderstocken   Teri Wiechart     Jason Fritz  Cécile Lainé

    Alice Ayel     Scott Benedict    Tammy Ruigrok              Anna Gilcher

Margarita Garcia Perez  Carol Bausor   Diane Neubauer      Rachelle Adams

Annick Chen     Karen Rowan           Sule Yilmaz              César Gonzalez Paso

Judy Dubois    Sabrina Sebban-Janczak    Nicole de Boer    Pilar Reyes Sierra         

For Newsletter Recipients

Although you are already registered for the “live” conference which will be held in 2021, we invite you to fill out this form so that you will receive the necessary codes which will allow you to access the live sessions and the language labs of the on-line conference of 2020. Since members of your family may attend the Language Labs free of charge, for our planning we need to know which labs they wish to participate in.

Registration for the On-Line Agen Workshop 2020 - newsletter recipients

The Ninth of May – Mayi

The Ninth of May

Europe celebrates the 8th of May as the end of World War II. In a small town in Cameroon the Batanga tribe celebrates the Ninth of May, the day that marks their return from exile at the end of World War I, more than a hundred years ago.

When World War I began, Kamerun was a German colony. The colony was named after the abundant fresh water shrimp, called camarao by the early Portuguese explorers, to be found in its rivers. The Germans had built a big port at Douala and an administrative capital at Yaoundé. Along the southern coast there was a small town called Kribi with a lighthouse, a church and a prison. The Batanga of Kribi were fishermen, living in villages under the tall coconut trees. They went to sea in dugout canoes and sometimes brought back sharks as big or bigger than their canoes. They were proud people who had converted to Christianity early. Some of them were educated and there was even a pastor who had studied in the United States. They looked down on the neighbouring, “pagan” tribes. They were not interested in working in the German coffee plantations because they could satisfy all their needs by fishing. Finding them difficult to govern, the German authorities had had their traditional chief hanged.

One day two large ships flying British flags anchored outside the port of Kribi. They were too large to dock, but began bombarding the German buildings and were preparing to ferry soldiers to shore. The world war had come to Kribi. The German force was too small to resist and decided to retreat into the interior, towards Ebolowa.

When the British marines landed, they were greeted with open arms by the local population, who saw them as liberators. Unfortunately, the Germans had been able to summon more soldiers and were soon returning to retake the town, considering it too strategic to abandon. Kribi controlled the only road that led into southern Kamerun.

Realizing that they were not numerous enough to hold their position against the German reinforcements, the British decided to retreat. When the Batangas learned that their hated masters were returning there was a general panic. Their chief had already been hanged. Everyone was convinced that the German soldiers would massacre the entire population for having welcomed the British to their town so enthusiastically. They pleaded with the British naval officer, Captain Taylor, to let them board the ships. He agreed to carry them to the western part of Cameroon where they would be safe from German reprisals.

The fishermen had their own canoes and were able to paddle their families out to the British ships. Those who didn’t have a canoe swam. Louis Ngandé was about eleven years old and he told of going to the ship astraddle a broken piece of an old canoe, all he could find. The Batanga were using anything that floated to get them to safety. Today when they tell the story, they sing in English, “Taylor, wait for me.” The tradition is that all the Batangas, men, women and children, re-enact the scene every ninth of May, singing “Taylor, wait for me”, as they wade into the sea. They say that if you bathe in the sea on that day, you will not drown during the year.

There are many oral traditions dating from the day the Batangas left their home and were carried into exile. They tell about the pastor who refused to go with the others who were being herded by the sailors into the hold. “I’m a pastor!” he said indignantly in excellent English. Captain Taylor replied, “Today, even if you were Jesus Christ, you would go into the hold.”
The Batanga refugees were taken to what is now West Cameroon and put into a camp. They were in a strange land, surrounded by people who did not speak their language and there was not enough food. They suffered and some died, far from their homeland.

At the end of the war Kamerun was divided into West Cameroon, which became a British colony, and East Cameroun, which became a French colony. Transportation was organized for the Batangas once the Germans had permanently left the area. On the ninth of May, 1916, they landed on the beach they had been forced to abandon. Ever since they celebrate their homecoming each year with a parade, dances, banquets, festivities and an “opera” where they enact the scenes of their exile, remembering many dialogs that their grandparents or great-grandparents told them about word for word, preserving the event in the memory of new generations.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I’m re-re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. So much wisdom and foresight and humanity, it should be required reading if anything ever should be. And I come across this passage which seems so pertinent in today’s world:

“His speeches were long and loud. Praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of ‘disloyal factions,’ discussions of the integrity of the kingdom’s borders, lectures in history, ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, ….I decided that he wished to arouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. …He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, although he used the words perpetually. As he used them, they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about truth also, for he was, he said, cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization. It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer or paint or plyofilm or whatever, hiding the noble reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural, that it is the opposite of primitiveness. Of course, there is no veneer. The process is one of growth and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things you have either one or the other. Not both.”

Does Acquisition require Output?

I had an interesting discussion about language acquisition with the father of one of my younger students. He explained to me how he discovered at the age of twenty-two that he could speak fluent Italian.

He was born and grew up in southwest France, near Agen. His father’s family immigrated from Italy when his father was a very small child, so his father grew up speaking Italian at home and French in school and was perfectly bilingual. He went back to their native village for a bride. When she arrived in France, she spoke only her Italian dialect. The couple spoke Italian at home and the first child, a boy, grew up bilingual. The man I met was the second child. By the time he was born the mother had learned to speak French

Since everyone in the family spoke French and the second son heard only French outside of his home, his first words were in French. As a toddler, he sometimes heard his parents speaking to each other in Italian, but when he tried to speak Italian, they laughed at him, saying he had a French accent. He felt humiliated by their laughter and he stopped making any effort to speak Italian. Because his parents considered their Italian dialect substandard, they did not encourage the children to speak it. He told me, “It wasn’t the Italian they taught in schools.”

He went to Italy a few times as a child with his parents, who acted as interpreters for him when they visited relatives. Having grown up in a home where Italian was spoken, he understood the conversations around him, but, being shy, he never found it necessary to speak for himself. He was convinced he didn’t know how to speak Italian because he had never practiced it.

Years later, he took his French bride to Italy on a honeymoon and found that there was no one in the village who could interpret for him. So, out of necessity, he tried to communicate and quickly found the language “spilling out of his mouth”. Without ever having practiced speaking or studied conjugations, he told me that he was able to speak fluently within about three days. His wife was present and assured me that after the first couple of days he spoke easily without any hesitations. He says now that he has a slight accent and makes a few mistakes with gender but otherwise his language is grammatically correct.

This case study seems to support the view that comprehensible input is sufficient for acquisition.

Tao Te Ching for Language Teachers

January 1st, 2020

“Brim-fill the bowl, it’ll spill over.” Lao Tzu by way of Ursula K. Le Guin

As language teachers, we want to hear our students speak. Yet, we all have seen the results of forced output: students who dread speaking, who hesitate and stumble and the one phrase that comes out is exactly what they know is incorrect. It’s like trying to draw water from a shallow, muddy well. When I asked a university class of eighteen year old English majors to describe a frightening experience, at least a quarter of them wrote about being called on to speak in English in class.

Stephen Krashen tells us to give our students optimal input, rich and varied input, and the output will take care of itself. I’ve often used the image of the glass of water filled to the brim with students who want to practice speaking. When they speak because they can’t help themselves, when they are not practicing but communicating something essential, the language that flows from their mouths will be clear and correct.

Other teachers insist that students need to practice. “You learn to speak by speaking.” Yet Lao Tzu continues with “Keep sharpening the blade, you’ll soon blunt it.” By forcing students to speak before they are ready, before the speech spills out of their mouth, we are blunting their spontaneous desire to speak. One of my adult students told a story about being called to the phone in her office because her colleagues knew she was taking English lessons. The caller was English and spoke no French. My student answered their questions and gave them the information they needed. When she hung up, she was utterly amazed at herself. Telling me about it she said, “I don’t know where the words were coming from. I completely forgot I was speaking in English, I just wanted to help them.”

Fill the bowl to the brim and it will spill over.

Give your students optimal input. When their minds are filled with lovely language, it will spill out of their mouths.

Our Team

Who is coming to Agen this year? I’m so delighted that some very wonderful people have given up part of their summer holiday to join us in Agen. There will be six or seven language labs with some amazing teachers. Linda Li will be teaching Mandarin, Jason Fritze will be teaching Spanish, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak will teach the French lab. Judith Dubois and Tamara Galvan will be teaching English. We are still exploring other possibilities, some new names and some familiar ones. As in the past, we suggest that those who are new to Comprehensible Input methods go to Daniel Kline Dubois to Acquire Breton, a Celtic language that has nothing in common with the Romance languages. Putting yourself in the student’s place is still the best way to grasp the power of Comprehensible Input strategies. I will post updates from time to time on the Agen Workshop Facebook page.

Our coaching team will once again be led by Robert Harrell. He will be assisted by Rosana Navarro, Philip Smith, Janique Vanderstocken, Jayne Cooke, Sally Rose, Scott Benedict and Ariene Bortutski. I’m very proud that more and more of our coaches are native Europeans who are familiar with conditions on this side of the pond.

Some presenters who are already committed to coming to Agen are: Karen Rowan, Hélène Colinet, Kathrin Shechtman, Adriana Ramirez, Anna Gilcher, Rachelle Adams and Kirstin Plante. If you are not familiar with them already, you can find out more about them by googling their names. I will keep you informed as others finalize their plans.

Those of you who were there last year may have noticed that the technology worked great the first part of the week and there were problems towards the end. We had the very competent support of Carey Pohanka during the first few days, then she had to leave. Next year Carey will be with us all week long!

Sabrina’s Immersion Workshop If you teach French and have adult students interested in coming for the week, contact me or Sabrina. If you teach French and want to improve your proficiency, or if you teach another language and want to learn French, you may want to attend Sabrina and Daniel’s two weeks of immersion. A trial run last year was so successful that they are offering two weeks of French immersion this year. Participants will attend the morning lab sessions the first week and have lessons with Daniel and Sabrina the second week. There will be afternoon activities the first week for those who are not teachers and afternoon excursions the second week. More information here: