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.

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