Interesting observation about rates of acquisition


I’ve trained my students to answer this question correctly:

  • Whose fault is it if you don’ t know a French word?

The correct answer is ‘my fault’! – that is ‘me – the teacher’

Shocked at first because they anticipated that I would say it was THEIR fault as students, I quickly follow up with this question:

  • Whose fault is it if I, the teacher, say a word or phrase in French and you don’t understand what I say?

The correct answer is ‘the student’s fault’!

My job is to make everything comprehensible and their job is to listen with the intention to understand.  Students are to raise their hand or give me a time-out signal and then I’ll give them a quick English translation and/or write the English on the board.

Anecdotal research shows that we need to hear and understand a chunk of meaningful language (word or phrase) around 70 times for us to be able to produce it on our own. Exceptions to this frequency rule and requiring very few repetions are swear words and memorable, logical translations.  (Cotton candy is ‘la barbe à papa’ or Daddy’s beard).

Imagine my surprise the other day when a student came to me for some review and I asked him:

  • How do you say in French – ‘he has’?

The boy didn’t know.  So I told him, ‘il a’ and asked, “Does that sound familiar?”

Unexpectedly he responded in the negative.  We use ‘il a/he has’ over and over again because every scenario or story contains a character who HAS A PROBLEM.  And I even have taught an associative gesture where I open my left hand and using my right hand index finger make a large gesture pointing to the empty palm while repeating, ‘il a’.

I filed that bit of evidence away until I could follow up with an experiment.  A new student, who as an 8th grader has been in my class 5 months and knew no French before she started last August, walked in and I queried her, “Susie, I  have an unrelated question for you.  How do you say ‘he has’ in French?”

  • out popped, “il a”, the correct translation

What do I conclude?

  • Student #1 has not heard ‘il a’  and understood it enough times but….
  • Student # 2 has heard the phrase sufficiently and it is now part of her

Why the difference?  Probably because ‘il a’ has not been important to the first student. He happens to be a student who zones out quite a bit.  Those students need more monitoring, that is teachers need to check with them often for comprehension without calling undo attention.  A quick ” Bob, what does ‘il a’ mean?”  is enough.  Then I can write both the French and the English on the board, no matter his response, nod my head, and say, “Correct!  ‘Il a’ means ‘I have’.”

As they say in French:”La répétition est la mère de la mémoire”, or “Repetition is the mother of memory”.


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