What IS the skill involved in 2nd language acquisition?

Pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell popularized the ‘10,000 hour rule’ for building competency and skill in a chosen activity when he wrote his popular book, Outliers.

Recently at the American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL)‘s 2016 annual conference in Boston, I crystallized my sense of how second-language classes in schools should operate.  Often these foreign language classes are thought of in the same way as a content course such as history or literature. True enough, French literature or 20th century Hispanic culture are offerings that contain meaty content, transmitted via the language. But even with a focus on information delivery and analysis, the overall purpose of signing up for a foreign language is to be able to COMMUNICATE.

It follows, then, that if you want to comprehend, read and speak a language, treating language as active skill to acquire rather than a body of knowledge to obtain is the appropriate approach.  Here is where Gladwell’s treatment of skill acquisition and mastery intersects this discussion.

Do you want to become good at receiving and producing the language?  Then practice for a sufficient number of hours. (10,000 per Gladwell)

But what does ‘practice’ look like?  Does one perform the skill in order to improve?   We can visualize how correctly repeating ballet moves or soccer kicks and passes or machine-gun disassembly and reassembly should advance your prowess.  Is the method of 2nd language acquisition like that?

I always return to thinking about how babies and small children acquire their first language.  They certainly don’t start to speak right away.  They absorb and comprehend oral and physical speech segments directed TO them that are repeated with love until they ‘get the message.’

Allow me to segué to a completely different context to draw out a parallel illustration. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans that ‘faith comes from hearing the message’ (Romans 10:17).  People don’t DO something to be given faith. Through hearing and understanding the correct content or message of the Good News of what Jesus has done FOR us, the gift of faith is given.

In the same way, through hearing and comprehending the message, the gift of 2nd language acquisition is given. There’s nothing to DO but tune in and seek to comprehend the message from the other person, either spoken or written.  And over time, acquisition will come.

If it is indeed true that acquisition comes only in this way, hearing with understanding, how should we structure our classrooms?

I think it’s obvious.  The only thing that counts is CI or comprehensible input.  What ‘flavor’ or type will vary, depending on the community you are teaching.

Next time, I will talk about an idea that I have for growing more aware of how many minutes I spend in actual comprehensible input.

What have you noticed about yourself, your students or about your own children/grandchildren at home and language acquisition? 





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