Kids’ L2 speaking and how it emerges

Listening to Professor Bill Van Patten’s weekly podcast on L2 (2nd language acquisition) really helps me think correctly about how I plan and conduct my middle school French classes.

Van Patten explains that through comprehensible input a mental representation of the target language begins to form in the mind.

What qualifies as ‘comprehensible input’?  It is language (in my case French):

  • that students understand
  • that communicates a message or useful/interesting information to them
  • whose message they actually receive and absorb

What begins to happen in the mind is the formation of a picture of the parts or language chunks of the message.  I say parts or chunks, rather than words, because separating sounds is tricky.

Consider this question in English, written down as we hear it daily:

‘Whatcha doin?’ (What are you doing?)

Someone acquiring English as a 2nd language perceives the message as 2 distinct clumps that provide meaning.  ‘Whatcha’ has to do with requesting content and ‘doin’ has to do with clarifying the content desired.  It’ll take months of more oral input and reading for a student to realize that this question is made up of 4 separate words, but that is a topic for another post!)

So why am I bringing up this topic of emerging speech and mental representation? Because all L2 teachers want their students’ speech in the target language to grow clearer and more accurate.  And there is much debate over how to reach that goal!

This principle of teaching that I employ relies on communication by CI or comprehensible input.  The theory and practice centers around giving abundant and rich CI to students so that what starts as FUZZY mental representations gradually sharpen over time.

What will come out of their mouths is an exact picture of the mental representation of the language they hold at that time.

I saw this up close a couple of weeks ago.  I had my 7th graders (having been with them for 9 months of 6th grade + 7 months this year) use a self-prepared Google presentation recounting the story of the novel Le Nouvel Houdini.

As each student sat down with me at my desk and talked through his/her slides, I was given a perfect demonstration of the mental representation of French in each mind.  Fa-sci-na-ting!  The range of clarity and accuracy probably could be displayed by a bell curve.  I marveled at the evidence of this truth.  Students spoke out of what had been imprinted inside of them, up to this moment in their French acquisition career.

What listening to Bill Van Patten has taught me to consider is this:

  • how spoken language emerges (applies to one’s maternal language or L1 as well as L2)
  • how the rate of developing accuracy differs for every human

And I have been left with this implication:

  • If accuracy develops differently for every student, then how fair is it to evaluate speaking ability?

If your toddler has acquired and can easily communicate 50 distinct words in his native language but your neighbor’s child is a late bloomer and can only say 5 words, does her mom consider her a failure?  No!

So how did I grade my 7th graders when they presented to me desk side?

I used a nuts and bolts concrete rubric that detailed specific items to be included in the presentation.  I then invested the one-on-one time with each dear child to bolster his or her confidence in how well each had spoken.  My goal was for each to be WOWED by the individual level of proficiency.  Much more impactful than an arbitrary letter or number grade.

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