My 26th year practicing the art of helping students acquire French débuted 2 weeks ago! Actually, that is not entirely accurate. The first 12 years I didn’t focus on language acquisition. Instead, I taught students ABOUT the French language. I instructed them:
- how to conjugate verbs
- how to spell words
- how to figure out adjectival agreement
- where those quirky accents go
- how to mimic French sounds as best I could
Did my students leave my room speaking French? Maybe some did if they were lucky.
But then a paradigm new to me disrupted my teaching. I attended an immersion weekend at Sweet Briar College in Virginia where I experienced a revolutionary way of teaching a language. The goal differed. Content ABOUT the language was no longer the focus. Acquiring the language, being able to understand and eventually speak a 2nd language took its place. The new language delivery system centered on ‘comprehensible input’, the ability to understand the message communicated, whether orally or in writing.
That October weekend of 2002 changed my relationship with French forever: my own language skills grew, students left my classroom able to speak French and I began to teach French with more joy and satisfaction.
Each year my understanding and skills have grown.
This summer I worked on my own fledgling Spanish skills through comprehensible input, read practical pedagogy, thought about methods and soaked up podcast discussions of L2 (2nd language) acquisition (Professor Bill Van Patton from Michigan State).
I began the new school year two weeks ago with one goal: to deliver interesting language in different forms so that students understand what I am communicating. The brain will sort out on its own the amazing complexity of language. For it is a fact that at birth, our brains come ready equipped, in essence, ‘wired’, to receive multiple languages, but only through much, much rich content.
Part of teaching via CI (comprehensible input) is educating students and their parents about how we acquire language. It happens to be a very intuitive, natural and automatic process. After all, most healthy human beings acquire their native language and develop fluency without much effort. They rely on hearing with understanding. I call it Mommy Talk. And it starts as soon as your baby is born, and maybe earlier in the womb! Psychology Today reported that babies who live in word-rich environments benefit significantly and produce speech at an earlier age than home/daycare settings where few words were spoken to and around the child. Consider the startling fact about differences in input (taken from the above – linked Psychology Today report):
- “Some infants heard fewer than 2000 words in a day, while some heard over 15,000. In addition, there were big differences in child-directed speech. Some families spoke fewer than 1000 words to their children in a day, while others spoke over 10,000 words to their children.”
My conclusion from both research and experience? If I want my students to understand and eventually produce speech with ease, then I need to make the most of the precious minutes I have with them in class. Only input that students receive and understand will fill their brains with language and allow their brains to do what comes naturally.
The question that drives all my planning this year is:
Will this activity increase acquisition or not?
PS: As an aside, sometime this summer I was struck by the parallel way of growing one’s language acquisition and one’s faith in God. Just as ‘comprehensible input’ rests on the premise that acquisition comes from the compelling repetition of language that one understands, so too one’s Christian faith rests on repetition and a soaking in of the truth of the good news about God’s rescue plan for humanity. (Romans 10:17 – So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.)