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adventures in second language acquisition – input matters

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“SLA history is not 2,000 years old but almost as old as human history and that throughout this long period, people have acquired rather than learned L2s, considering the rather short history of linguistic sciences.”
– Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

So Minna Kirjavainen ended her talk by emphasising the similarities between L1 and L2 learning. It’s a long hard slog, and we all make plenty of embarrassing faux pas along the way. Marjo Mitsutomi then began her elaborations on L2 learning by mentioning in passing the host of theories and approaches to SLA over the past few years – behaviourism, Chomsky’s universal grammar, Krashen’s hypotheses etc – before listing what they all generally agree on, and that is, firstly, that the first stage of L2 is necessarily different from that of L1, due to L1 influence; secondly that L2 learning generally starts later, and the critical period hypothesis might play a role, along with other biological or neurological constraints, and thirdly that there’s generally an issue of ‘interlanguage’, the sort of make-do syntax that’s neither quite L1 or L2.

Mitsutomi then introduced the ‘newest theory’ (and it’s new to me) in the field, chaos theory. As the name suggests, it proposes that language and its acquisition is multi-faceted and enormously complex. She quotes a proponent of the theory, A J van Lier, describing language as a complex adaptive system involving endless and multiform interactions between individual and environment. Another proponent describes it as dynamic, non-linear, adaptive and feedback-sensitive, self-organising and emergent. No doubt each of those terms could be fleshed out at great length, though whether it all amounts to a theory might be questionable. In any case Mitsutoni makes the obviously correct point that there are many many factors, with different loadings for each individual learner, that make SLA a very difficult long-term task. And of course it makes the task of the teacher difficult too, because every learner is in a different place with different issues. Nevertheless Mitsutomi identifies some key concepts:

  • negotiation for meaning – try to get learners to say something original and unrehearsed, to produce language that’s owned by the learner
  • noticing a gap – being aware, as a learner, of the gap between what you want/need to do and what you can do (the next step, which you should be taking in an encouraging environment, with the expectation that mistakes will be made again and again and gently corrected)
  • variables – for the educator, trying to take account of the many variables among learners, such as motivation, anxiety, production experience (many learners come from Asian ‘school English’ backgrounds where their production of English has been very limited, practically non-existent), L1 competence, etc, is a monumental task, and fossilisation is likely to always be a problem
  • rate and type of input, control of learning, and many other internal and external factors contribute to a sense of ‘chaos’ in the class with every learner varying in what they allow in, and what effort they expend.

Control of learning is a key issue Mitsutomi focuses upon, by emphasising how L2 ‘learners’ can control for not learning, in a way that L1 learners can’t, because learning L1 is learning language itself, and without that skill we’d be lost in the human world. So the L2 learner, safely aware of her full humanity as an effective L1 user, can and generally does choose how much effort to put into L2 acquisition.

So how can we motivate them to focus on L2 learning, considering the many distractions they’re dealing with? Mitsutomi  employs a quote from one of the early proposers of chaos theory, Vera Menezes:

… the edge of chaos will be reached if students can get rich input, interact with proficient speakers, and if they can use the second language for social purposes, dealing with different oral, written or digital genres in formal and informal contexts.

So we need to provide learners with rich, stimulating, relevant content in a motivating environment. And the most motivating environment of all is one that’s embodied, that connects with feeling and action. And Mitsutomi emphasises authenticity, the creation of original thoughts in the L2, and the deciphering of meaning in unpredictable contexts – where, again, embodied clues will help.

So what are some examples of embodied teaching? Well one way is to recognise language that’s difficult for students and to see if there’s an embodied way of teaching it, of acting it out. Take the preposition ‘into’. I’ve noticed that EGP and EAPP students almost invariably don’t think of this in tests where prepositions are specifically asked for, they often write ‘in’ and get a half-mark, but ‘into’ is a kind of action preposition, which almost always goes with an action verb, specifically ‘go’ and ‘come’, but also ‘put’, so it’s perfect for a bit of embodied teaching. It’s a word containing two morphemes obviously, and its opposite is two words, ‘out of’, and these opposites might best be taught together. Ask students to take a pencil out of the pencil-case, and then to put the pencil into the case. Go out of the room, through the door, and come into the room, through the door. Ask the students what they’ve just done. Hopefully the actions will reinforce the language. If nothing else, they tend to be more stimulated, more engaged, when combining action with words in this way.

Some expressions used, and often abused, by learners in argument and comparative essays can often benefit from being taught in an embodied way. ‘On the one hand/on the other hand’ is a notorious example. Ask students to put something slightly heavy on one hand, and then to think of something equally heavy that might be put on the other hand to balance the argument. This might work wonders but then again maybe not, no harm in trying. Similar tricks might be tried with ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘on balance’ and any terms which have a physical sense of distance or weight or proportion to them. Of course there are limits, and abstract connecting words (conjunctions) such as ‘although’ and ‘whereas’ and their differentiation are fiendishly difficult to illustrate or adequately explain (though we should always try to have explanations handy). Alternatively, we should be actively discouraging the use of these kinds of terms – ‘whereas’ ‘although, ‘despite’, ‘in spite of’, because these are the sorts of terms that L1 users only get a handle on later. You won’t find too many five or six-year-old L1 speakers using them, yet in EAP classes we cram them in, or try to, when learners are still getting a handle on basic grammar and trying to build their basic vocabulary. In most cases ‘whereas’ can be replaced with ‘but’ in a straight swap. Words like ‘despite’ can be avoided through rearranging the sentence, and then only slightly. Let’s look at an example:

Despite having lived in Norway for ten years, he never got used to the cold.

Change to:

He had lived in Norway for ten years but had never got used to the cold.

The word ‘but’ could be replaced with ‘yet’, but using ‘yet’ in this way is also too abstract, and too confusing. Keep it simple – they will learn this through input in their own time. Advice to learners would be to use the simpler conjunctions, unless they’re quite certain about how to use the more abstract ones.

In the last paragraph I slipped in the word input.  This is a key term in second language acquisition, according to the linguist Bill van Patten of Michigan State University.  In this lecture van Patten claims that ‘after four decades of L2 research what has become crystal clear is language in the mind and brain is not built up from practice but from constant and consistent exposure to input’. He goes on to define input as ‘what readers hear or read in a communicative context’. He then makes a further, perhaps shocking claim that this language that they hear or read in these contexts is responded to ‘for its meaning not for its form or structure’. Meaningful input is essential for SLA, – that’s to say for the language to begin to exist inside the learner, as a mental thing, sensed and felt – and practice is not a substitute. Of course this raises issues for teaching, especially as  van Patten argues that role-playing within class is no substitute for real communication where meaning is negotiated. If it’s all about input and meaning, can L2 be taught in a classroom at all?

This raises questions about whether there is a difference between classroom learning and immersive acquisition, or rather (because there’s obviously a difference) whether classroom learning can ever substitute for the immersive circumstances of L1-type learning. In order to explore this further I want to engage with some of the highly influential ideas of Stephen Krashen, who apparently takes a dim view of much conventional second language teaching. Is what we’re doing a complete waste of time, or can we do it better? How should we be doing our job, considering the constraints and the expectations of ‘English for academic purposes’ in which we’re supposed to be transforming relatively low-level English users into potential university essayists in English?

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Written by stewart henderson

February 6, 2017 at 11:33 pm