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how we acquire language: language-rich input

It is true that we can experience flow state (being “lost” in the process) not only when hearing or reading a story, but also in many other everyday activities, like when we play game, or just walking, staring at the sunset, listening to music, chatting with friends, etc.

But notice that not all activities are equally language-rich. For example, we may be lost for hours and hours in a nonverbal game or a game that’s not language-rich, but it doesn’t give us language-rich input needed for language acquisition and literacy development.

So no matter how comprehensible or compelling an activity is, if it’s not language-rich, then it alone is not efficient and strategic for the purpose of language acquisition and developing literacy.


building the “intuition” of language for speaking

If foreign input is made comprehensible, students will be able to turn it as real intake they can (subconsciously) process and work with. Overtime, this type of exposure provides the fundamental data required for building intuition (mental representation) of the language.

Once students begin to build the intuition of the language and feel “click” with the language, they can gradually tap for self-expression and naturally produce output. Another way to state this is that learner production of language is allowed to emerge on its own, as they are compelled to speak their mind.

Naturally, when we have received enough comprehensible input, and build the intuition of the target language, our brain will be able to run in reverse. Our target language will start spilling out of us.

Once we reach this point, we’re ready for output. We’ve spent all this time building a pool of latent ability through input. The next step is to convert that latent ability into output ability.

So exposing yourself to these situations that cause your brain to search through your pool of acquired language and make those words and phrases available to you for output is the way to develop output ability.

Sometimes, our brain won’t be able to find the right thing to say or write. These moments show you where you haven’t yet acquired the necessary language. Armed with this knowledge, you can target your immersion and fill in the gaps. This output/input loop allows you to quickly achieve basic fluency.

Therefore, we need to spend more time on student comprehension (through listening and reading) in order to build their intuition of the language, rather than immediately embark on the drilling of the language production (speaking and writing) itself.

is correcting error helpful for building accuracy?

Imagine yourself being a student sitting in a language class. The teacher has just finished explaining a certain rule of grammar, and now is asking you an assessment question. Answering the question: one part of your mind starts putting the sentence together while making sure its grammar accuracy, then activating your vocal chords … but at the same time, another part of your mind is monitoring what you are doing, inspecting your own speech accuracy and pronunciation, keeping an eye of things, and quite in a sudden this (monitoring) part of your mind catches a wrong ending on the verb you are pronouncing, and right at the very second you manage to correct it just before it gets out of your mouth (with a slight hesitation).

While monitoring error may make a small contribution to accuracy through conscious reason, the research indicates that it is the acquisition that makes the major contribution to the development of natural accuracy. Besides, it is very difficult to keep every grammar rule consciously in your head while trying to have a conversation.

After studying some grammar rules and vocabulary, our students may immediately be able to produce some output and to translate a sentence or two, word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase, from Indonesian to English, but the result won’t probably sound as natural. It’s because each language has its own unique sensibility that cannot be fully captured to the other language through mere grammatical translation method taught in learning method.

One of the main functions of student output is thus to let the teacher know where students are in terms of their acquisition. If the teacher notices students having difficulty with something in particular, then the first thing the teacher might want to consider is to provide more examples of it in the input.

Watch the video below to explore this topic further.

is error correction helpful for developing fluency?

“The major, who had been the great fencer, did not believe in bravery, and spent much time while we sat in the machines correcting my grammar. He had complimented me on how I spoke Italian, and we talked together very easily. One day I had said that Italian seemed like such an easy language to me that I could not take a great interest in it; everything was so easy to say. “Ah yes,” the major said, “Why then, do you not take up the use of grammar?” So we took up the use of grammar, and soon Italian was such a difficult language that I was afraid to talk to him until I had the grammar straight in my mind.”

(E. Hemmingway, In Another Country)

Some research shows that when we focus on rules when speaking, we produce less information, and we slow down. This can seriously disrupt conversation. Some people “over-monitor” and are so concerned with grammar and accuracy that speech is slow and even painful to produce as well as to listen to.

So if we want to speak fluently, then over-actively checking everything for grammar before it gets out of our mouth is going to be a hindrance rather than a help. It makes us anxious and it slows down our language production.

One of the primary functions of student output is to let the teacher know where students are in terms of their acquisition. If the teacher notices students having difficulty in speaking with fluency, then the first thing to consider might be to provide them more input so they may acquire and develop greater intuition of the language. Once they begin to feel click with language, they will be able to tap for fluent self-expression.

what is then the use of error correction?

The use of monitor is very limited, but it is not useless at all. Some conscious knowledge of language can be eventually helpful. Acquisition does not, typically, provide us with 100% of a language; there is often a small residue of grammar, punctuation and spelling rules that even native speakers do not acquire, even after extensive aural and written comprehensible input.

In English, these can include the lie/lay distinction, the its/its distinction, and spelling demons such as “separate,” and “commitment” (how many t’s), and so on.

And because our standard for written communication is 100%, these aspects of language need to be learned, but it is important to note that they make up just a small part of our language competence, and we will acquire and learn about it as we do reading and writing.

Saya sendiri baru tahu saat menulis tulisan ini bahwa imbuhan yang benar adalah "mengoreksi" bukan "mengkoreksi," dan belum terlalu lama saya juga baru tahu bahwa benar adalah "sekadar," bukan "sekedar," dan berapa banyak dari kita yang tahu bahwa ada kata "derana" dalam perbendarahaan bahasa Indonesia? Saya tidak. Tentu masih ada lagi sisa aturan bahasa dan kosakata bahasa Indonesia lain yang belum kita serap. Tapi sisa aturan bahasa dan kosakata itu bisa kita peroleh sembari jalan karena kita sudah memiliki dasar intuisi bahasa Indonesia yang solid, dan bahasa Indonesia masih terus berkembang.

should we end the grammatically-based language learning?

In “learning” method, we focus our students to the the grammar rules and vocabulary. In this method, we train out students to build their conscious knowledge about the grammar rules and vocabulary and use them as the building block to construct sentences.

But, problem is, even the best in our class might not even remember all the rules they have learned, and they can’t always use the rules they do remember.

The fact is that many rules are too complex to apply while at the same time engaging in conversation. Indeed, it is very difficult and to keep every grammar checked while engaging in a conversation!

That’s when someone who learn English primarily through the study of grammar rules and vocabulary memorization do not produce fluent and accurate English. Because they basically develop their cognitive knowledge of the English, they thus don’t have the tacit knowledge or the “intuition” of English that enables them to fluently and accurately produce the output.

In this way, when they want to speak accurately, they cognitively translating their thoughts from the native language into the target language with the grammatical rules they learned. This means they are cognitively and constantly juggling between their native language and the target language. This process of producing language is not only very difficult to do, but also painful to listen. In learning method, accuracy is thus at the cost of fluency.

And vice versa is true: fluency is at the cost of accuracy. If we want to speak out target language fluently, it’s usually at the cost of accuracy. We produce grammatically inaccurate (broken) target language (broken English).

talking is not practicing

If you break down Mandarin into discrete vocabulary and drill them in front of the mirror every morning, divorced from the context of real communication and understanding, chances are your ability to naturally speak Mandarin will not significantly improve.

Rather, the ability to speak (and write) is the natural result of the having acquired lots of input. Imagine the ability to produce language as the tip of an iceberg: which is just a small perceptible part of a much larger situation: the prior knowledge that has been stored and remains hidden in long-term memory.

Check fact: Many Mandarin teachers who can fluently speak and write Mandarin have the background of having acquired a considerable amount of Mandarin through real communication in their family or community, or from consuming lots of movies or music or reading in Mandarin.

The way that speaking help language acquisition is indirect: by speaking, we can elicit some conversation, and conversation can be an excellent source of comprehensible input that students can acquire. And besides, speaking can also help students feel more like a user of the target language, like a member of the Chinese “community,” for example.

how language production occurs: compelled (not only interested) to talk

To make students talk, the input and activity itself should be interesting. But interest may be not enough for stimulating students to talk and communicate: it should be compelling.

If the input and the activity is compelling, it will engages the students completely. Their sense of self and time is diminished: Only the story exists.

Being immersed in a feeling of energized focus and full involvement in the process of the story/activity, they may temporarily forget that they are hearing and talking in another language.

The more engaged we are, the more compelled we are to speak and contribute to the discussion, even though our language production is not so fluent and accurate yet.

So there you go: Getting the student lost in the process is at the core of ways to make people communicate.

how to teach grammar

The problem wasn’t necessarily grammar itself: it was the way it has been taught. As if grammar was a standalone subject where random sentences were divided into their constituent grammatical parts.

In acquisition approach, the study of grammar and memorizing vocabulary is not the end of the learning and assessment, but means to help us know what is possible in the language, and so we can get the job done grammatically creative for different situations. So, grammar is not linguistic straight jackets and rules; it is how creativity manifests itself in language.

The primary way to teach grammar

Here’s the idea: we do not acquire grammar and vocabulary primarily not through out-of-context grammar drilling, e.g. underline adjective, circling the noun, filling in the blank with the right structure, matching picture and words.

This kind of out-of-context drilling activities does neither help us to acquire the grammar/vocabulary nor uncover the beauty in the language. This work doesn’t uncover the beauty of the English language, nor does it it unleash creativity in our children. It may even do the opposite as it shapes students to the writing that serves no real expressive or communicative purpose, but reduced their thought to just finding and getting the ‘right’ answer.

The primary way to acquire grammar and vocabulary is through experiencing exemplary literature (and meaningful conversations and language-rich activities around it). This is where grammar is real. This is where we acquire the ways in which we can play with language to achieve our intentions.

In great text, we are immersed into ways how the author uses their language knowledge and how they organize their words and sentences to make us notice, feel, see or imagine something.

The importance of great books and language-rich conversations

What we can do with written language can be very different from what we can do with spoken language. When we write, we have time time to hone and craft the language, and so the grammar of writing has some differences from the grammar of real-time conversation or speech.

If we don’t immerse student into great writings, we leave them to fall back on what they intuitively know about language, and as a consequence they simply write like they speak.

And studies confirm that the language of children’s books is richer and more complex than the most of spoken language of even college graduates. Thus, children experiencing great children’s book is an unparalleled opportunity to expose them to sophisticated language, vocabulary, and broad knowledge.

That’s why the time in language education is best spent for listening, reading and discussion around great books, and secondarily on language-rich activity rooted in those things.

In my own experience, teacher comments (including mine) on students work (their speaking and writing, etc.) may quite often be vague, too informal, or too colloquial, too chatty, rambling, or repetitive. Students need more meaningful direction than this. They need immersion to great writings and story-telling, language-rich conversations and meaningful comments to actually grow their whole language competence.