breakthrough distinction: acquisition and learning

A 19th century language educator, M. Gouin, was obsessed with the language of German. His effort to learn German was herculean, people said: He knew everybody’s ‘Method,’ and learned the whole dictionary through and through, but shockingly, he found at the end that he did not know one word of German ‘as his nephew spoke.’ … So, after a ten months’ of his study at German, he returned to France and found that his little nephew—whom, when he left, was about two and a half years old, and not yet able to talk—had done what his uncle had failed to do just in such short of time.

“What!” M. Gouin said, “this child and I have been working for the same time, each at a language. He, playing round his mother, running after flowers, butterflies and birds, without learning, without apparent effort, without even being conscious of his work, is able to say all he thinks, express all he sees, understand all he hears … But I, knew all the grammar, versed in the sciences, versed in philosophy, armed with a powerful will, gifted with a powerful memorizing thousands of vocabularies . . . . have arrived at nothing, or at practically nothing!'”

(Home Education, 305, Charlotte Mason).


Language acquisition is basically what M. Gouin’s nephew and all children in the world naturally do everyday: playing and being fully immersed in day-to-day encounters with others and things in the world. There, they subconsciously (and wealthily!) acquire the language use embedded in the practice.

When it happens: when they are acquiring the language, they are usually not aware they are acquiring it, because it’s subconscious.

On the other hand, language learning is similar with what M. Gouin did two centuries ago and what many students still do in today. They heavily focus to the study of out-of-context grammatical rules and vocabulary memorizations for constructing out-of-context sentences.

While acquisition is a subconscious and intuitive process, study is very a conscious and cognitive about the mechanism of the language. So when we are studying about a language, we are aware that we are learning about a language: about its grammatical rules, its vocabulary, etc.


Source:
Krashen, Stephen D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

how we acquire language: compelling (not just interesting) input

We know that the study of grammatical rules and vocabulary memorization can be so boring. That’s why many teachers nowadays are trying to make their teaching a bit more fun by adding some game activities in their lesson, and use fresh graphics in their presentation slides.

This (gamification and fresh graphics) approach is exactly what many language learning apps are trying to do as well (e.g. Duolingo and Babbel). They want to make language learning less boring by using some gamified learning processes and interesting graphics in their applications.

Indeed, gamification can add some fun, and cute graphics can seem interesting. But the problem of this approach is basically sugar-coating. It coats the boring content of the language learning (meaningless grammatical rules a nd vocabulary memorization) with the some games and graphics, so that the students would want to consume it.

Instead of focusing on making the language content intrinsically interesting in itself, this approach depends on the extrinsic to make the content less boring.


A fundamentally new approach to language education: acquisition

Instead of using some extrinsic tricks, coating and rewards, we want to help students completely engaged and stay motivated by using the intrinsic power of the language itself, that is by using great stories, meaningful conversations and language-rich activities around it.

So, the story we select has to be interesting, or better: it has to be compelling.

Compelling story/conversation/activity is one that is so meaningful and so powerful, that it can engage us completely into it. Imagine the moment when we were lost in a compelling story, our sense of self and sense of time was diminished: Only the story existed. The language faded into the background, and we temporarily forgot that it was in another language!

Compelling story/conversation/activity is one that can help establish “flow state,” which is a mental state in which students are fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

This flow state is the optimal state for our brain to acquire language and knowledge. The more engaged we are, the greater the input we can subconsciously acquire.

Vice versa: if our students are not engaged, their brain won’t acquire the language. They feel bored, disengaged and thus wander to find another thing that can hook their attention. And if such disengagement happens perpetually, they might filter out and eventually dislike the language entirely (and perhaps get labeled as inattentive, unmotivated, talkative, etc.).


Source:
The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis, Stephen Krashen

how we acquire language: abundant input

Here’s the idea: If we provide students with enough comprehensible input, the vocabulary and structures they are ready to acquire must be present in the input. This means that we might not have to make sure that they are there: we don’t have to deliberately focus on certain points of grammar given enough comprehensible input.

Just give students lots and lots of comprehensible input and they will acquire and grow substantial grammar and vocabulary and their overall language competence.

So one of the primary goals in acquisition-based teaching is to first focuses on providing students with abundant comprehensible input for building a solid intuitive (mental) capacity of the language which enables them to produce the language fluently and accurately, rather than immediately embarking on language production (speaking and writing).

the best forms of “optimal” input

“Optimal input” is input that is comprehensible, compelling, language-rich and abundant, and research found that the best forms of optimal input that satisfy all those four conditions so far is listening to stories.

Listening to stories is also a very powerful and pleasant way to familiarize and lead students to the second best form of optimal input, which is reading texts.

Library of abundant quality resources is thus one of the core components we need provide for students and teachers alike to practice reading aloud: books that are compelling, comprehensible and serve the development of the good life.

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.

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