Moving Forward Requires Balance

In order for humans to learn a language they must acquire basics of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and of course vocabulary. Language is a method of communication; a way of conveying wants, needs and thoughts with other people.  Second language students do not need to be taught how to learn a language because they already speak one.  To learn a second language,  it must be spoken, misspoken, and used in every way possible and in a variety of contexts, and mistakes must be made.  Armed with all these basic theories, practices, concepts, grammar and current thoughts on language acquisition, it should be easy to teach the foreign language classroom. It should be centered on students and the Communicative Language Approach, based upon using as much of the language in classroom as possible. It should be based on communicating, and not just listening to lectures and taking tests on that knowledge acquired. Students in the foreign language classroom theoretically should be able to take the new data given to them pertaining to the new language, and apply the thought process of their first language in order to acquire the new language. After visiting many foreign language classes, and being in many myself,  I know that not all students are so optimistic about their language learning, nor do all lesson plans go quite as planned, and a crucial balance is required. Balance keeps students moving forward with confidence, while keeping their grammar and learning in check.

Noam Chomsky said that the linguistic capacity of a person to acquire a second language is to be derived from the unconscious knowledge of their first language, and the internal dictionary of words and grammar that has already been acquired. We, as teachers,supply the formula necessary to help students awaken that previous language knowledge to learn their new language. The brain’s process of analysis is to first attempt to reach for a logical meaning of each word in the new encountered word in the language. In theory, most students brains follow these sequences to acquire language. But then the unsuspecting teacher goes into her first classroom and tries to teach a 105 level language course completely in the target language, and the practice doesn’t follow through with the theory. Blank stares will roll across the room. These often come from a few language barriers that plague even the best students. But because we have the cognitive principles of language acquisition, we know that children learn autonomously, some students learn with the anticipation of a reward, some students have more intrinsic motivation than others, and a student who learns through strategic investment will probably learn the easiest, etc., essentially the shy ones will struggle more, and classes will have a wide range of proficiencies.

A teacher could have all the theories in the world, and none of them would help until she understood the goal of the classroom, had a gauge for the students individual needs, and made sure to offer a balance between practice and theory, listening and speaking. Classes won’t always go as planned, and students can be quite unpredictable, I’m sure this diversity is a large part of the joy of teaching. Teachers cannot be stuck to a strict regime every day, things happen. Students will probably not understand some concepts or homework that the teacher assumes will be easy, extenuating circumstances will arise, and students will find that some project may just be the end of their world. They will ask questions that will catch even the most confident teacher off-guard. Brown (2007) mentions, “One of the initiation rites that new teachers go through is experiencing these unexpected events and learning how to deal with them gracefully. And the key is poise.” (p. 245). I would of course want to structure a class around all the ways I thought that I learned the best, and base my teaching style on that of great teachers from which I have learned. Sometimes I imagine myself as the great teachers in movies I’ve seen, encouraging new groundbreaking ideas and changing students’ lives.  I don’t think any of this comes for a few years after practice. I could hope at least. The class would be structured around talking and group work, a little mixture of grammar, more talking, and culture activities. There would be as many native and authentic language situations as possible available; there might be pen pals, or visiting guests. The native speakers should be scary, or the ones with whom students are afraid to talk. The classroom would be centered on the interaction and the culture activities because I always believed that one gets to know the language through experiencing the culture, from using the language.  But again, everyone learns differently and I would need to accommodate each learner’s preferences as well. Fun and games are not always the most appropriate method of instruction for all foreign language classes I now realize, and yet they would play an important role in gaining a solid communicative competence by the student wanting to learn an L2 for a communicative purpose. So all the various cognitive, linguistic, and socio aspects of L2 learning are important to keep in mind.

A classroom should be based around culture. Culture can be used as a great tool in not only providing authentic language to the students, but it gives students an insight into the daily life of native speakers of the language. Languages come with an entire background, an entire history, and to fully grasp that language, one must understand its history. Dema & Moeller’s (2012) research underlined the importance of the 3P’s in foreign language instruction, namely, products, practices and perspectives. This division of culture into three important aspects emphasizes the breakdown of what culture is, and how it is applied to daily life and the use of language. Of course the perfect mixture of these would be the best way to introduce culture to the classroom, but incorporating all three into a lesson, can be difficult to put into practice. Foreign language teachers in some cases are the only opportunity that some student’s may have to a connection to with outside cultures. Stereotypes derive from lack of education about those things that may be different. The teacher is there to provoke interest in the L2 culture, and from that to clarify confusions or questions about the other culture, we are in a position to educate people about these differences, to the extent that they too might share the knowledge. Thus, it is very important that student’s have adequate culture exposure in order to fully understand and embrace the language that they are learning. Culture as a tool for acquisition can pose a base for all aspects of language learning. A grammar lesson can be created from a culture aspect; the same lesson would more than likely generate further questions, which would produce speaking practice. Basing a daily lesson based from a culture component could cover all aspects of products, practices and perspectives in the classroom.

But culture may also not be on the student’s personal agenda for learning the language. I must consider whether or not my student’s goal is fluency, and what that even means for them. Some may simply want a grammar introduction. Some students merely take a class as a requirement; some really want to acquire the language. Furthermore, getting to their target level of fluency is complicated by a myriad of issues, such as the language ego (Brown, 2007), if they are afraid to speak, and practice, and make mistakes, they will probably never reach the level of proficiency that they would like.  It is true, that in order to thrive in a new language, one must take on a new personality, one which is started from scratch and must take baby steps to catch up to any speaker of the same age who speaks the language. This can be an embarrassing transition. The adult learner of an L2 can never fully express himself in a new language the same way that he would in his native language. This is not due solely to a lack of words or expression, but oftentimes the same expressions do not exist in other languages. Idioms won’t come until later and thus the beginning learner is stuck in baby talk in the language until later language aspects are introduced. Learning an L2 poses various barriers from any learner’s background. Therefore, Swain and Canale’s (1980) mention of “interlanguage” seems an appropriate description for the outcome of most L2 learners. As a firm believer that students need to practice, and make mistakes, one aspect that was only further underlined throughout various L2 acquisition readings, is that “Language ‘grows’ not when learners memorize rules about language, but as a by-product of processing and producing language” (Whong 2012, p. 5) This would only be the case, though, if communication was the student’s end goal, and in such situations, it seems important to try and struggle through the language without all the necessary tools, before the true value of formal grammar and vocabulary is appreciated. As a teacher, I must remember that not all students are starting out on an equal playing field; most classes come with a diverse mixture of students. There is of course the heritage speaker who may understand everything that I say but have no concept of grammar or how to answer. A teacher mustn’t assume, and as such that student’s place is just as welcome in the beginner classroom. He must be taught the rules of learning and basics of grammar. Even though, having a student like this would potentially put pressure on the other students in the classroom who may have no exposure to the language, to learn as quickly and/or perform as well as the heritage speaker. It’s a tricky situation that must be addressed tactfully and with care as to not hinder the heritage speaker’s or other students’ confidence in their language abilities.

As speaking is one of the most common forms of communication it evolves to meet the expectations of the world surrounded it. Language encompasses many various types of language. “If there is a need for new words or a new nuance of meaning, a language will develop.” (Johnson, 2008, p. 15-16). That said, by fully engulfing themselves in the language, talking to native speakers and listening to the teacher, a student should be able to pick it up, right? They learn with the changes and modern nuances that the language has. Brandl explains how in the 1970’s there was a trend in foreign language teaching that moved away from the accuracy approach, and to the “let-it-just-happen” approach, which became the anti-grammar trend. It was short lived, but I do not doubt that this approach worked for some students. It is a great idea, to have students learn as they would if they were dropped into the middle of a country where only the target language was spoken. This way, they would be forced to decode meaning by gestures, by doing, and by making mistakes, all key aspects in acquisition. Yet what they did find out later is that in order for acquisition to happen, both grammar along with immersion concepts had to take place. Despite my hatred for learning and memorizing grammar, the question of whether or not grammar should be taught in a classroom initially seemed a silly one. Of course grammar needs to be taught in a language classroom. When one thinks of all the citizens around the world who go to school and still cannot use formal grammar, it seems in fact that grammar doesn’t have enough of a place in the classrooms as it is! Yet when one holds the world’s language to a prescriptive grammarian’s set of rules, it might indeed look like everyone needs a little grammar help. If someone were to analyze language and speaking around the world from a descriptive point of view, in fact everyone does seem to understand each other in his/her own language despite the lack of prescriptive textbook grammar rules, communication is regardless achieved. The question again seems to focus on the goal of the classroom. Is the class structured to teach communication?  Or is the class structured around the assumption that each student should read, write, and speak according to all of the formal “prescriptive rules” of the language by the end of their studies? Krashen’s (1999) article on seeking a role for grammar in the classroom stated that the amount of grammar in the classroom has little effect on the student’s final grasp of the target language. Ellis (2006) emphasizes however, that of course grammar has its place in the classroom, and specifically common “difficulties” in the language need to addressed, as well as the common errors made my specific L1 speaker groups. If a particular subject is troublesome to the students, it needs to be addressed. A balance, as necessary in all aspects of learning, is crucial.

Some issues are much more difficult to fix in the later years of language acquisition than catching them from the beginning. Mistakes have been a tricky topic among researchers in foreign language acquisition. There are many forms of mistake correction in the language classroom but a correction at the wrong time could scar a student enough to make them shy away from answering questions in the future, no student wants to feel “dumb” or inadequate. Speaking should indeed be encouraged, and some studies (Krashen, 1981; Truscott, 1999) have shown that such corrective feedback (CF) could have a negative effect on the flow of communication. In this situation, based on the Communicative Language Approach favored in the United States, speaking is always encouraged, not reprimanded. Ammar & Spada (2006) describes how recasts seem to be the favored form of CF as they are not as hindering to a student’s confidence as an in-class correction might be. It was also always my favored method of correction. I still believe that in order to learn from a mistake, a student must first notice the mistake. When students speak in the L2, they “notice gaps in their linguistic knowledge. Output led to noticing” (Swain, 1995, p. 130). Gass (2003) discussed the theory of mimicking, stating “(i.e, repetitions that do not involve any analysis or revision of L2 knowledge (p. 236))” (Ammar & Spada, 2006, p. 545). Does the student then learn from his mistake because he noticed it, because the teacher made an example of him, or does he forget simply because he was mimicking what the teacher responded? I tend to agree with the first idea.  Such instances are what stick in a learner’s brain and make connections for future instances; no one likes to be embarrassed. Being a firm believer in the importance of correction in a foreign language, I believe that the recast method is one of the most effective ways for a student to gently learn from their mistakes. The research done by Ammar & Spada’s (2006) article discussed that; “embedding CF within communicative activities is more effective than participation in such activities without CF” (p. 562). Without corrective feedback, students will continue floundering around without knowing where they are making mistakes; these mistakes tend to fossilize, becoming a recurring mistake throughout their lifetime of speaking the language. Finally, the process of noticing this difference is considered to be essential to learning (Schmidt, 1990, 1993). Recasts are also believed to be an effective technique in light of psychological research that shows learners’ attention to be limited, selective, and partially subject to voluntary control” (Ammar & Spada, 2006, p. 545). I full-heartedly agree that such feedback has a positive affect on student’s language. A student would probably also like to be told that his/her error was something that would be potentially embarrassing or incomprehensible to the native speaker. In order for students to attain their desired fluency, they must have as much contact with the target language as possible, in as many different situations as possible. It is best to expose students to as much natural language, and as much of the target language as possible (i.e culture lessons and native language speaker interaction). Balance is the law that describes the happy medium between chaos and regulation. It alleviates any overpowering aspects, and is the golden mean between extreme and lacking. It is what is required to find the forward motion on a bicycle, and just as in beginning to learn a foreign language, that tender balance between momentum and forward motion must be found, before the bicycle or the second language learner can find his/her confidence and forward motion.

References

Ammar, A., & Spada, N. (2006). One size fits all?: recasts, prompts, and L2 Learning. Studies in second language acquisition, 28(04), 543–574. doi:10.1017/S0272263106060268

Brandl, K. (2008). Communicative language teaching in action : putting principles to work. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy (3rd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson ESL.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied linguistics, 1(1), 1–47.

Chavez, M. (2002). We say“ culture” and students ask“ What?”: University students’ definitions of foreign language culture. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German, 35(2), 129–140.

Dema, O., & Moeller, A. J. (2012). Teaching culture in the 21st century language classroom. In T. Sildus (Ed.),  Touch the World. Selected papers from the 2012 Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (pp. 75–91). Milwaukee, WI.

Ellis, R. (2006). Current Issues in the Teaching of Grammar: An SLA Perspective. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 83–107. doi:10.2307/40264512

Johnson, D. (2008). How myths about language affect education: what every teacher should know. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In Cook & B. Seidhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of HG Widdowson (pp. 125–144). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Krashen, S. D. (1999). Seeking a role for Grammar. A review of some recent studies. Foreign Language Annals, 32(2), 245–254. doi:10.1111/j.1944-9720.1999.tb02395.x

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