Language Acquisition Versus Language Learning

When I was in school, I learned French, Italian, and Spanish. I memorized verb paradigms, knew when to use the personal a in Spanish, and could explain the difference between the two past tenses in French. What I couldn’t do is open up my mouth, access my internal French, Spanish or Italian language systems, and have words in those languages pour out spontaneously, even at the most basic level. The traditional grammar/translation method, with a little Audiolingual Method thrown in for good measure, had helped me learn about language but had not prepared me to write or speak with any ease whatsoever, with the exception of a few phrases from dialogues that my teacher had us memorize (Thanks to my Italian teacher, I can still say a line from one of our memorized dialogues: “Non c’è niente da fare. E ancora solo la stessa vecchia burocrazia.” Loosely translated, it means “You can’t do anything about it. It’s just the same old bureaucracy at work again.” It’s kind of hard to insert that into most conversations). And when I started teaching, using the same traditional methods that my own teachers used, I foolishly believed that I would have different results than my teachers had because, unlike my language teachers (most of whom were all old nuns), I was young, fun, and creative.

Boy, was I wrong. I may have been young and hip, but all that did was help me relate to my students on a personal level that I never had with my teachers. And while it was good to know that I had a good relationship with my students, I still wasn’t getting the language results I wanted. Students were bored, frustrated, and unable to speak in the target language except for a few freaky geniuses whose language ability was burgeoned by practice and study outside of the classroom (One of these freaky geniuses asked me to explain when to use the subjunctive in Spanish on the THIRD DAY of Spanish 1. Now that’s motivation!). My students weren’t performing any better in my class than I had when I was a language student. Why? Because the methods I used helped my students learn language but did not help them acquire language.

So that’s where a Comprehensible Input (CI) approach comes in. CI methods are designed to help students acquire language. My job as a teacher is to help my students get as much comprehensible input, whether written or spoken, as possible. I do this through a variety of ways. For example, I recently established a library in my classroom of books in French and Spanish, the languages that I teach, and students do about 30 minutes of individual reading in my classroom a week (If you are interested in establishing a classroom library, you can visit Fluency Matters or TPRS Books for resources and more information). I also use a technique called Movie Talk, where I show short videos and movie clips in class that my students and I talk and read about. I also share and create a lot of stories with my students using TPRS techniques. Everything in my teacher “bag of tricks” these days is designed to deliver comprehensible input to my students.

Before you ask, yes, I still teach grammar. But when I teach it I sneak it in, and only when it is necessary for comprehension. So, for example, when my French 1 students and I read a story about a boy and a girl, that was when we had our first conversation about gender in French, because I had to explain to them why we had to use “un” with the boy and “une” with the girl. In Spanish 3, my students have been exposed to the imperfect subjunctive recently and can recognize it because all the endings contain “-ra.” So we call it the “ra–ra” verb tense. My goal for all of my students, regardless of their level, is for them to use the target language unconsciously because they have acquired it instead of having learned it. And I already see some examples of that happening in my classroom. One such moment occurred the other day. My Spanish 4 students were translating text from Spanish to English and we got to a sentence that they had heard quite frequently. They knew all the words in the sentence but were unable to come up with an acceptable English translation. One student said, “I know  what it means in Spanish, but I just can’t explain it in English.” Bingo! That’s what acquisition is all about.

The metaphor I use to describe language learning versus language acquisition involves swimming lessons. Some students may learn about water safety, the names of all the swimming strokes, and how to breathe effectivlely while swimming, but they don’t spend that much time in the water at first. My two older children had classes like these. They sat on the edge of the pool and practiced before being allowed in the water, ususally only for a minute or two before they were returned safely to the edge of the pool. In other classes, students are immediately put in the water with supports, like kickboards or flotation devices, and practice swimming right away. My youngest child had a swimming class like this and he has always felt more comfortable in the water than his sisters.

If I explained this topic well enough, I’m sure you figured out that the first swimming lesson I described is the equivalent of what happens in a classroom when students learn (about) a language and that the second one is a description of what happens in a classroom when students acquire a language. Isn’t it time we let our students into the pool?

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