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ELT, EOT and language acquisition discussed with Professor Stephen Krashen pt4

This is the final part of my debate with Professor Stephen Krashen about English teaching and learning, language acquisition and English Out There. In it I try to sum things up, mention some other research in support of the positive effect of emotion and senses on linguistic memory and Professor Krashen introduces some new thoughts about transparency and how they might relate to the EOT content and process.

Dr. Stephen Krashen IFLT 250

Professor Stephen Krashen

(image:·ifltconference.org)

 

Part Four

Introduction

This before and after audio started this debate. You can listen to the full (8 min) before and after audio of Jane speaking English here:

 

English Out There Case Study - Jane, China

All of the data (i.e. every single recording with contemporaneous notes) and other case studies and sessions with other learners can be found and accessed on the Languages Out There podcast.

You can read the introduction which explains how this conversation happened. It is before the first part of the debate (Part 1), click here to read it.

Click here to read Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3

Part Four

Prof. Krashen: Occasionally. But I'm not stubborn. Just trying to do my job 

JW: Stubborn was maybe the wrong word. I know you are. Maybe what you do and what I do, as you say, and in relation to the concept of what constitutes an 'English course' should be clarified more carefully. We don't start with blank slates and they don't have the time, money or inclination to study for a year...because they have usually done a lot of, albeit unscientific, acquisition.

Finally, for now, you mentioned somewhere that you felt TPR was useful...our real world lessons, as we have discussed before involve all of the senses. What about emotion and social interaction itself being an acquisition device (Kuhl & Gaxiola 2008), as I mentioned before, and you have written about accent...we feel silly mimicking but if we want to we can be almost instant experts at it. Chinese people 'lose face'...I think our stuff triggers or works with multiple acquisition devices.

Prof. Krashen: You wrote,  

"..we might need to accommodate some of the things that people, in their own personal psychological way, might need to reassure them and make them feel comfortable."

I think this can be done without violating the principles of language acquisition. Example: eslpod.com. You wrote,

"But still you are prescribing to Chinese and Indian English teachers who drill grammar until the cows come home. If all of the tools they are used to using are withdrawn they will struggle, don't you think?"

The goal is to give them better tools. We have already demonstrated success with the comprehension approach in the research, again and again. And those who have experienced the pure form are very enthusiastic. It would be great if publishers and materials writers would try the pure form. Why begin with compromises?

You wrote,

"Yeah, we can change them and I would be happy to publish another set without any focus on form but I don't have the money to do it at the moment."

I don't know how much needs to be changed in your materials, without a detailed analysis. But I sympathize with the financial problem. It's everywhere, except for the rich.

You wrote,

"Without any focus on form":

Note that I allow for some grammar, in the form of popup and linguistics. Again, I am not against grammar, I just think its functions and limitations need to be recognized.

You wrote,

“Maybe in labs and ivory towers the awareness is all important but to someone on 5 dollars a day who could get a better job and better educate their kids if they could speak English it isn't. They just want to speak English and they will follow what people say works.”

The five dollars a day student needs to know how language is acquired in order to get better independent of materials. This is not complex, not rocket science. I suspect that non-academics will have an easier time understanding the comprehension idea than most academics, who tend to reject anything straightforward and common-sense. The whole theory boils down to listen and read, don't worry about grammar very much, etc. It is not an "academic subject."

I really don't think people like Jane REQUIRE focus on form in order to feel comfortable. Again, some grammar can be included in ways that are consistent with what we know about how language is acquired and used.

You wrote,

"Why do you think there aren't lots of materials that look like ours?"

Interesting question. One reason: Big publishers consult with academics who are wedded to focus on form. Also, publishers are reluctant to change anything other than the superficial. I understand that one of your main goals is to help people "perform their competence," or use what they know, release the knowledge within them. If the knowledge is consciously learned, it won't be of much help in performance. If the knowledge is acquired, there are several possibilities.

(1) it is not acquired well enough. In this case the cure is more acquisition.

(2) There are psychological blocks/output filter.

I suspect the major cause of blocks is perfectionism, the feeling that we should be better at the language then we are. This results in Monitor over-use.

The cure:

1. Comfortable,non-threatening arena for conversation, which you attempt to provide.

2. Knowledge of theory:

(a) understanding the limits of grammar,

(b) understanding that we acquire via comprehension, not through learning rules and monitoring our speech. In fact, overuse of the Monitor holds back language acquisition, as it makes conversation difficult and means you get less input. Knowing that comprehension drives language acquisition also means that the student will read more, listen more, etc.

You wrote,

"If we added lots and lots of reading texts etc. as you suggest, we might end up with a 1 year course instead of an 18 hour, 10 lesson plan results oriented psychological experience :-)"

Note that if you add some theory, students will see that they should be doing this on their own.

JW: Hi there, sorry for the slow response to your last email, the weekend and family stuff intervened, but I think it was useful for me to be able to reflect on what we have been discussing. 

We have to some extent been talking at cross-purposes, do you agree?

You: about your theory of acquisition and the amount and type of information required to acquire language but not necessarily be able to produce that acquired language. Me: about a short process designed to allow previously acquired (and possibly recently acquired) language to be produced.

We seem to agree that prior to Jane or Waldek undertaking any EOT they would have acquired a certain amount of language, some of which they could produce. We also seem to agree theoretically that language is acquired as a result of sustained, compelling and personalised comprehensible input.

Our main, if not only, point of contention is whether a focus on form provides any boost to either acquisition or the productive abilities of the students.

You say emphatically no and I say, probably, yes. Either, because it provides a reminder in short-term memory that facilitates the speaking task happening as planned at the end of each EOT lesson. Therefore helping the students to complete the speaking task which we both agree can provide a rich and effective source of the right kind of comprehensible input for further acquisition to take place (so a kind of short-term cognitive crutch). Or, the exercises scaffold the language required to perform the speaking task but also do actually help the language in the exercises to become acquired by the learner during the event i.e the speaking task.

I predict that you will vehemently disagree with me.

However, (and do please bear with me for a while) what we have not discussed in the context of the latest research (such as Kuhl & Rivera-Gaxiola 2008 Neural Substrates of Language Acquisition and Proulx and Heine 2009 Connections from Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar), is the likely effect of the immediate use of the language in the EOT exercises with someone who is a) not a teacher and is b) part of a verbal social exchange of language based around the previously studied language.

In addition, the conditions in which the verbal social exchange takes place are part of a unique multi-sensory and emotional interpersonal experience or event that must have some kind of psychological effect. The experience or event is planned to occur just after concerted efforts have been made to lower the learner's level of performance anxiety (the output filter). The output filter can block effective mimicry which it is scientifically proven, human beings are almost instantly expert at doing. So, as Kuhl and Rivera-Gaxiola surmise at the end of their paper, a baby, which has not developed as many socio-psychological reasons as an adult for not wishing to look or sound stupid, could acquire language in the same way an adult would be able to...if it hadn't developed the socio-psychological blocks  or in other words developed a raised output filter.

My conjecture is that there is a lot more going on psychologically during the EOT speaking task than in normal classroom or laboratory based studies and which can help to explain why EOT lessons often remain as vivid memories for students, with the language used intact and reproducible, and yes, even some new language.

Put another way, how much of the research you rely upon closely mirrors the process of EOT? And what are your thoughts on the likelihood that the process of EOT activates cognitive processes that together, as part of an event, are conducive to acquisition. I found Paller and Wagner, 2002, Observing the Transformation of Experience into Memory very interesting to read as it seems to support the notion that rote learning (i.e. traditional study of focus on form) is not enough (your view) but that if multiple neural processors are activated when an event is experienced (i.e. information learned is put into practice which includes sensual and emotional associations to the information) the likelihood is that the event will aid recall (and by default the language associated with the event)?

I've been wondering, have you taken research such as that mentioned above into consideration?

In summary:

Something must have happened from when Jane started using EOT to when she stopped using it to cause the dramatic improvement in her speaking and listening skills.

The 'control' would have been for her to do no EOT and that would not have changed anything, she would have carried on as she had been.

Your alternative would have been more reading and listening involving comprehensible input plus some speaking practice based around the comprehensible input. In theory that is fine but in practice it probably takes a lot more effort, thought and organisation than most language learners are motivated to do or even feel capable of doing? EOT obviously provided a structural springboard to organise and motivate her to engage in a lot of more of this kind of activity over a short period of time, so in that sense it served a definite purpose as a useful catalyst, theoretical acquisitional efficacy of EOT aside.

The only really different factor was the focus she was given by the materials whose process caused her to enter a series of social experiences or events using pre-prepared language from the materials to commence and develop the communicative experience.

And when the non-linguistic processes of memory creation are also considered as part of the whole experience or event that is based around the language from the EOT lesson, is there not likely to be a lot more going on cognitively that could simultaneously enhance the acquisition of language that is part of the overall memorability of the event?

What do you think?

Prof. Krashen: Overwhelmed right now with Los Angeles Times misbehavior. Did interview with them this morning, will be on radio next week. 

JW: Go for it! The media, despite being our protectors at times, really do have a high opinion of themselves and they are experts at, printing and selling papers.-- Did you get a chance to look at that those papers yet? Cheers

Prof. Krashen: It may be a while. Preparing to be on the radio this week. Lots of back and forth. Stay tuned ... A hard fight against the evil-doers. 

JW: Hi there, how's the LA Times thing progressing....you've forgotten those papers I sent links haven't you? :-) Do you think there might be some way we could publish our email discussion? Other people I am in touch with might like to read it. I'm open to suggestions. 

Prof. Krashen: It's ok with me as long as it is edited. But I don't have any special access to publishers or journals to do this. Happy New Year - I am singing in the choir at the synagogue! 

JW: Happy New Year! Enjoy your singing. OK, good, thanks. Edited, as in remove all the bits and bobs but keep the text? 

Prof. Krashen: And edit for coherency, flow, etc 

JW: OK!  

 Unfortunately,  we didn’t get to discuss the Paller & Wagner and Proulx & Heine or go deeper into Kuhl & Gaxiola-Rivera, time commitments put paid to that.

However, almost two years after our discussion and whilst preparing this text for publication Prof. Krashen added these comments in an email to me.

Prof. Krashen: I have read through the entire transcript.  Everything I wrote can be shared, quoted, etc, as long as it is not taken out of context and my complete position is obvious. I am not clear, however, on how to plan to use these statements.  

This might be helpful: the concept of transparency – Here are some notes, not yet published.

Transparency

I introduce here a new term, transparency. Transparent input is input in which the acquirer understands every word, and every part of a word (the morphology). There is, in other words, no "noise" in the input.  Also, in transparent input, the listener or reader is certain of what each word means, that is, all the semantic features of each new word appear to be clear.

An important point: I am NOT suggesting that transparency is good or necessary. Or that it is bad. I am only introducing the term, which I think is useful for discussions of language teaching.

TPRS, or what we might call "classic TPRS," as done by Blaine Ray, aims for 100%  transparency. This is done by insisting that all new vocabulary be translated, that input be slow, and that new words are repeated a great deal. If movements are used, as in TPR, it is essential, according to classic TPRS practice, that there is a clear and obvious connection between the movement and the word or phrase used, and that they be simultaneous. Similarly, if pictures are used, all aspects of the input that might be unknown must be clearly and explicitly related to some feature of the picture.

The transparency requirement assumes that word meanings can not be gradually acquired from context, but that the meaning must be absolutely clear for every word from the beginning through translation or context.

TO BE DISCUSSED LATER: Transparency is not necessary for language acquisition. Only comprehension is necessary.  Some transparency, or the illusion of transparency can make some students more comfortable, but insisting on full or nearly full transparency can limit language acquisition.

I suspect that “battered” language students, those who have suffered from overteaching of rules, get relief (or “security” as you put it) from transparent input. Maybe this is why your worksheets seem to help.

I think compelling and comprehensible are still the key factors. If input is compelling, people won’t worry about understanding every word.

ADDITIONAL POINT ON THEORY: if students are to continue to improve on their own, they have to know how to do it. They need to have some idea of comprehensible input and the limits of conscious learning. We don’t want them looking for grammar books and vocabulary exercises. I have never had any trouble explaining this to civilians, at least in North America, but professional linguists have a hard time with this.  A good area of research = how do different people react when they are told about the comprehension hypothesis? What does it take to explain it? What kinds of information and what kinds of experiences.

PS. We never talked about “ice-breakers” which you mentioned when talking about Jane. I think they are a good idea and have said so in my books. A few memorized phrases that help manage conversations (I don’t understand, how are you? Etc). But not too many.

Where we agree: Providing a stress-free safe environment with supportive conversation partners who will treat you with kindness and respect, be interested in you as a person, and talk about interesting things is a good idea, a good way to lower the output filter.

JW: Thanks a lot for doing that, I really appreciate it. I know you are very busy with lots of other stuff. I'll keep it all in context, don't worry. 

Thanks for the new notes. I think the "illusion of transparency" is an interesting phrase. The hard part at the start with what we do is getting learners to believe they can do it. Often they choose to start with a lower level lesson or two, which I think is sensible and, as with Jane, works a treat.

As we discussed, speech is content and I would say it can be quite compelling and become much more compelling if it is comprehensible AND there is an emotional connection (even a one-off, fleeting one) between the two interlocutors. Someone recently likened it to 'Flow'. When that content is also recorded by the learner (using free MP3 recorders that work with Skype) and listened to again a few times the amount of comprehensible and compelling content that the learner hears increases dramatically.

Thanks for your comment, "I suspect that “battered” language students, those who have suffered from overteaching of rules, get relief (or “security” as you put it) from transparent input. Maybe this is why your worksheets seem to help.”

I think you're right about non-professional linguists having no trouble with the concept of comprehensible input and the limits of conscious learning. That's why there are so many learners looking to practice online with fluent and native speakers. But to get going and get through the difficult first stages (and have something at the right level to say that is interesting for their practice partner) is a real challenge. Good trusting practice relationships are crucial and they need to be carefully managed. Unfortunately most learners don't have much of an idea how to get going and sustain them. They just need a little help and once they get comfortable with the process they are fine.

I think our content provides enough transparent input to support speaking on interesting topics (for both learner and practice partner) and our final task provides the ice-breakers and the extensions. Taken together with a few friendly English speakers, recorded and listened to again a few times they provide sufficient data for the brain to start to recognise and commit key communicative patterns to unconscious memory.

Our teaching and speaking practice in the real world (i.e. not online but out on the streets of London) must have some connection to TPRS because the input is guided by a teacher who makes sure everyone completes the exercises prior to the speaking practice and the speaking practice with complete strangers produces extremely vivid memories of successful communicative experiences for the learners.

This summer we taught the whole summer school in London without the use of one classroom. All lesson (small groups, max 10) started and finished Out There. The reaction of the group leaders (most of them English teachers in France) and the students to what we did with them was fascinating. One teacher agreed to let me record a conversation with her (we were in the National Film Theatre bar on the Southbank of the Thames) about the difference between what she normally experiences each summer (i.e. kids going into classrooms each morning) and what she experienced our new way (which I have been keen to do for years). Have a listen, I think you'll find it interesting:

I’d like to finish by thanking Professor Krashen for the huge amount of time and consideration he has given me and English Out There, and for the wit and wisdom of his comments in our discussions, both topic specific and social.  It has been a real privilege to discuss our work with him in such detail and at such length. This was the fourth and final section of a 34 page document.

To read Part 1 click here

To read Part 2 click here

To read Part 3 click here

IMPORTANT: If you believe in creativity, attribution and integrity PLEASE read and SHARE the facts about what happened to EOT. Help us fund our Oxford University Press legal case http://bit.ly/SvJwL5 and sign our e-petition to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University http://bit.ly/SvJNxt