CI with Local Characteristics

So, you believe that language is acquired through comprehensible input — repeated matching of incoming sounds (or what looks to my ignorant non-signing eyes like hand-waving, in the case of ASL) and meaning by the wonderful, ever-working brain.

So every technique based on comprehensible input should work for everyone, right? Since that is a language universal? There is no society in the world where people with normal hearing and brain function do not acquire a native language without effort or teaching. So everything should work, right?


CI works for everyone. That’s what makes CI-based teaching so powerful. But remember that CI-based teaching is still teaching. We are taking something that is ideal and perfect in its natural setting (a young child with unlimited time, nothing better to do, and intensely interested in doing it) and putting it into a setting that lacks all of those characteristics — a modern school.

TPRS is so successful as a method because it is a comprehensive package. It addresses not only the CI aspect, but also the aspects of natural acquisition that are missing in a modern school setting, by and large. The personalization or  customization of TPRS addresses the lack of interest on the part of many students, who are not inclined to pay attention to large amounts of a foreign language. The fact that we repeat language until it is mastered, and focus on the highest-frequency language, helps with the fact that time in school is not only not unlimited, but actually very, very severely limited. (Think 10,000 hours of input by age 3 versus 100 hours a school year, assuming no assemblies, music lessons, field trips or testing days.)

TPRS is the only method I have seen thus far that successfully addresses all of these problems.  And since these are pervasive problems that affect virtually every school setting I have ever seen in the US and abroad, TPRS is my first choice.

Now, there are some school settings that by their nature present slightly different situations. For those settings, it may be that “alternative” techniques of presenting CI will work. All CI will work to some degree, but the issue is making them work to the degree that TPRS does, since that is the benchmark at present for the most efficient acquisition of language through CI.

Schools in Asia are a good example. I’ve taught in a good many of these, from the low-achieving vo-tech schools with bunches of 13-year-olds sleeping on each other in heaps between classes, to the most elite colleges and the Foreign Service training center for, ahem, a certain foreign government.

One big difference in Asian students is motivation. It’s a weird thing. They have lots of external motivation (largely rooted in passing one test or another), but very, very little desire to actually engage with any language. This is largely because the teaching methods they are exposed to are very legacy and very boring. (There can be non-boring legacy, and there can be boring legacy. This is often the worst of both worlds). So these are kids facing a grammar-heavy diet of language they don’t understand, day after day, and being pressured to perform well by both parents, schoolmates, teachers and society at large.

If you take that population and give them something that is comprehensible — EVEN if there is no personalization or customization, EVEN if the class is heavily teacher-centered — that way of teaching is so much better than what they have been accustomed to all their lives that you get the buy-in at a level you would never get it in the US, just for doing that. Because we do not have a nationwide culture of just about everyone in the kid’s world urging them to get good grades and do well on a national test, especially in foreign language. Not in the same way you see it in Asia. Parent don’t shove their German 1 students toward a German speaker in the US and say “Speak German to the nice man.” Yet that happens all. the. time. in Asia with kids learning English, even when they’re in classes that mean they don’t really speak any.

This is one reason why story-telling fails in the US, but may seem okay in other places. The brilliance of TPRS as a method is that it developed from within the K-12 school situation in the US. It takes on a full set of challenges (rootless kids that need a human relationship they can rely on, kids who are unmotivated, kids who can’t sit still, kids who are tired of not being valued and involved in the educational process despite all the cool “tasks” they are given to do.)

Story-telling relies on the content of the story to hook kids, but it is not their content. I have a confession to make: I’m fluent in Chinese, but I am not at all interested in Chinese children’s stories. I couldn’t care less about Monkey and Piggie and all those famous characters. I know about them, because I’m expected at least to be able to recognize their names, but I would never seek those stories out. If I were told stories about them in class, I would zone out, much as I did back in my own Chinese learning days when we read sprightly dialogues about the street committee and having tea with Mrs. Wang and buying writing brushes.

Getting kids to care isn’t easy. But it’s worth it because caring gives them intrinsic motivation. It makes them want to get fluent because language is now something they enjoy. In places where there is plenty of extrinsic motivation, it might not be crucial. But in the majority of K-12 schools in the US, we have to hook them and we have to hook them with personalization, because it’s the one thing that reliably works. Because far more kids are interested in themselves than are interested in stories the teacher thinks are “good”.

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