Might, could, maybe

As CI teachers, we know that language is acquired through comprehensible input.

We know that it takes a certain amount of repetition for language to be acquired — more for structures (grammar) than for individual words. We know that this repetition can be provided either densely or diffusely — in other words in a short period of time, or over a longer period of time. As long as the repetitions reach whatever the personal threshold value is for that person at that time for that thing, it will be acquired and be available for automatic, correct output.

So, why are we constantly so worried about the might, could, and maybe?

On a teachers’ group, someone recently commented:

I have 2 new adult students and I’m going to try teaching them with folk stories since [redacted] says it is very effective for language acquisition. This time I won’t be worried about giving repetitions. Adults spot very quickly when something is being drilled and then they might get into a “learning mode” , I want them to forget that they are in another language – if possible.

They “might” get into learning mode? Is it worth approaching a situation (adult learners) where the instructional time and number of sessions is typically far shorter and fewer than for students in school, and risk not giving dense input because they “might” get into learning mode? This sounds very much like phrases that were used in a workshop or how-to book.

Keeping students out of “learning mode” is easy enough by relying on TPRS skills. Being able to circle without it being mechanical. Being able to bring in interesting shadows (alternatives) either from the student or to “prime the pump” for students to come up with interesting details. It’s not rocket science. But it IS skill. And skill comes from practice and experience. Circling questions are not “drill” and do not feel like “drill” when they are done correctly.

I’ll say it again: equating circling questions with drill is just not correct. So we need another reason to choose the particular type of input in this case.

Is anyone worrying that the students “might” not be interested in folk stories? Why are folk stories any more effective than any other type of story or reading for language acquisition? And why would one want to avoid repetition in someone working with unknown language? I know I feel anxious when a word goes by at high speed (to me as a non-knower of that word) and never comes up again. At that point, I’m not worrying that I “might” not get it; I know I won’t.

To make a person forget they are in another language, the only requirement is to make the language 100% comprehensible. That means immediately comprehensible, without struggle (for them to truly “forget”). If the teacher is pausing and pointing to 50 different new words, that is unlikely. If the teacher is having students read materials that are not comprehensible to the student, it is also unlikely.

However to make a person acquire language, there is an additional requirement: sufficient repetition of the new language, in addition to meeting it in comprehensible contexts. Leaving out circling means that the only source of repetition is time — quite a lot of time. Most adults don’t have that much time Some might, but most don’t seem to. There are many, many reasons why adults stop taking language lessons (and a lack of firm results may indeed number among them.)

…my goal is not for them to learn a lot with me, but without me! They need to be independent learners/ readers. They probably don’t know the benefits of free voluntary reading, so I want to help them in that direction.

This is a bit confused. Is the plan to simply give the adult students things to read? How do these adults need to be taught to be independent learners? Perhaps in terms of how to choose level-appropriate materials for themselves. Or is the intent to provide the solid foundation of basic structure (grammar) that allows people to be independent learners in the same way that a native speaker is? Do these students already “have” the grammar of the language, which means they are already beyond the scope of TPRS?

It’s a very good thing to adopt new strategies and new techniques. But it’s very important to really think through them and see how they fit with the goals one has in mind and the specific situation. All CI will work — eventually. But CI will work better, and in less time, if some component of dense repetition is incorporated. In a situation where there is no fixed time period during which students will definitely be coming to class, dense input becomes more and more valuable. It wouldn’t take more than a handout and a few minutes of talk to let a person know how to find reading materials at his level. That’s not a lesson or a course; it’s just information to be provided.

Another worry that constantly comes across CI-based groups is about “the grammar-based teacher in the next level”. Maybe the kids won’t be “ready” for that class. That teacher “might” be upset if she has to teach kids to fill out conjugation tables (which takes what, five minutes?)

We need to stop worrying about the “might” and the “could” and focus on the “will”. People will acquire language given good comprehensible input. The rest is really just a series of conversations to adjust people’s expectations and educate them about how language gets into heads.

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