Nothing draws more heated arguments in the field of language instruction than methods. Between trademarks and remarks, there has been much divisive debate on which method is the right or the best method for teaching second language. This emphasis on the “right” method places unhealthy attention on the instructor and is the antithesis of where the focus should be—on the learner and on what learners need to develop communicative competence.
In spite of these heated battles, momentum is building to move away from restrictive methods altogether. This shift is supported by second-language acquisition (SLA) experts like Dr. Bill VanPatten, professor of Spanish and second language studies at Michigan State University and host of the “wildly popular” live talk show centered on language acquisition Tea with BVP (TeawithBVP.com). VanPatten has some strong opinions about outdated notions of methods, so much so that he entitled a recent Tea with BVP episode “There Is No Such Thing Anymore as Methods.” During that episode (Episode 14—http://mixlr.com/teawithbvp/), BVP frankly shared his views on methods: “I want to usher in a ban on the word methods or methodology on all courses related to language teaching.” His argument is based on the premise that teachers (of language and methods) should be focused on how the principles of contemporary SLA inform (or should inform) classroom practices.
The problem is that most language teachers and even some methods instructors are not familiar with contemporary findings on SLA. Teacher prep programs tend to focus on methods, assessment, and classroom management, but very few actually provide a sound foundation in the principles of SLA and how they should inform practice. This explains why in the U.S. there are millions of former language students roaming the streets saying things like “I studied [insert any language] for three, four, and five years, but I can’t speak it”—as if actually speaking the language would be an absurd expectation.
If you polled a thousand language teachers, most would agree that the primary objective of any language class is to help students develop fluency, the ability to communicate comfortably and confidently in the target language. Most would also claim that in their own classes, communication is of utmost importance, but if you asked each one to define communication, it is highly likely that each would have a different definition. Sandra J. Savignon, professor emerita of French and English as an international language, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and professor emerita of applied linguistics, Penn State University, provides a concise working definition of communication [later enhanced by BVP]: “The expression, interpretation, and [sometimes] negotiation of meaning [in a given social setting or context].”
Having a clear understanding of communication is fundamental to language instruction, as is being familiar with the current findings of second-language acquisition. The most universally accepted principle of SLA is the need for comprehensible input (CI) and the confirmation that without CI, acquisition is not possible.
The role of CI in SLA was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Stephen Krashen, emeritus of education at the University of Southern California, author of hundreds of books and papers on SLA research, and developer of five core hypotheses that have provided the foundation for contemporary views on SLA. In his comprehension (formerly input) hypothesis, Krashen defined CI as follows: “when we understand what we hear and what we read.”
The most common forms of input in the classroom are listening and reading. Teachers make input comprehensible by refining it, speaking slowly, and using a great deal of visual support. Input is controlled by the provider (teacher), but only the learner can control how that input is processed internally, subject of course to numerous internal and external factors (i.e., physical state, emotional state, developmental readiness, linguistic data that is or is not already present, etc.).
In 1967, Stephen Pit Corder made the following distinction between input and intake, the portion of input or linguistic data that is actually processed and used for meaning: “The simple fact of presenting a certain linguistic form to a learner in the classroom does not necessarily qualify it for the status of input, for the reason that input is ‘what goes in’ not what is available for going in, and we may reasonably suppose that it is the learner who controls this input, or more properly his intake” (p. 165).
Regardless of how comprehensible a message may be (or how comprehensible a teacher thinks it is), only a portion of input is generally converted to intake during the early stages of language acquisition. Intake is the portion of the input from which the learner is able to derive meaning, and at best, that may be a vague or ambiguous representation of what was actually communicated. The concept may sound complicated, but the implication is simple: just because a learner hears or sees language doesn’t mean he has (accurately) derived any meaning from it. And even if a learner does derive meaning from a message, it does not mean that the input was sufficient for acquisition to occur.
The first stage of intake is simply deriving meaning from the message. That is particularly daunting for beginning language learners, since they tend to process content words first, often filtering out function/less significant words. With that in mind, what part of the following sentences would an English language learner (ELL) likely convert from input to intake? “He voted for Donald Trump.” “He voted against Donald Trump.” In spite of the big difference in meaning, a beginning language learner would likely process (convert to intake) only the content words (vote Donald Trump) and subsequently derive the same meaning from each.
Given enough exposure to the word vote, the learner will begin to more readily convert more of the input (other words in the sentence) to intake. Thus far, the intake has strictly been focused on deriving meaning, progressing from vague representation to robust and more complete understanding. Comprehension is where language acquisition begins, but what happens after comprehension is achieved is so complex that there is not a scientist on the planet who can figure out exactly what happens during the process.
Research has revealed that learners have the same built-in mechanisms for acquiring language and that language generally develops in predictable stages. These stages, although predictable, are not neat and tidy, and they sometimes resemble a commute from the suburbs to downtown.
Upon beginning the commute, there are few obstacles that impede progress, and advancement seems to be unidirectional and relatively smooth. But as the commute continues, the traffic gets thicker, and it seems to be more difficult to continue progressing at the same rate. Sometimes the commute involves a tangled freeway exchange, with lane closures, metered on-ramps, and closed off-ramps, which require a detour or a U-turn back through previously navigated terrain. Although numerous travelers start the journey from the same place and at the same time, each arrives at her destination at a different time, due to the variables that affected her travel.
Just like the complications that affect a morning commute, there are internal and external factors that influence the relative rate of acquisition and ultimate success in achieving communicative competence. A few of the more obvious ones include the learner’s current physical and emotional state, neurological and emotional responses to stimuli, unique cerebral responses to various media, the distinctive intricacies of processing semantic information, diverse abilities to filter “noise” without becoming stressed or distracted, continuous restructuring of the brain as it processes and stores new linguistic data, and the interchange of semantic data between L1 and L2. There are many more factors that affect how learners acquire language, and science has yet to discover still more of them.
What makes analyzing language acquisition even more challenging is the evidence that suggests that the process is completely unconscious. Krashen, along with other SLA pioneers, is credited with the development of the learning–acquisition distinction. According to Krashen, acquisition is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. Contrast that with learning, which is the product of formal instruction and comprises a conscious process that results in conscious knowledge about the language.
“Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language—natural communication—in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding” (Krashen).
Like the respiratory system, the linguistic system is implicit. We do not think about breathing, we just breathe. When we have a typical conversation, we do not think about communicating, we just communicate. We listen, process, and respond without even thinking about it. We may, at times, choose our words carefully, but there is no conscious thought that says, “I am going to engage my linguistic system to speak now.” When we have an everyday typical conversation, we do not give the process of communicating or our words any conscious attention.
Compare the innate desire and the implicit ability to communicate with the learned ability to regurgitate historical facts, describe a scientific process, list the bones in a human hand, or describe liver function. All of this learned information is consciously accessed but unconsciously communicated. What happens when a person cannot recall a fact? He stops communicating facts and often unconsciously shifts to communicating questions, excuses, emotions, or verbal cues.
Students who learn language the same way they do other subjects can often recite colors, a list of school supplies, a memorized phrase or two, and verb endings, but they rarely can actually communicate using that linguistic data. Why? Because the linguistic system is unconscious, and memorized pieces of language are not stored within the linguistic system. To quote BVP, “What’s on page 32 of your textbook is not necessarily what’s in your head.”
The implication is that we cannot teach language in the same way as other subjects. In fact, we cannot teach language at all; we can only facilitate language acquisition by providing learners with continuous access to CI—whether aural or written. CI must be interesting enough to sustain attention, accessed through multiple contexts to provide repeated exposure, and regardless of the mode of communication—interpretive, interpersonal, or presentational—feel natural and pleasant, not forced or contrived.
There is no getting around the fact that learners need a great deal of exposure to CI to develop proficiency. Communicative interaction with CI must be sustained for as long as a learner requires, and each learner is unique. No two people achieve communicative competence at the same rate or in exactly the same way. The reality is SLA is a long and multifaceted process, and there are no shortcuts and no methods that can bypass or trump the process. “Acquisition cannot be overcome by instruction” (BVP). Ultimately, acquisition can only be facilitated by providing CI and optimized by keeping learners pleasantly in flow through meaningful, interesting, level- and age-appropriate, comprehensible input.
Chaudron, C. (1985). “Intake: On methods and models for discovering learners’ processing of input.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 7, 1–14.
Corder, S. P. (1967). “The Significance of Learners’ Errors.” IRAL 5, 161–170.
Lee, J. F., and VanPatten, B. (2003). Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Krashen, S. D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis. New York: Longman.
Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, UK: Pergamon.
Savignon, S. (1998). Communicative Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Yayun, A. S. (2008). “Input Processing in Second Language Acquisition: A discussion of four input processing models.” Teachers College, Columbia University, Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics 8, no. 1.
This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in February, 2017. Founder of Fluency Matters and organizer of the iFLT conference, Carol Gaab has been providing training in CI-based strategies since 1996. She was a presenter for the Bureau of Education and Research for nine years and a Spanish/ESL teacher for 25 years, most notably 20 years teaching/directing the San Francisco Giant’s U.S. and Dominican language programs. Carol also writes/publishes SLA-friendly resources for novice to advanced levels.