DIANE LARSEN FREEMAN
Well if you ask the question what’s the benefit of focusing on language and content together as opposed to just language which we’ve traditionally done in ESL instruction it to mean it seems common sense cause in life we we need language to talk about something. We don’t talk about we don’t use language like a vacuum. We don’t talk about language we talk about something that is important, a topic, a subject, information. That’s the very basis of communication. So it’s always struck me as strange that our schools that we’ve compartmentalized language in one category in one compartment and content or subject matter in others when we all know they are inextricably linked. And so in in a very strange way the schools are not to reflect the ways schools not a reflection of real life communication.
Well I think that there are there are positives and negatives about pull out programs. Uh benefits are kids especially if ESL students are working in a class with native speaking students which is usually the case in pull out then there needs can be specifically met in a pull out setting. Um they’re not just mixed in with a whole class and kind of expected to follow along. Of course a draw back is they’re segregated and sometimes they can be stigmatized by other students in a class. Um and in some ways they’re missing the the content of the classroom they’re missing the real core curriculum by being separated. In my experience a lot of time ESL pull out programs are very language oriented, very grammar oriented. And so in some ways I think those students would be better back in class with some modification or some accommodation to their language levels, but doing the real things of the classroom, the real content of the classroom. So I think there are there are pluses and minuses it’s it’s its’ um in some setting some settings it’s better than nothing and other places I think that you could that we could make better use of the classroom setting.
Well generally I think that we know from the research and we know from first language acquisition, I have 2 small children I have a 4 year old and a 6 year old, and in my family and my husband corrects my 4 year old uh every time she her favorite thing right now is she’ll say something like um um I know the doll what you’re looking for. So she’s got a problem with her relative pronouns. And he corrects her every time and we could tell him it’s not gonna make any difference but if it makes you feel better go ahead. And I think a lot of teachers are like that. You know they think that with elementary school students that if they correct then the grammar will correct itself, but we know that uh students are testing hypothesis and that up till for native speakers up till about ages 5 or 6 that the system is still somewhat in flux and like in the case of my daughter where she’s got most of her syntax in place but she still has a problem with relative pronouns, and so if we if we know from the the research that there are parallels between first language acquisition and second language acquisition and this is one of the errors what does that one of the similarities is that young children will not benefit from grammar instruction, they might benefit a little bit later in elementary school from a little bit of focus on form but contextualize like in their writing. Like maybe looking at subject verb agreement, plurals, uh kind of morphological less pieces of the puzzle. So I don’t really have a problem with the upper grades, if the teachers within the context that’s meaningful, like within a reading within a writing piece. And only words appropriate not in journaling where the student is focusing on meaning, but in appropriate settings where they’re focused on form or what Eliss calls noticing the gap, seeing the errors, might actually help. But certainly not the younger kids. The focus should be on meaning on communication on oral skills development.
Well the a mainstream class that has ESL students in it has a potential to be a very rich learning environment for ESL students. Now it’s not always the case because in many situations the teacher doesn’t know what to do with those students and um not necessarily willfully but sort of ignores them because she doesn’t know he or she doesn’t know what to do with them, but in that situation with a informed teacher or teacher who understands how to work with students who are developing their language skills that it can be a very rich environment for some of the reasons uh that I’ve talked about and that is students have access to content they have access to curriculum and while they may still be developing their English congnitively they could be advancing those skills um at the same time. And uh while I do believe that there is something very valid about this notion of cognitive academic language proficiency and social development or basic interpersonal social skills, I think that it’s not a dichotomy I think that the students can be developing those at the same time. So back in the mainstream classrooms students have access to the subject matter they can develop the cognitive academic language proficiency, but also they have a chance to work with their new native speaking peers to develop their social language. And to benefit from peer teaching and peer interaction from native speakers. Which of course they wouldn’t have if they were in the pull out situation.
Well uh this term sheltered is one that’s used and misused. Uh whenever I talk about this in my own teacher education classes students are always shocked to find out that the term actually originated in foreign language education. At the post secondary level. So the application to the United States, actually the post secondary level in Canada, so the application to the United States toward ESL settings and toward elementary and maybe upper secondary settings is really a secondary application and it’s it’s really kind of interesting to sort of find out where this came from. But this whole notion is that if you shelter students, in other words if you separate them and they’re all in the same linguistic boat which was Crashon’s original term to define sheltered instruction then the teacher can accommodate the students level of proficiency. And not assume the students will understand them and so teachers in this kinds of environment both through instruction if they’ve been trained in sheltered techniques or just because they want to reach the the learners, will do all kinds of interesting things to make sure they’re understood. Such things as paraphare, as summary, as much more explicit use of language like using enumerators, talking saying, well there’s 3 points I want to cover. And be very explicit, well point number one point number 2 point number 3. They use more explicit transitions, therefore, however, as a result, consequently. So enumerators, transitions, they also use word visuals so they don’t’ just rely on the uh spoken word. They’ll make more use of the blackboard or overhead projector or pictures, rely or bringing in actual items um to classes so students can see. Uh usually assignments are broken down into more um say more phases or more steps so that in a in a regular classroom maybe speakers you might move from point a to point d, but you want to make sure all those steps are carefully outlined. Um a lot more comprehension checks, making sure the students are there. Maybe stopping midway and having the students summarize or work together in pairs to go over something so a greater focus on interaction. And basically not taking anything for granted. Not assuming that they understand which a teacher of native speakers maybe shouldn’t do but often does. But we just can’t make that assumption with speakers that they’ll understand and so the teacher does virtually everything but stand on her head to make sure that students understand.
The the issue of collaboration is a complex one because we all have our roles and we become accustomed to our roles. And what I when I work with content area colegues I always say that it’s a two way street. That we in ESL I think have been too language focused and too grammar focused, that’s the history of our methodology. And on the other hand I think our content collegues have become too exclusively subject matter focused. And yet we know that language and content are linked that we can’t have one without the other. So I try to use that as a starting point for collaboration. And in terms of roles I obviously of the language, we don’t want to lose the role of language expert, we know about language, we know how to teach language, we know how develop materials, so that’s really the strong point that we bring in. but we have to acknowledge the expertise of our subject area collegues that I’m no mathematician, I’m no historian, I’m no biologist, I don’t I don’t know how to think like a biologist. Now I’ve worked with enough biology teachers that I’m starting to think like one but I’m still a novice in that area. So I think that we have to respect and admire the work that our context collegues can do. And one of the areas that I try to focus on in terms of um inspiring collaboration is that most teachers want to be effective teachers. And you know working with language minority students it’s not gratifying if the students aren’t mastering their content. And that usually appeals to the sort of very heart of the teacher that we didn’t most people didn’t get into this profession unless they really care about being good teachers. And in this new world where the demographics have changed in front of the eyes of many of our our collegues, they they may resist at first. They have many many of them have this kind of blame the victim mentality. Well these students aren’t ready they shouldn’t even be here, it’s not my job. Uh I’ve heard all that a million times over. Um and I I say it’s a philosophical decision if they want to take that attitude and not be willing to adjust their repertoire of skills to meet the needs of their students and I guess that’s their perrogative, I don’t think it’s a very rewarding and gratifying prerogative but it’s hard to teach certain dogs new tricks and um so I think we have to recognize that some people change is very difficult for some people, it’s difficult for everyone, but particularly for some people. Um but getting back to this notion of being a more effective teacher, that if they can reach their non native speaking students, it’s a very very rewarding experience because these are the students, typically that are so motivated, have so much potential, and if you can scaffold the steps that the students need to get to the point where they can really master the content in the end it really is worth making those adjustments that we’re asking content area collegues to do. But it’s not it’s not an easy task. It’s not an easy task on either side because we’re stepping on toes, we’re crossing the lines in terms of roles, and we’re it has to change and change is not easy.
Well this area of being a 2 way street I think is a very important message and I the reason I focus on it so much is because I don’t think that we should be so arrogant to think that we can only ask our content area experts to change, I think that’s ridiculous. And I think this whole notion of content based ESL, theme based ESL, thematic instruction, task based instruction, that’s all rooted in the notion that we need to be infusing our classrooms with more content, with more meaningful subject matter with more challenging cognitive activities, things that we have been guilty I think of not doing enough of our profession. Uh when you think of Cummings work that we’ve been wonderful at at creating very context imbedded, very rich environments. But not greatly cognitive demanding environments. So it’s not wonder in many cases that students leave the ESL class with a fun experiential interactive activities, and then they go into the content areas class which is cognitively demanding, much less uh context embedded, in fact uh context reduced, and they mostly are getting information in the form of a lecture or or the difficult textbook and it’s a very difficult adjustment. And so I think what we’re asking uh on both sides is that we in on the language side become more content based, that we up the ante. And that we ask our collegues on the content area side to become more language sensitive and to think about the language skills embedded in the content of their teaching.
Well I this whole idea issue of multiple perspectives is very important um in in some ways we can even define it a different in a different way than just being bilingual verses being monolingual, but this idea of your perspective of of the content and your perspective of language, so I think that’s important. But I I never really I studied many foreign languages in school, but I never really felt like what it felt to be in that language majority, and to minority, excuse me, until I went to Hong Kong and found myself, even in a British Colony at the time, uh to be of a language minority speaker. I’m not doing very well on this one maybe I should start over again. (interruption and talking) well I think in in the whole enterprise of of collaboration we are taking multiple perspectives. We are trying to take to the perspective of the content and the language and the content expert and the language specialist. But it’s I think it helps if you had an experience with another language or another culture because you realize that people think in different ways, people act in different ways, and it’s kind of hard to preach the notion of diversity unless someone’s had an experience. Whether it’s through another language, through another culture, and well in my own travels um I taught in Hong Kong and I found what it was like to be a language minority speaker. And that was just, the shoe was on the other foot. And it was very odd for me especially being an English speaker in this world where we can usually get by without having to speak other languages. And that was a really humbling experience to me so I think uh to have to tap into that experience that many of us have had is very important in in teacher training and I know in my own Tcell program at CalCLA it requires students to study a foreign language for part of their Masters degree so they can have that period of introspection that points what it’s like to be struggling as an adult to learn a language which is no easy task.
Um an optimal environment for learning language I think has to include both comprehensive input and comprehensible output. I work a lot with students who are learning English for academic purposes. They’ve been in classrooms for many years. And of course I work with more recent immigrants. But many of the students I work with have been in the United States for quite a long period of time. They’ve had a lot of comprehensive input. So I’m all for, especially in the beginning level, upper beginning lower intermediate, have a very rich oral language environment. But I think students as Meryll Swing has said have to be pushed in their output. And that is they have to produce both written language and spoken language. And that’s where particulary at the upper elementary grades and into the high school level we start to uh to work a little bit on grammar, to talk a little bit about the discourse of writing and these kinds of more academic skills. To teach students the classify, to understand categories, to take a difficult text and be able to break it down to the three main points, which would be the thesis of the paragraph, the overall thesis of a leading passage. So um if we’re interested in helping students master academic English then they have I think we have to really work on their underlining skills um of reading and writing that many of our student unfortuanately um have a deficit in. and to me that’s lots of pain staking work in the in the skills of reading for academic purposes and writing for academic purposes.
Uh the quality of being pushed in output means that students have to move from what Swing calls semantic processing to syntactic processing. So for example if if I asked you a question orally and you’re not sure what I mean you can ask me to repeat it or that you can look at my gesture or you might see what I’m pointing to or something so. You’re gonna get a lot of different clues to meaning. But in the written form when you read something in a textbook it’s it’s not gonna change, it’s there. And you might get a little help from a diagram or a bold face or something, but when I say pushed in output I mean to really have to think about producing the structure correctly. And that is to think as you’re writing, to monitor, uh is my subject verb agreement correct here? Um is this the right word form?(cough) this whole idea of being pushed in output requires students to think about how they can monitor their language and not I don’t really like that term monitor that much cause I think it’s kind of a loaded term. But I use words like refine, polish, where they start to see that they need to focus on subject verb agreement or they need an adverb instead of a ab adjective, that they look at word forms. Or that there’s a tense problem. So we would begin to really analytically look at language. And that’s just(cough), this I think it’s really important even starting at the upper elementary grades to start teachers should be analytical about language. And I gave an example about grammar helping students learn to analyze the if their tense forms are correct, or if their word forms are correct, using an adverb verses an adjective. But I also think it can be at the level of reading a passage and understanding fact verses opinion. Or seeing the 5 major classifications of a of a passage, or knowing who to take a graph and put that into prose, or vice versa, take a paragraph and make a graph or make figure from that. So moving from a more um graphic form to a written product. And when I say analyze let it be known that I analytical that’s what I have in mind there. Or take or looking at the the structure of text and being able to write topic sentences, that um express a thesis. Even those are kinds of examples that maybe analytical.
Well as students move through the grades, particulary through the upper elementary grade, (tape goes dead silent) oh yeah I’m in Argentina you know and I realize I that’s how you say Spanish. So what were we talking about? OK, (cough) as students move into the upper elementary grades the class starts to look more like it will look for the rest of their academic life, more teacher fronted, more text oriented, and so the complexity of language is also more difficult. And that’s where I think we really have to focus on helping content area teachers create a larger, a bigger context. By using more visuals, by using the board, by using more paraphrasing and elaborating of vocabulary. Like anticipating what difficult vocabulary you might be in and teaching it systematically or teaching students skills to guess meaning from context, those kinds of skills. So I think that this whole idea of the complexity of the language(change tape)complexity of the text, the complexity of the delivery form, we have to have these strategies that teach the students um how to access material that now is cognitively more demanding and more cognitively induced. And that is where the sheltering techniques come in, that’s where what I I I typically call scaffolding, where the instructor actually thinks well what are the steps? I want the students to get here, I want them to read this 10 page text, what are the skills they need to read that text, or I want them to write a lab report in biology. What are the skills they need to write about that report. What what what are the vocabulary, what skills do they need to talk about the stages, what predictions, or to enumerate steps in a process. So um this whole idea of anticipating the language demands underlying the content um the discourse or the content is are very important areas to concentrate on.
Uh often when I’m out talking to teachers and I’m talking about sheltering strategies and scaffolding, creating a rich learning environment, they say but that’s what the teachers do. And I say absolutely and keep doing it. But the the biggest difference is that we we maybe can afford to not be so explicit in our instruction in our instruction and scaffold each step and then anticipate issues and problems with native speakers. We should be doing that, but maybe we can get by with it. But we can’t we don’t have that luxury if you want to say that with non native speakers because they won’t get it and they will drop out they will go into classes that aren’t demanding and and then the whole cycle starts to repeat itself. So it’s it’s just so much more critical at this stipulation because they’re they’re already going in behind, they’re trying to get access to the core curriculum at the same time that they’re trying to master the English language and so it’s it’s true that the kinds of strategies that we are talking about should work for all students. And they will. I mean my experience is where native speakers in the class will benefit from this instruction because it is good instruction. But that in particular the non native will benefit.
Well one thing they can get is a fascination with the language acquisition process and it’s what hooked me in the first place. Um I think the the discovery of developmental sequences came out of uh the speculation that it may be the case that their native language is not such a strong force that it overwhelms um the fact that people are struggling with the same subject matter um and therefore will exhibit more universal tendencies. Thus language uh native language specific tendencies. Um and to me that was fascinating because it started to speak to me about some kind of building syllabus, some kind of natural developmental sequence for English preseumably for other languages as well. It started to speak to our human talents and capacities, um to make sense out of all subject matter and and it started opening doors for me. If if if uh all L2 acquisition if if it’s only a reflex of our L1, it’s not so interesting. If in fact it’s a window to the mind that shows us something about human thinking, human cognition, human development, to me that’s much more fascinating. So my first answer is that I I think you can get captivated by it, I was. Uh my second answer would be that the more you can understand it in a general way, the more you can understand anything about your children’s process of learning whether it be language or anything else, that seems to be the better teacher you’ll be. Um one would like to think that teaching is a process that’s in harmony with learning. Uh not uh and I think as teachers that’s our best shot. What we try to do is um produce some kind of harmonious, some kind of dance with our students. And you don’t want to step on each other toes, so the more we can study how they’re dancing the more we can uh both follow and lead. So I guess that would be my second answer in a general sort of way. Do you want me to be more specific?
Well universals of course um what what the universals consist of is a matter of some debate. Certainly if you approach it from a Chomsky uh Norm Chomsky’s universal grammar, um not only is there some debate about whether the universal grammar part even exists, it exists, but even whether, or what if consists of. So it not only is this descrepency or dispute about whether it exists or not but also if it does exist what it consists of. So um first of all any I think anything about universals has to be taken with a grain of salt. But uh assuming that there are universals either uh of a Chomskian sort or otherwise, there are universal language like that, I take that back there are things all languages have certain properties um that across and no languages except for a very few languages are an exception with the Gods to for example with the production of certain fricative cells. Now that’s that is a what’s called a substitute universal. That’s a universal that we pretty much accept that’s different from let’s say uh universal grammar um of the Chomskian sort. But be that as it may what I was trying to say is again the more you know about what you’re students are bringing with them, the more efficient and effective you can presumably be in the classroom. The students can already to something, they can make certain fricitive sounds, they can if they know not to make other fricitive sounds, then one would presumably uh uh save some time, energy, and their attentional focus, by not attending to them in the classroom. On the other hand things that are language specific for specific fricative subject matter that are not universal are not something that the child or children bring with them, obviously would warrant attention. So to that extent it would tell me where I need to work, what’s the playing field or what can I assume, what can I presume, and what uh what do I need to fill in around. Now having said that of course this is true for teaching in general. If you always try to anticipate what your students know and then when you get in the classroom find that to the contrary you’ve got to make adjustments. So it’s not uh it’s not that simple. But just knowing as much as you possibly can about what’s given about language uh will help no doubt for you to become a more efficient uh time manager.
Language acquisition is a gradual process, it takes time and it’s one certainly one implication to the obvious implication, it takes time and we have to be patient. Um then there’s another part of the notion of the process being gradual that I think uh is important for teachers to be aware of and that is that it’s not necessarily an evenly uh an even trajectory or a linear trajectory. That it uh sometimes we’ll it’ll be very discouraging because it’ll seem that you’re students are taking one step forward and two back. Uh not only not only does it take time, but sometimes it will seem as if they are in fact sliding, when in fact it’s not the case at all. Don’t know for sure what’s going on in those periods of um remission, but uh in fact what might be going on is is sorting out something in a very passive way that will allow their their developing language to be structured and for them to more forth from that point. So we see language acquisition as gradual, well we usually use the number from 5 to 7 years. That sounds like an intermidable time I’m sure uh for somebody that has only months uh with his or her students. But that doesn’t mean that of course they can’t make great strides during the time we have together. And it also doesn’t’ mean that we should just give up because uh it seems hopeless the length of time it takes. We obviously have to keep chipping away at it, the child will do his or her part and we need to do ours.
I got the idea of the language acquisition process being dynamic in a particular meaning of dynamic from a book by James Glade published in 1987 on chaos theory. And I think it’s a fascinating book. It has nothing to do with language, that is he hasn’t written it to do with language or language acquisition. But I find that at least the metaphorical level that there are a number of residences between chaos theory and the process of lanaguage acquisition. One of them is uh and I’m here quoting from him to the best of my memory, um his uh saying that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules. I I think that’s very profound. Uh you know we we argue in our field for instance about what’s the best way to teach language, I I believe that’s much too global a question. And uh and we have to be much more particular in terms of the audience with whom we’re working. And it’s not even enough to talk just about children verses adults, or or even boys verses girls and there’d be difference, gender based differences as well. Um clearly clearly all of those things are important. But also the level of proficiency of the language learner. And os the idea that um that what helps a beginner who’s who’s trying to make sense out of this of these sounds, these alien sounds, perhaps or even even post uh uh a very very early beginners, somebody who has say presided in this country for awhile and has you know a beginning communicative proficiency in the language is going to require a attention of the sort that somebody who is much more has had much more exposure is further along in that gradual process, um and perhaps needs more work on on literacy skills, reading and writing, putting together coherent discourse. So I think we want to be aware of the means and you probably want to be aware of the types of activities that work better for uh a lower level of proficiency than a higher level. Uh but I like that, the act fo playing the game is the way of changing the rules. It keeps me always asking myself, what do my students need at this point in time? Not only in terms of language focus, but also in terms of the activity I design to help them focus upon that bit of language.
Well I think of course the teachability hypothesis comes from uh from Pederman’s work which of course is based on earlier work that took place in Germany. Um but we don’t need to go through all of that I suppose. Uh the the reason I backed up a little bit is that we that it that I think the teachability hypothesis comes out of language acquisition research but makes makes a lot of sense to teachers too. Because basically what it says is that a child or uh uh a learner, an adult learner too for that matter, will not learn a particular bit of language until he or she is ready to learn that bit of language. And we have some research evidence that suggests that that’s the case. Now that comes out of a German research base, but as I say, most teachers will identify with that. Uh and and it comes often in the form of I teach my students something on Thursday, we come back together on Friday and it’s gone, you know it’s absent without leave, where is it? They seem to have had it Thursday why is it why did it not stick? And a possible answer for that, it’s probably not the only answer, but a possible answer for that is , well they could have in their short term memory for the short term, they were able to make sense out of that bit and they were able to comply with what they were asked to do in the classroom. But for whatever reason, maybe because they are in that one of those class periods I talked about earlier they could not yet in fact integrate the new material in a way that where it stuck and to make it simple. So then what what does a teacher do with that? Uh obviously uh everybody wants the haha everyone wants to know what the developmental sequence is so that their teaching is in time with when the child is ready to learn that bit. Um we don’t have, however, fully developed developmental sequence a fully articulated developmental sequence for for English, for any language. Uh we have certain constraints we think are operational that make is possible for the child to learn or encourage a child to learn one bit of language before another. Um so without a a syllabus and it’s not even clear that we necessarily want to teach in the same order as in developmental sequences, but without a syllabus it really becomes a mute point. Therefore it seems to me the bottom line for teachers is is you teach something and uh you don’t expect complete mastery, you move on and if it doesn’t seem that they are getting ti then you move on and you come back, which is good pedagogy anyway, after all recycling points coming back to them uh if if for review purposes or or hopefully hoping that they’ll get it a second time around is good pedagogy anyway. Um but that’s the bottom line I guess, is that you don’t expect mastery. They may not be ready to learn.
Yeah well I mean we have to look at the purpose for which we have language, right and although we we do talk to ourselves that’s not perhaps the most obvious uh function of language. We use it to do a lot of different things. And again uh I only have a number of linguistic terms that go along with the different purposes or functions with which language is put that that really are just terms. But they represent the the full panoply, the full spectrum um of language uh is used for. Now a lot of those function of course involve other people not surprisingly, um not all of them not but many of them. Uh and so language acquisition researchers have looked at the interactions between uh non native speakers of English and between native speakers and non native speakers of English. And sort of examined these interactions for uh particular features uh and with a question in mind what could this do what could the learners be learning from such interactions? And it there’s a major uh theory or just a set of hypothesis now that uh that in fact a lot of learning takes place in such kind of pairs and dyatic configurations where the more proficient learner uh is providing a scaffolding for a less proficient learner to be able to express him or herself that would be the Gotskian kind of take. The more proficient learner in a more psychological less social, but more psychological uh kind of interpretation to an interaction between a more proficient student or a native speaker of a language and a less proficient or non native speaker of a language would be that the former, the more proficient speaker is providing uh uh so called comprehensible input that that the less proficient speaker uh can’t produce but can understand a great deal of and learn therefore from. Um so supplier of comprehensible input a scaffolder that is somebody who collaborates to produce the interaction, provides the the language scaffolding a kind of ladder that the non native speaker can climb climb up um would be helpful. Through it it’s not that you can’t understand the language of let’s say the teacher for instance, but through interaction we we negotiate meaning, we make adjustments. So if you’re not understanding me I’m and I indicate that to you’re going to find a way to circle acute or make make the meaning clearer for me. And through those kinds of adjustments kind of up upscale, upshifting or downshifting of your language I can learn a great deal as a non native speaker. I may not get it the first time around, and if I give you that quisical look you can make your adjustments and help me uh understand better, thereby facilitating my language acquisition process. And then finally um you know I think that it I’m almost embarrassed to say because it’s obvious, but uh language is language acquisition is a skill and I could read every book that was written on Swahili grammar and not learn Swahili. And uh book learner is fine, I’m an author I’m gonna have to say that. Um but e uh people need to do something with language to acquire it. And so an interaction uh interaction is important obviously because it’s not just the getting it’s the doing as well.
Well hypothesis testing is one way of describing what we think uh is going on in the mind of the language learner as he or she is grappling with the new language. Um that is because we are cognitive, because we’re thinking human beings we use our brains, we hear uh language around, we read language, and we make certain conjectures about the shape or rules of the language we’re learning. Uh that would be the hypothesis formation process, it doesn’t stop there of course. Then we then produce some bits of language it’s just the way the story goes and they become hypothesis testing opportunities. And depending on the feedback we get back from our interlopeters, the persons with whom we’re interacting, uh we we will revise our hypothesis and eventually and the story goes, we’ll uh have them in full alignment with the target language structure. So that’s that’s how it goes. Now errors of course are vitally important bits of information whether you brace that view of language acquisition or not because there’s no other way really to know what’s going on in your student’s mind other than their performance. If they get it right um you’re probably not going to do anything about that. The error therefore becomes the window on where becomes the window on the mind that tells you where you need to work, where they need to work. Um for awhile in our field, for a number of year in our field, it was thought very important that teachers structure the lesson in a way that all errors be prevented um that that people uh be prohibited from heavens forbid taking, making an error that will actually then reinforce uh a bad habit. But to uh I think it’s fair to say these days very few people any longer would suggest that that’s what the good teacher would do on the contrary, uh a good teacher might actually not rejoice at a student’s errors but embrace them as uh again opportunities for him or her, the teacher, to learn what’s going on in the mind of a student. I I assume this is true for teaching any subject matter I’m not a subject matter expert of other subjects, but I assume that student errors providing valuable evidence for a teacher to know where to work, where to focus student attention, how to get them to move on in the learning process.
So we’re talking about learner variability and there’s a term that we use in the field it’s called differential success. And differential success means really two things. And actually it would be worth probably talking about both. Um the first part of differential success asks the question why is it that most everybody given normal human faculties uh is able to successfully acquire a first language? Whereas not all people uh acquire a second language to the same degree? Now children of course, young children of course, often if not always do, but the older you get that’s one of the explanations of why it’s not possible the older you get the more difficult it becomes, we don’t want to go there because some of us are older and we don’t want to think about it but also because uh I think more important to your audience is the question is the other part of the differential success question which is why is it that some or the observation that some students even within a second language context uh perform more rapidly than others. And uh that’s a given and again I’m not a subject matter expert in other subject matters, but I can’t believe it’s also not true of everything, that is the first that you walk in everybody’s the same, maybe, maybe, but of course not because they come from different backgrounds, but say say they’ve never studied astrophysics, so nobody has any idea uh I certainly wouldn’t know what it’s all about, but a second day some are going to be ahead of others. Uh that is there’s always going to be an individual difference. Uh at the rate in which people learn. Um and I I suspect that’s going to hold for any subject matter and it certainly holds for language. Um there is a great deal of individual variability uh that doesn’t mean however, especially when you’re dealing with children that not everybody will learn. It’s sort of like the tortoise and the hare you know, but people will ultimately come out to uh at the finish line or we don’t want to think of language as finishing and because you never really totally acquire it, it’s always changing. But uh so maybe that wasn’t a good metaphor but the point is that people have their own styles, they have their own uh study habits, they come from different sometimes from different native languages which give them present in some cases interferences of a different sort. There are universals, but there are also language specific problems, um that arise depending on the native language of the student and the language they’re attempting to acquire as a second language. Um so all of these things add up to differences depending on one’s learning style, depending on one’s learning language learning aptitude, there are all these things add up to the fact that there are going to be differences in the rate at which someone learns. But people do learn, and even in us old timers we learn to.