Balancing Research and Experience

If you’ve ever tried to compile a bibliography of sources on issues in language teaching and learning—issues such as the roles of input and output, error correction, age of onset (when someone starts learning a language), explicit instruction, social and emotional factors, etc.—then you’ve noticed at least one thing: You can find an article or study supporting just about anything. In some fields, this is because hacks manage to get published. But in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), experienced and respected researchers often publish conflicting findings, and this is disconcerting to the learner and teacher who want to ground their practices in peer-reviewed research.

Although I have a lot of ideas about the reasons for divergent conclusions in SLA research—many to do with methodological issues such as sample size and various factors for which studies fail to control—here I simply want to offer encouragement for a way forward if you don’t feel confident evaluating contradictory research. My exhortation is occasioned in part by the release this week of Videocast 3 from the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast (below), which deals with Stephen Krashen’s 2013 article “The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis.”

I’ve found many of the schemata that Krashen popularized, such as the acquisition-learning distinction and the Monitor, incredibly useful in my own learning and teaching. And that’s the thing: you need to do what you have seen work* in your own experience and what is confirmed by the experience of people you trust. If you go by published research alone, you’ll simply have DeKeyser’s word against VanPatten’s, Krashen’s against Swain’s, and so on. You can’t follow everyone’s model, because the models conflict and, in any case, are too vast and varied to yield a coherent curriculum. Basically, you have to do more of what has worked* for you and for others you trust.

So what is the right role of published research in your teaching and learning? Well, you probably shouldn’t rely on something that disparate researchers actually do agree is useless or counterproductive, and you probably shouldn’t neglect something that disparate researchers actually agree is useful. For instance, you have no research-informed reason to make translation from one language to another a central activity in your language learning or teaching, though you might use it occasionally for some purpose other than acquiring the language. And all researchers I know of agree that extensive input in the target language is essential for acquisition. (They disagree about whether input is all you need, what kind of input is most useful, and what else you might need.)

Consume as much research as you can get your hands on—the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast should make that easier—find the common ground among researchers, observe yourself and your results, share your results, learn about others’ results, and be willing to try just about anything at least once!

 

*You might need to ask yourself or others what you or they mean by “X worked for me.” A lot of people who say “X has always worked for me” mean little more than that no one has died from X on their watch. It should mean “it helped practically all my students achieve the course goals.” Make sure that whatever activities and resources you use are likely to bring about the results you actually want to see.

 

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2 Comments

  1. succinctly stated and yet beautifully written.
    I’d add that an article I read back in the ’80s about L2 language acquisition ( as I believe it was called back in the day) has remained a touch stone for me. I don’t remember the title or the author just the content. The author discussed the various factors that impact a L2 learner. There were about 14 if I remember correctly. As a teacher most of the elements were beyond my control: age, previous experience etc. but motivation and lowering the affective filter were two aspects where I could perhaps have some influence on my students. Ties in with your philosophy of joyful language learning. But in the end I like that there is still something mysterious about how the process works. It’s not a hard science like chemistry. It’s organic and brain based driven by some fundamental need to communicate. Caveat: my remarks are not based on research, just my observations accumulated during my decades (! I feel so old saying this!) of teaching French And Latin.

  2. The musicuentos podcasts are really enlightening. I only had one semester of Intro Spanish, but I am surrounded by Spanish speakers, and have been able to join reading groups doing Allende, Garcia Marquez and even one doing Don Quixote. But I can’t understand women on the bus talking about ordinary stuff. I teach myself and feel disappointed in what I can do after messing with textbooks. I keep returning to a language because I want to understand some item in it. I can understand story content in Spanish, French and German and up to a point in Latin without being able to produce utterances at a similar level. I used to think for my purposes that being able to read a text was enough “acquisition” for what I want since a classic was written by some one long since deceased. Even the cultural surround in which it was written has passed away. Because story telling follows a certain pattern throughout the European community, there are many factors which make a story understandable even if substantial amounts of detail are neglected. However , in Latin to go from a textbook version to Ovid’s version of the same story is confounding. My theory of poetry and song lyric is that the language used is even more comprehensible than prose to native speakers because it depends on affect for effect. Few examples of a textbook teaching the emotional content of language comes to my mind though I have read a lot of textbooks about language.

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