Last week I had the honor of guest-hosting Tea With BVP. It was tons of fun. The main feedback I got from friends and colleagues who listened was variations of “you should have said more.” So here I’ll say more about that episode’s topic, which was the role of the teacher in helping students acquire another language.
Here’s what I think. The teacher’s role boils down to providing these two things:
I really think it’s that simple!
But here’s a slightly longer version. Teachers should
Create an environment filled with target language input appropriate for learners’ proficiency and interests.
Create or seize opportunities for students to use the language meaningfully.
That’s it. Sure, there are other things a person with the occupation of teacher may be required to do or choose to do–give formal assessments, help students interact with target cultures*, create products in or about the target language. But these things are, technically, not part of a person’s acquiring a language: that is, they don’t cause the changes in the brain that constitute moving from being a person who doesn’t know language X to being a person who does know language X. This doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. We just need to be clear with ourselves about what we do that supports students’ acquisition of the language, and make sure we are doing those things enough to justify calling our courses language courses.
*interaction with the products, practices, and perspectives of other cultures will necessarily take place as the relevant products become part of the “target language input” referred to in #1.
If you want to know more of what I think it means for the teacher’s to provide input and opportunities, read on. Then you can tell me in the comments section what I’ve missed!
1. Create an environment filled with target language input appropriate for learners’ proficiency and interests
Input is instances of the target language that are intended for communication and that someone actually hears or reads. “Intended for communication” means that samples of the language used simply to show how the language works may not qualify as input.
Input can be created by the teacher or curated and introduced by the teacher. It can also be sought by students, but this is unlikely to happen efficiently in the early levels, and takes training and motivation to happen at any level.
Especially in the early levels, the most efficient way of exposing students in class to language that is at just the right level and that interests students enough for them to want to continue being exposed to it is through the teacher’s speech, continuously adjusted based on comprehension checks, “teaching to the eyes,” direct feedback from students, and conversation with students. “Just the right level” means likely to be understood, containing some language that learners haven’t yet acquired, but nevertheless understand in real time through the immediate linguistic context, through extralinguistic information, or through students’ having just been told what the “new” language means. (Just remember that telling someone what something means, or why it means that, isn’t what causes acquisition; rather, the accumulation of instances of understanding this language later in meaningful contexts is what makes the form~meaning match necessary for students to develop a Mental Representation of the language. This is also why I use the phrase “understand in real time.” If using context or extralinguistic information takes additional time, the input isn’t comprehensible yet, and “figuring out” what something means doesn’t bring about acquisition. Again, if a learner soon encounters language she has figured out, and understands it in real time during that encounter, the encounter will help cause acquisition.)
The most efficient way for learners to be exposed to sufficient amounts of less customized, but still comprehensible, language in or out of class is Extensive Reading.
Interest isn’t technically necessary for acquisition of a language, but–both in the case of teacher-produced/curated input and in the case of Extensive Reading (/Listening/Viewing)–students will be most likely to choose to continue to pay attention and participate in the interaction if they are highly interested in the thing actually being said.
2. Create or seize opportunities for students to use the language meaningfully
Input is what the brain uses to create a Mental Representation of a language. Improved use of acquired language comes from engaging in the actual activities in which one wants to be able to use it: enjoying a song, arguing, drafting an email, playing party games, reading a book. For students to get good at these things, students need to (a) have a sufficient Mental Representation of the language from input, and (b) have opportunities to actually do these things. If students want to get “good at” listening to French songs, they need a ton of input and they need to listen to a lot of French songs. If students want to get “good at” interrogating Dutch people, they need a ton of input and they need to interrogate a lot of Dutch people.
This part of the role of the teacher, then, calls for teachers’ finding out what it is that students want to be able to do with the language and creating or seizing opportunities for students to do so.
There’s an important point that’s often overlooked here and that can save teachers and students a lot of time: Most of the skills developed through component 2 (opportunities) transfer from already known languages. If you know how to get directions in English and you have a sufficient Mental Representation of German, then you can get directions in German. If you know how to argue in English and you have a sufficient Mental Representation of Spanish, then you can argue in Spanish. There may be some cultural or pragmatic issues you need to get the hang of, but this doesn’t really take practice.
3. Okay, this stuff helps, too
There are some things teachers can do that aren’t technically part of second language acquisition, but can impact it in a good way. These include
- building a trusting, joyful class community that celebrates progress, risk-taking, and mutual respect.
- teaching students about how second language acquisition works.
- wowing students with students’ ability to acquire a new language.
- enthralling students with target language content (books, music, films, etc.) that may encourage students to consume such content outside of class or after the course is over.
For tons of ideas about creating an environment rich in target language input and in opportunities for language use, see the posts tagged lesson plans.