Speaking of speaking …

 

Most of the learners I teach love the ‘define and guess’ type of activities and speaking activities in general. I’ve never actually asked them explicitly but I can tell from their reactions I observe right on the spot or later when I reflect on my lessons; they seem motivated, relaxed and 100% engaged. I confess that I’m fond of speaking activities myself, even though I’m aware of the danger I may be overlooking: the fact that I like something doesn’t necessarily mean that all students are keen on too (Laura Patsko’s post on introverted students explains why). Nevertheless, I truly believe that L2 learners benefit from conversation activities, particularly those based on information gap and negotiating meaning. That’s why I include them in my lessons regularly, especially in the afternoon courses with young learners. To disguise the fact that I include the same activities over and over again I invent numerous variations and modifications, and I usually manage to deceive the students by convincing them that each time they do something it’s better and cooler than before – an upgraded version, to speak their language.

The reason why I’m writing this post is because I sometimes feel a little guilty that many of my lessons are based on the i+0 equation. They say that L2 learners should be provided with the i+1 input. This is so called Krashen’s Input Hypothesis stating that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. What makes me feel even more disgraceful is Krashen’s conviction that speaking in the target language does not result in language acquisition and that comprehensible output is the result of learning acquisition. That’s where my bad conscience comes from.

I feel a little less shameful when I remember Merrill Swain’s output hypothesis which, on the other hand, states that learning takes place when a learner encounters a gap in his or her linguistic knowledge of the second language (L2). One way or another, balance is important. Czech students often get overwhelmed by the enormous amount of input they get in their regular English classes, e.g. long vocabulary lists and grammar tables, and I feel they need to blow off steam a little. My afternoon classes are not compulsory so they must be enjoyable and fun, otherwise the students won’t want to come back. In other words, if I manage to drop the students’ affective filters, I needn’t be afraid of what Stephen Krashen feared – that pushing students to speak in a second language may be uncomfortable for them and thus hampering acquisition. On the contrary, many of the students who started attending this course had come with almost impermeable affective filters, which they slowly and gradually disposed of thanks to activities mentioned above.

If you listen to a student trying to define the word ‘sun’, for instance, you can’t but feel amazed by what’s happening – in his/her mind and between him/her and his/her partner. This is a short transcript of a dialogue I overheard in today’s lesson:

S1) It’s in sky.
S2) Sun?
S1) No, not in day but in night.
S2) Star?
S1) No, it’s bigger and only one.
S2) Moon?
S1) Yes!

As the reader might have noticed, this simple, authentic exchange contains a few minor mistakes. However, that’s not terribly important. What I find amazing that S1 adds a new piece of information after S2’s incorrect guess, quite naturally, by contrasting or contradicting – simply by reacting to what S2 has just said. It may sound trivial and obvious but isn’t this exactly what happens in a genuine conversation outside the classroom? I can’t accept the speculation that students don’t acquire L2 by speaking and that output is only the result of acquisition. Of course, a learner can’t say much in the very first lesson of English because they need some input at first, but already in the second class, acquisition may result in output and vice versa.

Below is an example of a lively activity we did today in class: the learners are describing pictures (each for one minute before swapping the pictures and their partners). While speaking, their partners have to listen carefully and watch the time. Naturally, the listeners aren’t just passive participants. On the contrary, they are acquiring the language and in their minds they’re already shaping their own speech. When it’s their turn to speak, apart from creating their own language, they also copy their partner’s previous utterances. They sometimes copy the mistakes as well, or they don’t because they spotted them and try to avoid them (noticing is the essential starting point for acquisition, according to Richard Schmidt). Each time they speak to a different partner, and due to the fact that this is a mixed ability group, they learn a lot from others, either on the accuracy or the fluency level. I should stress that in monolingual classes, the teacher’s interference is often inevitable. Some mistakes, especially those made owing to language transfer, would remain unnoticed by students who share L1. But I believe that students can learn an amazing amount of L2 when left to their own devices.

To conclude, in this post I wanted to express my conviction that theory may be helpful but practice is what really matters. I don’t deny that we need some theoretical background to be able to design our activities meaningfully, but relying on theory and research without noticing what’s really happening in the classroom is too narrow-minded.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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