Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Second Language Acquisition
Second Language Learning

Copyright © 1981 Stephen Krashen
First printed edition 1981 by Pergamon Press Inc

There is reason to suppose that caretaker speech is an excellent teaching language, even though it may not always seem to be at first examination. According to the literature on caretaker speech (my primary sources include the summary in Clark and Clark, 1977, and the superb collection edited by Snow and Ferguson, 1977), caretaker speech has the following characteristics:

It obeys the "here and now" principle: caretakers talk about what is going on in the immediate environment of the young child at that moment. I think that what is significant about this principle is that the child is given extralinguistic support to aid in his comprehension of what is said to him.
It is syntactically simple, and becomes complex as the child gains in linguistic maturity. This characteristic is not as simple as that, however, Caretakers do not simply aim their input at the "next" structure, the one that the child is due to acquire next. Rather, caretaker input appears to be "roughly tuned" to the child's linguistic ability--we see positive, but not strikingly high correlations between linguistic input complexity and linguistic competence in children (Newport, Gleitman, and Gleitman, 1977; Cross, 1977; Chapter 9, this volume).
Caretaker speech is communication. As mentioned above, the purpose of caretaker speech is not language teaching, it is to convey messages and often to get the child to behave in a certain way. It turns out to be the case that caretaker speech is effective in encouraging language acquisition (at least the literature is consistent with this view; Cross, 1977; Newport et al., 1977).

From these characteristics, it can be hypothesized that intake is first of all input that is understood.

Simple "free conversation" will often fail as optimal input, as it is often not understood. The failure of free conversation to qualify as intake implies that second language teaching involves more than just talking to students about topics of interest, something the profession has known since its beginning. Administrators, however, sometimes feel that being a native speaker of a language qualifies one to be a teacher of that language. This analysis shows why this is not necessarily true.

Mechanical drill also fails as optimal intake for acquisition. Mechanical drill is activity in which the primary focus is on the form of the language being used rather than its communicative intent. Here is a sample: given the sentence "John is a student", change it to the negative ("John isn't a student"). Whether anyone is interested in the fact that John is or is not a student is, of course, not an issue. Thus, while mechanical drills may be understood, they are understood only in a trivial sense. Evidence (Lee, McCune, and Patton, 1970) is available that suggests strongly that students do not pay much attention to repetitive drill after a few repetitions, and it is doubtful that the meaning strikes very "deeply" (in the sense of Stevick, 1976).

Perhaps the correct generalization is that the best activities are those that are natural, interesting, and understood. When these requirements are met, and where there is a great deal of input of this nature, it may be the case that i +1 will "naturally" be covered and reviewed many times over, and progress in language acquisition will result.

In a recent paper, I suggest another way of obtaining intake outside the classroom, a way of encouraging the outside world to cooperate with the language teaching profession (Krashen, 1978e): "Language Learning Buttons" would alert native speakers to the linguistic needs of acquirers--a red button, designated "ESL Learner 1" would mean a beginning ESL student, a yellow button designated "ESL Learner 2" an intermediate, etc. Native speakers would hopefully provide the bearer of such a button with simpler input (and perhaps a friendlier response).

Returning to the classroom, in recent years some novel ideas have been suggested that encourage language acquisition by providing intake. Terrell (1977) has proposed a method which he calls the "Natural Approach", in which class time essentially consists of communicative activity, with the teacher speaking only in the target language, and the students responding in either the target language or their first language. Students' errors are completely ignored during this activity, unless there is some communication failure.

A USC graduate student, John Cromshaw, has also come up with an interesting innovation which he calls "Intercambio". In intercambio, as it is practiced at USC, Americans studying Spanish as a foreign language are teamed with Spanish-speaking ESL students, and are encouraged to converse on various topics. The rule is: speak your own language! [Crosstalk] Cromshaw reports that even less advanced students exchange enormous amounts of information with each other, and often, involuntarily, begin to speak in the target language. These approaches have been validated only informally, but early reports of their success have been quite encouraging.

The use of techniques such as Asher's "total physical response" (Asher, 1966, 1969) may also provide useful amounts of intake in the classroom, In Asher's approach, students remain silent in early stages, but are required to obey teacher commands in the target language, commands that require a "total physical response", beginning with simple imperatives ("sit down") to more complex sentences ("If John ran to the blackboard, run after him and hit him with your book"). There is some experimental evidence in Asher's papers that "TPR" does indeed work: foreign language students, after 32 hours of TPR, had significantly better listening comprehension scores than students in "ordinary" classes after 150 hours, and scores on other tests were about the same. Clearly, teacher input that stimulates a total physical response will be close to, if not totally intake: it is understood, at an appropriate level, and natural, its goal being communication.

What may be the case is that speaking, engaging in conversation, encourages intake. "Eavesdropping" (Schumann and Schumann, 1977) may provide the acquirer with a certain amount of intake, but actual conversation, in which the acquirer has at least some control of the topic and in which the acquirer's conversational partner is making some effort at making himself understood, may provide more intake.

One of the most interesting case histories in the second language acquisition literature deals with two young acquirers of English as a second language, one successful and one unsuccessful. Paul, the successful acquirer, was 5 years old when he was first studied by E. Hatch's student, Huang (1971). According to Wagner-Gough and Hatch (1975), at least some of Paul's progress can be attributed to the fact that he had the benefit of input that was more appropriate for language acquisition.

Such simple input is fixed on the "here and now" and contains a "limited body of graded language data", according to Wagner-Gough and Hatch.

Ricardo, the unsuccessful acquirer, was 13 years old when he was studied by Butterworth (1972), another student of Hatch, Despite the fact that Ricardo had been in the United States only a few months, he had to participate in discussions that were quite complex, involving topics displaced in time and space and often using advanced syntactical constructions.

Wagner-Gough and Hatch suggest that it was this input difference, rather than the age difference between Paul and Ricardo, that was the fundamental reason for their differential success in acquiring English as a second language.

[Other Points]:

"Foreign-student peer groups" are very effective at providing comprehensible input. (Social groups for/of students).

Caretaker speech typically contains high proportions of imperatives and questions [ala TPR], while teacher-talk (Trager, 1978) and foreigner-talk (Freed, 1980) appear to contain a larger percentage of declaratives. Is this a crucial difference?