Between The Lines: Language Acquisition
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Once in a while, I meet someone who turns my long-held beliefs on their head. Dr Stephen Krashen is one of these people.
Krashen, the author of more than 350 academic papers, developed the first comprehensive theory of second-language acquisition. He could have a spectacular career as a stand-up comic if he ever runs out of serious topics to write about. I attended his talk for educators and it was inspiring to see more than 120 teachers and librarians from international and local schools gather on their day off to hear Krashen speak. Most were familiar with his work and were eager to learn more from him.
The foundation of his theory is that "learning" is a conscious effort to try to be accurate with rules and grammar, while "acquiring" is subconscious. Second-language teachers who use methods that promote language acquisition will see better results. The best way to achieve fluency in a language is to pick it up subconsciously.
Krashen gave us examples of the different ways in which second-language teachers try to get students to understand what is being said. It showed that immersion in a subject - at the talk, Krashen described the various parts of his face in German - is more effective than rote learning with verb conjugations.
The big revelation for me came when Krashen declared that talking is not practising because we acquire language by input and not output. I have been a lifelong student of languages, from the English I learned when I immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada at age six, to the most recent instance, a six-month course on Italian that I attempted before I had children. When Krashen made his claim, backed by his decades of research, I had dizzying flashbacks of the countless hours I had spent reading foreign sentences out loud. Questo è un libro (This is a book).
Talking is not practising. The ability to speak is not the road to, but the result of, language acquisition. When a baby utters her first words, she has already acquired the language.
A second revelation came when Krashen added that his studies also found that allowing students to acquire a language without accountability or questions at the end of the lesson is the most effective way to achieve fluency.
The two revelations put together mean that children should just be given opportunities to listen to someone speak that language to them, either through play, storytelling or daily routines. Do not pressure children to repeat words or answer questions about what they hear. I have been wrong to gauge my children's language skills by paying attention only to how well they express themselves in that language. They will become fluent more quickly if I simply speak to them in the context of activities they understand.
Despite Krashen's research, language programmes in Hong Kong and throughout many parts of the world continue to focus more on speaking and reading than on listening, with constant quizzing being an integral part of the curriculum of such programmes.
Krashen is an advocate of a new way of teaching second languages: TPRS, which stands for teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling. He also endorses USSR, or uninterrupted sustained silent reading.
As soon as he mentioned the acronym USSR, I remembered that I had a daily USSR period in my primary school. We would bring our own book to school and during USSR, each student would take his book out and just sit at his desk and read. Teachers generally didn't interfere with the students' choice of book, the theory being that any subject or format that could keep a child interested for 20-30 minutes should be encouraged.
Krashen's most recent published work is Free Voluntary Reading. In its 90 pages, the book sets forth his voluminous research, all of which points to the finding that more dictation, worksheets and lists of vocabulary to memorise are less effective than reading, a straightforward and rewarding activity.
As for parents who want their older children to become more fluent in Chinese, give them a set of Old Master Q comic books and leave them alone. I'm not kidding: Krashen collaborated on a study with his colleague, Dr Christy Lao, which showed that Chinese-American teenagers who were encouraged to read Old Master Q comic books acquired more Chinese than those who followed the traditional programme of weekly Chinese-language lessons.
Annie Ho is board chairperson of Bring Me A Book Hong Kongbringmeabook.org.hk