Students control acquisition

Fighting words.

I played about seven minutes* of BVP’s latest podcast for my university students last night, pausing occasionally (podcast-talk?) to discuss some of the vocabulary (SLA, “head-initial,” acquisition). Two worlds – the textbook/tradition and my understanding of the process of acquisition – are constantly at odds during my lesson planning. Sharing the podcast allowed me to show students that I’m trying to do right by them. Bill’s direction for teachers helped. “Make classes engaging, compelling, and enjoyable” in order to support acquisition. Tall order.

One of my students who has told me that he appreciates the homework (“spend 5-7 hours outside class weekly with input you understand and reflect briefly on it”) was meeting my eyes the entire time we listened to Bill’s podcast. He is the one who told me he had dreaded this class and is now motivated again to learn Russian. Another student, who had been a little dismissive of my homework assignment, but who has most successfully shared what she feels she’s acquiring, stayed after to tell me that she “gets” it now. She said that whenever she understands something new in one reading, she starts to see and hear it everywhere. She is getting the kind of mass input that I want them all to get. I so appreciated her acceptance!

Something clicked for me during the podcast too, and I hope to explain it correctly. As I understood it, Bill talked about how students don’t notice grammar unless the sentence forces them to need the grammar to understand. So during our story-telling, when the cat was telling its owner that it wouldn’t be eating any of the dishes the owner was bringing, I left out unnecessary pronouns as we told and retold and asked questions. (Russian, like Spanish, has verb forms in the present and future that are pronoun-specific. Only third person pronouns can apply to either a male or a female, but in the midst of a text, they can be dropped.) And though I don’t really believe that just one day’s worth of such input has an impact, when my students later had to Google Voice a little conversation, every single one of my second-semester students got the Russian future verb forms correct. I tried the same idea while guiding the advanced students through choosing the correct imperfective/perfective past forms. Their Google Voice results were about 75% correct, compared to the last time we tried this and I felt like a complete traditional grammar failure.

I’m not sure whether there’s a way to direct student to materials that don’t include the pronouns or other hints that make acquiring the grammar possible, but it’s possible that, once having noticed and understood that the pronouns aren’t necessary, students will start to comprehend their own choice reading and listening more effectively. As it is, every student in my two classes is reading different material, often venturing beyond the five pages of suggested resources that I gave them for potential CI. A few like the textbooks. An advanced (native speaker) is reading novels and discussing them with our local tutor. One has found a huge supply of cat memes (I never would have expected this, but her oral output is improving rapidly). Others use the 3Ears videos; one found a bunch of pirated-online children’s books, and I have been enjoying those myself – though I can’t in good faith share the link with the others.

In the end, I hope that the students heard not only the admonition for me to be an engaging teacher, but the statement that they are the ones in control of their acquisition. They can’t control all of the constraints: time, mindset, basic “talent,” or access to social interaction, but they can control whether they are getting input that matters to them and that they understand. I’m going to keep reminding them that they are the drivers here. I’m only the highway, and for now it’s probably only a two-lane, country highway at best. But the views…

*from about 08:30

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One response to “Students control acquisition

  1. The process of language acquisition vs traditional, grammar driven instruction. An internal battle that I fight. Having spent my CI career surrounded by hard core, grammar syllabus-driven colleagues has at times tortured my planning process! Thanks, MJ. Miss you and thanks for sharing this!

    Like

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