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Achieving Enough Lift - But Without Too Much Drag
Robert O'Neill Offers a Rebuttal to Bill VanPatten's Reply

This is Robert O'Neill's answer to a reply from Bill VanPatten regarding points raised in O'Neill's recently featured ESL MiniConference interview.

"Learning a language brings about the understanding of it." -Ludwig Wittgenstein

Robert O'NeillI welcome VanPatten's contribution to what is becoming an increasingly "lively debate". If I respond passionately at times, I hope he will not mistake my passion for anger. It is not. He has brought me to the "epicentre" of my beliefs about teaching and learning, especially in classrooms. So let me begin. Which of three things below does he think I mean by "learn"?

learn 1. to get knowledge of or skill in (an art, trade, etc.) by study, experience, etc. 2. to come to know; hear (of or about) 3. to memorize (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1979)

He says :"you don't learn language by practicing explicit rules". I don't know ANYONE who believes that learning has ANYTHING to do with practising explicit rules. I don't even know how to practise explicit rules. All you can do is practise with examples, hoping (often in vain) that they just might help the rule to develop in the learners mind. Both Erasmus and Cominius knew that 500 years ago when they argued about the role of grammar. The argument is still going on - and I don't always know which side I am on. So I wonder if VanPatten has any idea what I or most teachers mean by "learn."

My definition, by the way, is the first, and perhaps even something a little more complex. Learning is something that comes mainly through experience. Experience can be guided or informed in some instances by certain forms of declarative knowledge. Even my autistic son has some such declarative knowledge and it does to some limited extent guide some of his behaviour. I said in the interview that most - perhaps all - people - cannot acquire language after a certain critical period. I meant by that - reflecting on my own experience as a language learner who had done the things he says advanced learners have to do -whether what I have done after 40 years of close, intimate contact with German, can really be called "acquisition".

"But back to acquisition and whether adults acquire languages. Independently of all the empirical research there is one overwhelming truth to adult second language competence and abilities: the only learners who become advanced are those who have lots of exposure to input and interaction with speakers of the language. These learners study abroad, work and live abroad, marry into the L2 culture or otherwise have a good deal of contact with the language in communicative situations." (from VanPatten's article)

He may be surprised that I agree with this. I came to the same conclusion at least ten years ago. This is why I believe acquisition is a RESULT - not a process, and certainly not one that begins and ends in classroom . It is a goal at the end of a long path that may never be reached. Is this pessimistic for language teachers and learners in classrooms? I don't think so, as long as we are realistic about what can really be done well in classrooms. Why are there any students in classrooms at all? Why aren't they in the streets outside the classroom?

If most of the students I teach could understand the English in the streets anywhere in the English-speaking world, they would not be in the classroom at all. (I usually teach adults at beginner or lower intermediate level) They are there because they can't understand typical "authentic" native-speaker to native-speaker English. My aim as a teacher is to help them to survive better when they use English with native-speakers or as an international language.

In other words, most of the people I teach have, in VanPatten's excellent metaphor, problems with DRAG. It is obvious that "fly" means "acquire" and that "drag" is input. What happens to a plane if there is too much drag? It will stall and then crash. What happens to many of the learners we find in classrooms when they try to cope with the richer and more abundant the input they can get in the streets? Like the plane, they stall and crash. Why? Because they easily get confused by "authentic" English. There is too much drag and they don't have enough thrust - previously "acquired" English . (Some acquisition can occur, perhaps even in a classroom, but teachers cannot predict exactly how or when, which is why they should focus on learning.)

The role of comprehensible input in my own teaching

I have said repeatedly in my exchanges with Stephen Krashen that I regard "comprehensible" input as essential. But is it enough alone? I don't think so and this is reflected in my own teaching practice.

1 I often use short "open-ended" texts with a variety of possible outcomes. The texts provide good comprehension material with core vocabulary and structures. Learners suggest different possible outcomes after reading the texts or dialogues. This leads to discussion and comment, and sometimes further writing by students.

2 I often contrast pairs of sentences in which minimal l changes in form express very different ideas, such as "What did you do when you lost your passport?" and "What would you do if you lost your passport?", or "What did you do when you heard about the Twin Towers?" and "What were you doing when you heard about the Twin Towers?" My aim here is not to teach grammar but to help learners become aware of how form is an integral part of meaning. Without that awareness they can never develop what VanPatten calls an implicit system, and what I call "intuitions derived from experience and sometimes sharpened by analysis".

3 Especially with learners below intermediate level, I focus on the kind of lexis and collocation they need to talk about themselves, such as "go for a walk with my dog" "have a party" "go to the movies" "earn money" "get a job", etc.

4 I use "parallel texts" in which someone talks about his or her life , ambitions, likes and dislikes, background and beliefs. These texts invite and encourage learners to use the language of the text about their own lives and interests.

5 I use dialogues which students can read aloud as pair work. The dialogues are so constructed that learners have to make certain choices in vocabulary and structure while reading them. The dialogues are also designed so that my students can transfer the language of the dialogue to real conversations with their partners in class.

6 When I deal explicitly with the kind of grammar that causes great problems, such as question formation with "Do/Does/Did" plus base form", I make it clear that I do NOT expect everyone to understand immediately, and that there will be many opportunities in the future to study the form later.

7 I do not plan my lessons too strictly. I have a general idea of what I want or hope to do, but I keep the structure flexible and open, to allow for the unexpected. Lessons are often full of the unexpected and unpredictable.

8 I talk to my students in a way which allows them to respond, ask questions, make comments as I talk. My "teacher-talk" is also of the kind that leads to interaction among the students and not just me. In other words, I am a heretic who believes that good, interactive teacher-talk is essential as "comprehensible input that often leads to output".

9 I often and repeatedly tell my students that what they find difficult to understand now will become far easier for them to understand as they get more deeply involved with English. And I encourage them to read and use the language in whatever way they can outside the classroom, knowing that unfortunately many will not do so.

Wittgenstein's Ladder - and the purpose of learning

I know that whatever may be learned is often forgotten I do not believe that teachers can predict what will be learned or retained. I tell my learners that as a language-learner myself, I know that forgetting is a natural and inevitable part of learning. However, there are different kinds of forgetting. You can forget something in such a way that you won't remember you ever knew it. And you can forget but remember how to recover it. I believe that what I call LEARNING is more likely to result in the second kind of "forgetting" than the first.

Wittgenstein said that philosophy was at best a ladder. You can climb only so high on it. Then you have to kick it away. That is also what learning is. A ladder that at some point you have to kick away. Nothing more. But nothing less, either. People don't climb very high without a ladder or some other device. I could say more now, but I think it can all be inferred from the quotation below from Judith Strozer, just in case VanPatten has not already seen it.

"The conclusion that a foreign language can be acquired only through persistent study, and that a teaching program can only provide valuable but never sufficient help, is neither negative nor pessimistic."

Robert O'Neill
Author, Teacher, and Language-Learner

2002 ESL MiniConference Online