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
I 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."
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
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
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
"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."
Author, Teacher, and Language-Learner
2002 ESL MiniConference Online