Think of all the famous movie quotes you’ve ever heard and instantly remembered… “There’s no place like home.” “Frankly, my dear. I don’t give a damn.” “You had me at ‘hello’.” “You complete me.” These are timeless quotes that are remembered not because of the words, but because of the message they conveyed. What made those messages so memorable were the very elements that inspire language acquisition: deep emotion, meaningful context, and compelling input.
There is another quote that in my humble opinion is more relevant than ever to language teachers everywhere, and that is the famous line from the movie ‘A Few Good Men.’ Tom Cruz pressures Jack Nicholson for “the truth,” and Nicholson gives him a response that has become one of the most famous quotes ever! Nicholson bellows, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”
Teachers often reach out to colleagues, the CI community, the TPRS listserv, Twitter, Facebook groups, etc. in an effort to get information about how to teach more effectively and how to solve problems that they are encountering in the classroom. They want “answers,” but are not necessarily ready for the “Truth.” Some would argue that there is no such thing as “Truth,” and others would disagree on the definition of truth.
Assuming that “truth” exists and the definition of “truth” is a verified fact or principle, I wonder how many readers would accept the following as verified principles or “truths”:
Not a single research study has ever disproven the notion that in order for language acquisition to occur, comprehensible input (CI) must be present.
CI is not a ‘method’ and it is not a trend. It is a necessary element for SLA to take place. In terms of language, we can’t learn or acquire what we do not understand, nor can we acquire without access to an abundance of CI.
The brain’s natural response is to derive L2 meaning from one’s first language. (Sousa, D. (2011), How the ELL Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.) It is a natural cerebral response to link new words/phrases in L2 to meaning in L1. As much as you try to avoid ever giving the meaning in L1, you can NOT short-circuit the brain’s natural response to search for meaning from L1.
I have found that if I immediately establish meaning, it is effortless for me to stay in the target language–comprehensibly. I most often establish meaning by posting core words/phrases in the target language, along side the meaning in L1 and/or an illustration depicting the meaning. In some instances, I simply quickly tell students what a specific word means, if they cannot ascertain the meaning from the communicative context of the text or discourse.
Comprehensible is not enough! Many messages are comprehensible, but just because a message is understood does not mean that the meaning-making process will lead to acquisition. Understanding messages may result in immediate communication (the expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a give social context), but not in long-term acquisition.
CI must be interesting enough to sustain attention. Human nature drives us all to seek topics/information that intrigue, inspire, shock, entertain and carry us into an unconscious realm of pleasure, curiosity, and/or discovery. Boring conversations in L1 lead to disengaged interlocutors who retreat into another realm of consciousness (or another conversation) to escape the unpleasantness of being bored. Boring L2 input, even if it’s comprehensible, will result in learners who disconnect from the topic /discussion and look for diversion elsewhere. (i.e.: through attention-seeking behavior, studying another subject, conversing in L1 about something the learner finds interesting, etc.)
Acquisition generally takes place from repeated exposure to linguistic data (CI) over time. Interaction with given linguistic data must be sustained in a comprehensible and meaningful way to allow learners enough time to derive a bit more meaning from every exposure. CI that is narrow in topic or focus naturally casts a small ‘word net,’ which results in repeated exposure to linguistic data and messages that are highly comprehensible.
Providing students with access to CI requires use of L2. ACTFL’s recommendation for 90% use of Target Language is not empirical! There is no study that says “90% ought to do the trick.” The premise is LOGICAL. In order for SLA to take place, learners need access to CI, whether it’s auditory L2 input or written L2 input.
There is more than one way to effectively provide access to CI that is conducive for SLA. Providing repeated exposure to linguistic data is the key to facilitating acquisition, and although there are certain criteria that affect the ‘quality’ of the input, there are a variety of approaches that can be EQUALLY effective.
The effectiveness of each approach is dependent on factors that are generally variable:
- How comfortable the teacher is with the approach
- How appealing the approach is to specific students / student groups
- How interested students are in the ‘topic’ or story
- Teacher / Student emotional state
- Teacher / Student physical state
- Group dynamics
- The time of day
- The degree to which students have become ‘conditioned’ to a frequently-used approach
The truth is that reading and discussing a comprehension-based reader and the topics surrounding the read can be a highly effective means of interacting with compelling contextualized comprehensible input and ultimately facilitating SLA. The same can be said for other approaches/platforms, such as song (lyrics) to deliver meaningful CI, Movie Talk to spur compelling discussion, story-asking as a platform to sustain interpersonal communication, teaching content/culture as a hook to pique interest and engage learners in discussion and discovery, “Invisibles” to engage learners in creative language processing, “Story Listening” to activate the interpretive mode of language through auditory input, etc. etc. etc.
The “Truth” is that there are numerous approaches to deliver CI and many ways to facilitate SLA. Which way is BEST is a matter of teaching and learning styles and the teacher’s ability to refine input to keep it compelling, comprehensible and conducive for language acquisition. The BEST approach is also dependent upon a host of other factors that can change from day to day, which means that the truth is there is no single BEST or RIGHT way. Can you handle the truth?