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"Language Learning in the Real World for
by Greg Thomson
Copyright (c) 1993 Greg Thomson. Used by permission.
CHAPTER 1. Introduction
So you've learned a language?
"Sort of," you respond.
Yes, you can sit around with people and make attempts at
conversations, but it is hard work for you and it is hard work for them. And
you have trouble discussing any but the simplest topics. What's more, when
you overhear a conversation between two native speakers, you are often
unable to make heads or tails out of it.
Now if I hear you speaking your new language, since I don't
know it at all, I will get the impression that you really can speak it
pretty well. You're not so sure, yourself. As you say, you speak it--sort
of. But the part of the language that you don't know still seems pretty
formidable, if not overwhelming.
I don't know the road by which you have reached this point
in your language learning. You may have spent a year in a language school.
Or you may have taken language courses for several years, always as one
academic course among many. Or perhaps you have been living among people who
speak the language, and have been forced to start speaking it in order to
survive. You may have memorized "grammar rules" and "verb
forms" and vocabulary lists, and then applied your knowledge to
constructing sentences as you conversed with people, until you got so you
could construct new sentences relatively quickly and easily. Or you may have
used a self-directed language learning approach, such as the one I proposed
in Thomson (1993a), where I outlined ways to become a "basic
speaker" of a moderately difficult language in about two months.
Whatever the road by which you have come this far, you feel you have a long
way left to go. Where do you go from here?
1.1. Key principles of design for an ongoing language
Language learning is at once complex and simple. When I
think of the complexity of language learning, I'm amazed that people
succeed. As a linguist, I have spent much of my life puzzling over the
complexities of language, and I feel I still understand so very little about
any language. Yet people do learn new languages, not only as children, but
also as adolescents and as adults. Observing that process only increases my
sense of wonder. People learn far more than they are aware that they are
learning. How do they do it?
Fortunately, the bulk of the complexity of language learning
is handled by your brain, without your even being aware of it. You simply
need to give your brain the right opportunity, and it takes over from there.
That is where language learning becomes simple. "Giving your brain the
right opportunity" can be boiled down to three principles which are
easy to grasp, easy to remember and easy to apply:
-- Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible
input. That is, expose yourself to massive doses of speech (and perhaps
writing) that you can understand, while gradually increasing the difficulty
-- Principle II: Engage in extensive extemporaneous
speaking. That is, engage in extensive two-way conversational interaction,
and other speaking and writing activities.
-- Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language
you are learning. That is, learn all you can about their lives, experiences,
and beliefs. Do this in and through the language.
I'll keep coming back to these three principles. First I
will elaborate on them, but that is only so that you can come back to them
and remember them as three simple principles. Then I will illustrate ways
you can apply them. You may find that the techniques and activities I
suggest will appeal to you. But if they do not, they should still help to
solidify your grasp of the three basic principles, so that you can go on and
devise techniques or activities of your own which apply the three
principles. Any techniques and activities which apply these principles will
work, if they are conducted on a large enough scale for a long enough time.
Mind you, those are big "ifs".
1.2. Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible
As you read this sentence, you are exposing yourself to
comprehensible input. If you are reading it, then it is input. If you are
understanding it as you read it, then it is comprehensible input. If you are
still in the process of learning English, then the reading you are doing at
this very moment is contributing to your ongoing language learning, since it
is providing you with exposure to English that you can understand, that is,
it is providing you with comprehensible input. If you are a native speaker
of English, what you are reading right now is not helping you to learn
English, but it is nevertheless comprehensible input. In the case of spoken
language, anything you listen to is input. If you understand what you are
listening to, the input is comprehensible input.
Stephen Krashen (1985), (1987) has suggested that the way
people acquire languages is, practically speaking, incredibly simple.
Instead of three main principles, he boils it down to only one: people
acquire language automatically as a result of understanding messages. This
is known as the input hypothesis. It is a daring hypothesis, and it has not
won wide support in its extreme form. However, it is helpful to realize that
simply understanding messages in the language you are trying to learn is a
major factor, possibly the major factor, in acquiring that language.
In Urdu, there is a certain construction that is referred to
as past perfect or pluperfect. In one language school, the students are
taught that this is equivalent to the English past perfect, which is
illustrated in the following sentence:
'I had eaten all my food.'
The idea expressed by the English construction is that the
event described by the verb (the eating of the food) occurred before the
time under discussion. That is, we are discussing some time X, and my eating
of the food occurred prior to that time, and at time X, I had no food left.
As a linguist studying Urdu, I noticed that the so-called past perfect in
Urdu did not usually have this meaning. Rather, the meaning was that I ate
the food exactly at time X, as opposed to any other past time. In other
words, it indicates a specific past time rather than a general past. The
details aren't important. What is important is that I observed graduates of
that language school using the form correctly, rather than using it in the
way that they had been taught to use it. More significantly, they were not
aware that they were doing anything different from what they had been
This small point about Urdu illustrates a large point about
language learning in general: however much you may learn about a language in
a school, if you ever come to really speak it fluently and extensively, a
large portion of what you will be saying will go beyond anything you were
taught. No matter how people begin their language learning, in the end, if
they really learn the language, it will be in lpart because of all the
language that they absorb unconsciously. When do they absorb the language
unconsciously? They absorb it unconsciously while they are hearing it (or
perhaps reading it) with understanding, which is what Krashen means by
"understanding messages". If you hear the language being spoken,
but what you hear is a big blur to you, how can you expect to absorb it? But
as you hear thousands of hours of speech that you can understand, you will
become thoroughly familiar with the language as it is actually spoken (or
written). That is one of your main goals: become thoroughly familiar with
the language through hearing (and possibly reading) vast amounts that you
The trick will be to find ways to expose yourself to speech
that you can understand. Before learning the language everything you hear is
a blur. It is like reading the following sentence in some unknown language:
There is no way to tell where one word ends and the next
begins, much less what the words mean. At least in this written sentence you
can recognize the letters, because they are familiar to you, drawn from a
fixed set of twenty-six letters that you already know (though you don't know
exactly what sounds these letters stand for in this language). And the
letters just sit there on the page and let you stare at them. By contrast,
the sounds of spoken language are not only strange and unfamiliar, but they
whiz by and vanish as quickly as they appear. Getting beyond the stream of
strange sound and hearing meaningful words, and understanding the message
they are intended to convey is no simple matter.
In Thomson (1993a) I point out how a person with no
knowledge of a language can begin understanding that language, provided what
is said is supported by pictures, objects or actions. The pictures, objects
and actions help to break the stream of sound up into meaningful words, and
you are able to relate the words to the message because you can see with
your eyes what the person is talking about. This is typical of the first
stage of language learning. Since I am assuming that you are beyond that
stage, I won't repeat that material here.
At each stage of your language learning, there will be
certain kinds of speech that you cannot understand very well, and other
kinds that you can understand reasonably well. If you want to keep hearing
masses of language that you can understand, you will need to have some
control over the types of speech you are exposed to. Of course, if you are
living in a community that uses the language that you are learning, you will
also be exposed to a lot of speech that you have no control over. In the
more advanced stages of language learning, that exposure will be profitable
to you, since you will understand much of it. In the early stages, you will
only receive a large amount of profitable exposure if you have some control
over the input you are getting. When I discuss language learning techniques
and activities below, I will be discussing ways in which you can exercise
the needed control.
Your language learning experience can be divided into four
phases. As I say, during the first weeks of your language learning, you were
able to understand speech provided it was well supported by pictures,
objects or actions. For example, if you were learning English, and I merely
told you, "The bump in the middle of my face is my nose", with my
hands folded in my lap, and a blank expression on my face, you would not
have had a clue what I was saying. But if I pointed at my nose, and said
"This is my nose", and then pointed at my mouth and said
"This is my mouth", and then at my ear and said, "This is my
ear", and then back at my nose and said, "This is my nose,"
there would have been a good chance you would understand the meaning of
"This is my nose", etc. That is because the meaning of what you
heard would be made clear by what you saw. In the same way you would quickly
come to be able to understand simple descriptions of pictures. That's life
in Stage I.
Even though you are now beyond Stage I, you will still find
that, other things being equal, it is easier to understand someone's
description of a picture if you can see the picture than if you can't. That
would even be true if you were listening to your mother tongue, but it is
much more the case when you are listening to a language that you are still
learning. In the case of your mother tongue, even when you can't see a
picture that is being described, you can clearly recognize the words that
the speaker is using, and understand the spoken sentences in a general way.
In the case of your new language, seeing the picture that is being described
may mean the difference between being able to hear the words clearly and
being unable to catch the words at all. So pictures are still helpful to you
in making input more comprehensible, or more easily comprehensible. You
might want to refer to Wright (1989) for numerous suggestions as to ways
non-beginners can use pictures as an aid to language learning. Still, at
this point in your language learning, the advantage of seeing what you are
hearing about is not as dramatic as it was during your first few weeks, so I
won't say much more about the use of pictures during Stage II.
During Stage II, you can understand speech if the content is
fairly predictable. The main contribution of pictures during Stage I was
that they made the content of what was being said partly predictable. But,
in listening to statements about pictures, you were typically hearing only
single sentences, or at best short sequences of sentences. Assuming you now
have developed some skill in understanding isolated sentences and short
sequences of sentences, you need to start working on learning to understand
longer sequences of sentences. However, in order for you to understand long
sequences of sentences at Stage II, the content still needs somehow to be
predictable. Here is a simple example of how that is possible. Consider the
story of Goldilocks. If you grew up in the English speaking world, you
probably know this story well. At the beginning of Stage II you can have
someone tell you the story of Goldilocks in your new language, and to your
delight, you will find that you can follow what is being said with good
understanding of most sentences right as they are spoken. And so you are
indeed able to follow a long sequence of sentences with good understanding.
You have thus moved from understanding isolated sentences and short
sequences of sentences to understanding long sequences of connected
sentences. We will have more to say below regarding ways to do this.
At Stage II then, you are able to understand long sequences
of sentences provided the content is fairly predictable. Getting
comprehensible input at this stage may mean continuing to expose yourself to
speech which is supported by pictures, objects or actions, but it can also
mean exposing yourself to a large amount of speech which has this property
of predictability, as illustrated by the story of Goldilocks.
Also at Stage II, you can understand input which occurs in a
conversation in which you are interacting with a sympathetic speaker, who
will go to the trouble of making the input comprehensible, and who will work
with you in helping you to express the meanings that you are trying to
express. We will have more to say about this in the next section. Along with
listening to predictable stories, and other predictable discourse, engaging
in conversational interaction with cooperative conversational partners is a
major source of comprehensible input during Stage II.
At Stage III, you are able to follow long sequences of
sentences that arless predictable, provided you are familiar with the
general topic, and you don't get lost along the way. For example, if you are
a welder by background, and you listen to a local welder discuss his work,
you will be able to follow most of what he is saying. In order to follow a
discussion of a familiar topic, you will first need to be keyed in on what
the topic is. In addition, you will often need the full context of whatis
being said, or your comprehension will suffer. That is, if you come into the
middle of a conversation, or a story, or a sermon, you will understand less
of what you are hearing than if you had been there from the outset. There is
a sense in which this is true even if the language is your mother tongue.
However, in the case of your mother tongue you can at least catch the words
and get a general meaning of each sentence even if you don't know the
context. With your new language at this point, if you hear a sentence out of
context, it will often be difficult to catch what is being said at all.
Since, in addition to the language, the culture and local
history is also new to you, there will be many topics which are common,
familiar topics to all native speakers of the language, but which are
unfamiliar topics for you. Even fairly straightforward accounts of recent
events may baffle you because you are unfamiliar with the general nature of
such events, and with the general beliefs associated with such events. Thus
you will want to spend a lot of time during this stage making yourself
familiar with new topics and types of events that are common in the culture.
As you do this, you will increase your ability to understand speech to which
you are exposed. I will provide suggestions as to how to do this below. But
in the broadest sense, your goal remains the same: get massive
comprehensible input. That is, expose yourself to masses of speech (and
possibly writing) that you can understand.
Eventually you will reach the point where most of the speech
that you hear around you in most situations is reasonably intelligible to
you. That is Stage IV. At that point, continuing to receive massive
comprehensible input will be a matter of lifestyle. If you choose a
lifestyle which largely isolates you from people speaking the language, your
progress in acquiring the language will slow to a snail's pace, or cease
altogether. But since you are well aware of that, you will put a lot of
thought and effort into finding a lifestyle which will support your
continued progress in the language, right?
So that is Principle I. Expose yourself to massive
comprehensible input. With the right techniques, you can insure that you get
a lot of input that is appropriate to any stage of language learning. As you
are exposed to lots of comprehensible speech appropriate to the stage you
are at, your ability to understand the language will continue to grow, with
the result that you will reach the next stage, where you will use different,
more advanced techniques, so that you can become skilled at understanding
more advanced types of input. You move from 1) being able to understand
speech that is well supported by pictures, objects or actions, to 2) being
able to understand long sequences of connected sentences that are fairly
predictable as to their content, to 3) being able to understand less
predictable speech on familiar topics (provided you have the full context),
to 4) being able to understand just about any speech whatsoever. You will
progress from stage to stage, provided you are exposed to a lot of speech
appropriate to each stage while you are at each stage. Simple, isn't it?
1.3. Principle II: Engage in extensive extemporaneous
In my own experience, Krashen's input hypothesis has been
enormously helpful. Yet it appears that few scholars agree with the
hypothesis in its entirety. That is because Krashen doesn't just claim that
comprehensible input is the most important factor in second language
acquisition. He claims that it is the only factor!
1.3.1 Comprehensible input is not enough
Merrill Swain (1985) examined the French ability of children
who had been in a school immersion program for seven years. These children,
who were from English speaking homes, had received all of their elementary
education in French. Yet after seven years of receiving truly massive
comprehensible input in French, they still did not control the French
language like native French speaking children did. Why not? Probably there
were a number of problems, but an obvious one was that the students didn't
have much opportunity to speak the language. They mainly listened to the
teacher. When they spoke to one another informally, they used English. When
they spoke to the teacher they used French. But then, how much class time is
devoted to any one student speaking to the teacher? And the only children
they ever heard speaking French were their class-mates, non-native speakers
like themselves, and that only happened when their classmates were
addressing the teacher. You certainly couldn't say that the children used
French in a very rich variety of life situations, or that they used French
for a very wide variety of communication purposes. It appears that, since
they didn't speak French very much, their speaking ability did not develop
as well as we might have hoped. Even their ability to understand French
appears to have suffered from the fact that they did not speak it very much.
That's not to say they didn't learn French quite fluently. But Swain
conjectures that they might have done better if they had been speaking
French extensively, in addition to all their years of listening to
You may know children of immigrant parents who can
understand their parents' language quite well, but cannot speak it at all.
Nancy Dorian (1981) noticed that although she had learned to speak Gaelic in
the course of her research, young people with Gaelic speaking parents,
although they could not speak the language at all, could often understand it
better than she could. They had grown up with massive comprehensible input,
and had developed a high degree of comprehension ability, but little or no
So it appears that massive comprehensible input can result
in people having the ability to understand a language without necessarily
being able to speak it well, or even to speak it at all. It appears that in
order to learn to speak, you have to put a certain amount of effort into
speaking. Somehow, I don't find that surprising.
You might ask whether it is possible to learn to speak
without receiving much comprehensible input. Some linguists have told me
that their speaking ability exceeded their comprehension ability, at least
for a long time. Recently one told me that he could plan and execute a very
complicated sentence in a certain African language, but that if he heard the
same sentence in natural speech he would have difficulty understanding it.
My experience in learning Blackfoot was similar. For a long time my speaking
ability exceeded my comprehension ability. That is not a very good way to
learn a language, for a number of reasons. For one thing, if you can say a
lot more than you can understand, people will misjudge your general level of
ability in the language, and speak to you in such a way that much of what
they say will go over your head. This can make conversational experiences
embarrassing and stressful, and discourage you from spending a lot of time
conversing with people. So you want to keep the horse of comprehension ahead
of the cart of speaking, while bearing in mind that comprehensible input in
and of itself is not enough. You also need to speak.
In particular, it appears that you will need to put a
reasonable amount of effort into conversational speech. Sure, you could
concentrate on monologues, say by making long speeches to large audiences,
but you might not know whether anyone understood you. By contrast, when you
engage in one-on-one conversational interaction with people, it will often
become obvious that you have failed to communicate, or have miscommunicated.
What is more, the people with whomyou converse will be able to help you to
find ways to say what you are trying to say. It seems reasonable to think
that this would contribute to your language learning.
Conversational interaction is an important source of
comprehensible input as well. When you are involved in conversing with
people, they will tend to adjust their speech to your level of ability. They
may speak more slowly than normal, and use simpler vocabulary and simpler
sentence structu, and repeat themselves a lot, and reword their sentences
whenever you appear to be having trouble understanding them. Listen to
yourself the next time you are talking to someone with limited English
ability. You will probably find that you make these types of changes in your
own speech in order to help them to understand you. Michael Long has
demonstrated that the types of changes people make in their speech when they
talk to foreigners really do make a significant difference in the ability of
the foreigners to understand them (Long 1985).
Consider the nature of a conversation between a sympathetic
native speaker and you as a language learner. You have a meaning you wish to
express. You make a stab at it, but the person with whom you are conversing
is either unsure of what you meant, or wonders whether you really meant what
you appear to have meant. So she helps you to clarify yourself. Likewise,
when she says something to you, it may go over your head, and so you get her
to clarify her meaning. This back and forth process of a language learner
and a sympathetic native speaker working together to achieve success in
conversational communication is referred to as the negotiation of meaning.
During Stage II, the most convenient context for
conversational practice may be in structured language learning sessions,
where someone is consciously helping you to learn the language. If you have
one or more persons who are employed to help you on a daily basis, those
people will be accustomed to speaking with you. They will have a good feel
for your current level of ability, and thus will be in a good position to
make sure that what they say to you is comprehensible. There is a low stress
level involved in conversing with a familiar person in a familiar setting,
when compared with conversing with all the people you happen to encounter
out in the world at large.
In addition to formal language sessions, you will
increasingly be able to engage in conversation with friends. For them,
conversing with you is hard work at this point, so it requires some
commitment on the part of your conversational partners. But again, people
who know you well will be able to communicate with you far more effectively
and easily than people who do not yet know you. With time, you can
systematically expand the number of regular conversational partners with
whom you visit (see Thomson, 1993c). So once you are past the very early
stages of language learning, an obvious way to increase your comprehensible
input is to engage in a lot of social visiting. You may not be a person who
normally does a lot of social visiting. If so, it will help if you can view
social visiting as part of your daily work routine.
Not all of your early speaking efforts need to be in the
form of two-way conversation in the strictest sense. As a matter of fact,
while you are first trying to loosen up your tongue and develop some fluency
in the language, you will benefit a great deal from activities in which you
do most of the talking. These activities are probably best carried out in
formal language sessions, where you are employing someone who understands
that she is there for the purpose of helping you learn the language. I'll
have more to say about these activities below. Once you gain a degree of
fluency through such structured activities you will be increasingly
comfortable with unstructured social visiting as a means of getting
conversational practice on a grand scale. You can use your formal language
sessions as a means of preparing for your general social visiting. For
example, when you learn to discuss some topic in your language sessions, you
can then make a point of discussing that same topic during informal social
visits. You can even tell your friends, "This is what I have been
learning to talk about with so-and-so", and then go on to talk about
the topic with your friends.
To sum up, Principle II is another way of saying that you
learn to talk by talking. You might say that you learn how to talk by being
exposed to massive comprehensible input, but ultimately you only learn to
talk if you talk.
Given what we have said about Principle I, and Principle II,
we might consider the following formula to come close to the truth:
Massive comprehensible input + extensive conversational
practice = powerful language learning
Assuming you have a strategy for getting comprehensible
input, and for getting conversational practice, the path to powerful
language learning could hardly be more simple.
1.3.2 You can't speak well unless you can speak poorly.
Now you may be thinking that I'm ignoring your main concern.
You feel that no matter how you struggle, you are unable to get the grammar
right. If you have been learning the language through a formal language
course, mastering the grammar may seem to be the central challenge. Perhaps
you even got low marks because of all your errors of grammar. Well, I have
good news for you. Errors are great! From here on in, you get high marks for
errors, at least in my book, and hopefully, in your own book, too. If you're
not making errors, you're not breaking new ground. The pathway to accurate
speech is through error-filled speech. I therefore suggest that you move
your concern for grammatical accuracy away from center stage. Concentrate on
getting comprehensible input and conversation practice, and watch your
grammatical accuracy improve without your even focusing on it. I will later
suggest ways that you can focus on grammar, as well, but that will be more
with a view to mopping up persistent problem areas.
When I was in High School, a language learning method came
into vogue which was based on the belief that from the very outset students
should speak the language perfectly. My high school French teacher responded
to a student's complaint with the comment "I didn't write the textbook,
but if I had I'd be a millionairess." Such was the enthusiasm of many
teachers for the new method. That enthusiasm was followed by disappointment,
when it turned out that few students developed much ability to use the
language extemporaneously for real communication.
Have you ever observed a real person learning English as his
or her second language? If you have observed such a person over an extended
period, you will have noticed that s/he began by speaking English very
poorly, and gradually improved until, hopefully, s/he came to speak English
well. It always works like that in real life. Granted some people do better
than others both during the early weeks, and in terms of their overall rate
of progress, and ultimate attainment, but nobody starts out speaking
perfectly. Developing good speaking ability is always a gradual process. I
can't understand why my high school French teacher and others like her
hadn't noticed that.
When you are first learning a new language, your personal
version of the language is very different from the version used by the
native speakers. Let's suppose you are learning Chukchee, and your native
language is English. The new "language" that you speak, say, after
a couple of months, is sure not English. But is it Chukchee? It doesn't
appear to be Chukchee in the strictest sense. However, it is obviously
derived from Chukchee, and not from English. Six months later you will be
speaking another "language", which is much more like Chukchee in
the strictest sense than the "language" you speak after two
months. After a couple of years, the language you speak may be enough like
that of native speakers that you can justifiably call it Chukchee. However
the "language" you spoke after two months, and the one you spoke
after six months, were quite different from Chukin the strictest sense. What
were those "languages"? Chukchee speakers could understand you
when you spoke to them, and you could understand a lot of what they said
when they spoke Chukchee. What you spoke was a real language (despite all of
my scare quotes). More precisely, it was a series of languages, each one
more like real Chukchee than the last. You invented these languages as you
went along, on the basis of the Chukchee you heard. I have to say you
invented these languages, because they were to you. You didn't hear anyone
else talking like that, so you can't really say that you learned them. No.
You invented them, using as your source of building blocks all of the
comprehensible input you were exposed to.
You may prefer to think that you didn't invent anything.
Rather, you may say, you only learned something. You learned Chukchee, only
you learned it poorly at first. But if we may return to the example of
someone learning English we'll see that there is quite a bit of inventing
going on. Wode (1981) examined the forms of negative sentences used by
people learning English. Learners first learned to use the word
"no" in response to questions or statements. Then they started
adding it to sentences, so that if they wished to say that someone had not
finished doing something, they might say "No finish." Later they
would use the word "no" in slightly fuller sentences, as in
"That's no good", meaning what you would mean by "That's not
good." Later they would learn to add a form of the helping verb
"do", and say something like "You didn't can throw it"
(all of these examples are cited in Cook, 1991, p. 19 ). I think it is fair
to say that sentences like "No finish," and "You didn't can
throw it," come from an invented language. They are not simply copied
from normal English. Rather the speakers know bits of English, and use those
bits to invent their own language. These invented languages that are derived
from the language being learned, and which gradually become more and more
similar to the language being learned, have been called interlanguage (see
especially Selinker, 1992).
The existence of interlanguages is one of the main reasons
we know that brains know how to learn languages. The interlanguages of
people learning a given language, let's say, learning English, go through
similar stages, regardless of their mother tongue. For example most people
go through this same sequence of patterns in learning to form negative
sentences in English. Why do different people's interlanguages go through
the same stages while learning English negation? The answer is that when it
comes to learning a language, your brain has a mind of its own. It will
invent the interlanguages, and refine them, until it has succeeded in
reinventing the language as it is spoken by natives, or at least some
I say all of this to reassure you that if you keep exposing
yourself to comprehensible input, and keep persisting in conversational
practice, your speech will keep getting better. Some perfectionistic people
don't like this. They would prefer to speak perfectly, or not at all. Well,
if you are such a person, swallow your pride. Speak badly. The way to come
to be able to speak well is to speak badly for an extended period of time.
So then, speaking the language imperfectly is essential.
There is a whole body of research on how people manage to cope while they
are still not very good at using their new language. They use a variety of
strategies in order to communicate, strategies which have been labeled,
appropriately enough, communication strategies.
There have been a number of efforts made at classifying the
strategies people use when communicating in a second language (these are
surveyed in Bialystok, 1990 ). One well-known system of classification makes
a distinction between reduction strategies and achievement strategies (Faerch
and Kasper, 1983b, 1984), summarized in Ellis 1986). When you use a
reduction strategy, you may simply avoid trying to say something that you
would like to say, because you can't think of any way to get your point
across. Or you may find a way to say something which is related to what you
wanted to say, but not really the same. For example, you may wish to say
that you are worried about something, but realizing you don't know how to
say that, you may resort to simply saying, "I don't like it."
In using an achievement strategy, you will find a way to
express what you wish to express, even though you don't know the normal way
to express it. For example, you may not know the word for a crank on a
machine, and so you say "this thing" while making a circular
motion with your hand. Some people are probably better than others when it
comes to using communications strategies. I mention them here to reinforce
the point that it is normal to speak "poorly" first, and gradually
improve. That is the name of the game. If you put high demands on yourself
for premature excellence, it will discourage you from speaking as much as
you need to, and thus hinder your progress. So get out there and start
making mistakes. And give yourself extra credit for extra mistakes.
1.4. Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language
you are learning.
It would be easy to think of a language as an isolated body
of knowledge. The idea would be that you learn all about a large but fixed
set of vocabulary items and grammar rules, and once you have done that, you
know the language. Such a view would be sadly mistaken. Suppose you come
from a place where Christmas is unknown, and you are learning English. This
mistaken view of language learning implies that Christmas is simply a
vocabulary item that you learn as one of many thousands of building blocks
that you can then use to construct sentences. But what does it really mean
to know the word Christmas? It means that you can relate the word to a very
elaborate and rich area of the experience of members of the English speaking
speech community. Merely sharing a lot of vocabulary items and grammar rules
is not what enables members of the same speech community to communicate with
one another. Of course, sharing the same vocabulary items and grammar rules
is necessary. But successful communication is also based on people sharing a
huge body of knowledge and beliefs about the world. Understanding the speech
you hear around you, and speaking to people in such a way that they can
easily and correctly understand you, requires that you come to know all that
they know, or at least a lot of it. I don't mean that you come to know all
that any single person knows. But there is a general body of knowledge that
is shared by all members of the speech community, and you will not be able
to properly understand normal speech until you acquire a large part of that
body of shared knowledge.
Principle III says that you must learn to know the people
whose language you are learning. All three principles are interdependent.
Principle III, like Principle II, is closely related to Principle I (i.e.,
expose yourself to massive comprehensible input). Take vocabulary building.
Other things being equal, if you have a large vocabulary, you will be able
to comprehend more language than if you have a small vocabulary. In other
words, increasing your vocabulary results in increasing the quantity of
comprehensible input that you receive. But as we saw in the case of the
English word Christmas, learning vocabulary means learning about the areas
of human experience to which the vocabulary relates. Or take the word
bottle. What if I say, "She screamed and screamed until her mother
stuck a bottle in her mouth"? Or how about, "If my husband doesn't
get off the bottle, I'm leaving him"? Or perhaps, "We found a note
in a bottle". What rich areas of cultural experience, knowledge and
belief are linked to this word bottle! Even a simple word like rain is
associated with the experience and beliefs of the speech community which
uses the word. Knowing vocabulary, which is a key to comprehending input,
cannot be separated from knowing the world of the people who speak the
language you are learning.
PriIII is also relevant to Principle II, (i.e., engage in
extensive extemporaneous speaking). You want to learn to talk about any
topic that people talk about. The more you know the right words and phrases,
the less you will have to rely on communication strategies. And it is not
just a matter of knowing the right words and phrases, and the areas of human
experience that these relate to. As you get to know the people well, you
also come to know the sorts of things that people talk about, and the ways
that they talk about those things.
Ianother essay (Thomson, 1993c), I explain how that to learn
a language is to become part of a group of people. Every language defines
group of people, namely, the group of people who accept that language as
their contract for communication. When people share a language it means that
they agree with one another on a grand scale, and in very deep rooted ways,
with regard to how to communicate. Take words for colours. While one
language may divide the spectrum into seven colours, another may divide it
into only three. Thus while the colour of grass and the colour of the sky
may be called by different words in one language, they may be called by a
single colour word in another language. Of course, all normal people can
distinguish the same hues of colour. Think of all the hues that you can
refer to by means of the word green. If you need to make finer distinctions
you can do so. Likewise, if a language uses the same word for the colour of
the sky as for the colour of grass, the speakers are capable of
distinguishing those hues if they need to do so. However, for most purposes
they don't, just as for most purposes you don't distinguish between the hues
of green. Now you belong to a speech community (the English speaking speech
community) which thinks of the colour of grass and the colour of the sky as
basically different. So that is how you think, as long as you are
participating in that speech community. Suppose you are in the process of
becoming part of a speech community which thinks of the colour of grass and
the colour of the sky as basically the same. If you are going to use the new
language in a way similar to the way its normal users use it, then, while
you are using it, you too will be thinking of the colour of grass as being
basically the same as the colour of the sky. You may feel that you could
never think that. Then you are in for a surprise. You really are going to
learn to think in new ways. In learning a new language, you learn to think
the way the language's normal speakers think. In other words, coming to know
a language means coming to know how people think, and being able to think
like them at a very basic level.
Vocabulary involves idioms in addition to single words. A
good example of an idiom is provided by Spradley (1979) from the language of
tramps. The idiom make a flop might be translated into ordinary English as
"bed down for the night." However, the concept is much richer than
this, as Spradley discovered. Tramps in Seattle shared the knowledge of more
than a hundred ways to make a flop. Spradley found that to learn a
language--in this case the language was a variety of English shared by the
speech community of tramps--is to learn a culture, and to learn a culture is
to learn a huge body of shared knowledge and experience, including
strategies for surviving.
The collection of all the words and idioms known to speakers
of a language is what linguists refer to as their mental lexicon. In
everyday English, a lexicon is a book, but for a linguist, it is something
in the human mind. In connection with the mental lexicon, Givon (1984) goes
so far as to say,
"The bulk of generic ('permanent') cultural knowledge
shared by speakers/hearers is coded in their lexicon, which is in fact more
like an encyclopedia." (p. 31).
So then, learning the lexicon means learning much of what
people know and think about the world. I have not even begun to explore all
the ways in which learning words and idioms will involve you in learning
whole areas of local culture, knowledge and belief. There will be
discoveries awaiting you at every turn.
Big as the issue of vocabulary learning is, there is more to
getting to know the people whose language you are learning. It should be
easy to see that in a more general sense, knowing what goes on in people's
life experiences is essential to being able to understand their speech.
Suppose I want to tell you of an incident in my life. Let's say it involved
getting a traffic ticket. Here is an example of such an account of an
incident that occurred in my life, told as I might tell it to a normal
speaker of North American English.
"One time a friend was driving my pick-up while I dozed
off, and this cop stopped us because a tail-light was burned out. It
wouldn't have been anything, except that my friend was so short that she
couldn't see out of the rear-view mirror, and after several blocks he
finally used his siren to get our attention, and he wanted to know what was
going on. I apologized profusely, but he was still a bit on the grumpy side
when he handed me the ticket, although, to my relief it was just a
Imagine that you are a rural share-cropper in a third world
country and have never driven a car, or been pulled over by a police
officer. Suppose in addition that you have had some moderate opportunity to
learn English, and that you know all of the words in my account (including
profusely!), and suppose that I spoke slowly and clearly as I told you this
account in these exact words. I can pretty well guarantee that the account
will whiz by you in a blur, and you will not be able to make much sense out
of it. That is because my story assumes that you share a whole area of life
experience with me that you do not in fact share. Notice that in telling the
story I left out many essential facts. As the reader, if you are a North
American, or from another culture which is similar to North American culture
in the relevant respects, you will have filled in the missing details, and
will have created a complete picture of what had happened. In your picture,
the police officer followed my pick-up truck with his coloured lights
flashing. He became upset over the fact that the driver didn't pull over.
The ticket might well have involved a fine, but fortunately, it didn't. None
of these parts of your picture are mentioned in my story. Yet they are
crucial to making sense of the story as a whole, and making sense of the
story as a whole is crucial to making sense out of the sentences and words
which make it up.
That is how stories work. If you are to understand a story,
you must create the whole picture from whatever bits of detail you are
given. Assuming you share my knowledge of how traffic tickets are given, as
soon as you hear me say the words, "this police officer stopped
us" a whole lot of additional detail becomes available to you, since
you know what typically happens when a police officer stops a driver. The
police officer followed my vehicle on a motorcycle or in a squad car with
his lights flashing, and the driver pulled over. You can take all of that to
be the case even though all I said was "this cop stopped us" You
also assume that the police officer got out and walked to the driver's
window of my pick-up. There are a whole lot of details that go into a
typical incident of a police officer giving a motorist a traffic ticket.
This typical sequence of events has been called a schema. You understand my
story easily because you and I, as members of the same culture, share this
schema. I take the schema for granted in telling the story, and you use the
schema as an aid to understanding the story. This schema, which you can
think of as a basic skeleton of the typical traffic ticket incident, is
something that you and I share because it grows out of our common
experience, either as ticket recipients, or as friends of ticket recipients
who have shared their stories with us. As members of the same culture and
speech community you and I share countless schemas which arise out of our
shared experiences. Examples would be the schemas fora day in an elementary
school class, a trip to the supermarket for groceries, a baseball game, and
a wedding ceremony. It is widely recognized that the use of such schemas is
essential to successful communication (see Rost 1990; Singer 1990).
Now, your new language belongs to a different speech
community with a different culture, and different shared life experiences.
You may share some of the schemas (or, if you prefer, schemata) which arise
out of their life experience, but there will be many that you do not share.
The more different the new culture is from your olone, the more serious this
In addition to schemas, there are other kinds of knowledge
shared by everyone in the new speech community, such as knowledge of famous
people, well-known places and events, etc. The fact that your past life
experience is different from that of the speakers of your new language makes
it difficult for you to make sense out of much of what you may hear being
said around you. The only solution is for you to acquire a large part of the
common knowledge that these people already share. This can be done partly
through discussing their life experiences with them, but to be done
effectively, you also need to share in that life experience.
Finally, learning to know the people whose language you are
learning means learning what is appropriate behaviour, and what is
inappropriate behaviour. This opens a huge area of complexity which I can't
explore here. A trained anthropologist is an expert observer. But a trained
anthropologist observing the culture is in the same position as a trained
linguist observing the language. True, s/he will notice a lot which the rest
of us will not notice. Nevertheless, what s/he can consciously observe and
describe is far less than what s/he needs to acquire in order to behave
appropriately. Like language, behaviour in general is too complex to learn
by first understanding all the facts about it and then applying that
knowledge of those facts as you consciously understand them. Here too, an
input hypothesis must have some validity. As you are exposed to an enormous
quantity of human interaction and behaviour, you acquire the complex
cultural system which governs the behaviour.
Getting to know people means getting to know how they act
toward one another, including how they act by means of language. Think for a
moment about the following two sentences:
"If I may make the suggestion, the ___________ is
"Well there's the ___________."
These examples are adapted from Munby (1978), who provides
twenty different ways to make a suggestion in English, of which these are
two. In fact, there are a lot more than twenty ways to make suggestions in
English, but let's just think about these two. Who would say each of them?
To whom? In what setting? We might imagine the waiter in a fancy restaurant
using the first one with a customer. The second one might be said in the
same restaurant by one spouse to another. Or the second one might come from
a waitress in a diner who has been asked for a suggestion. Isn't it
interesting that we can work backwards from the form of a suggestion to an
idea of who might have said it to whom, and in what setting?
This example falls into the category that linguists refer to
as politeness phenomena (Brown and Levinson, 1978). Certain things people do
with words involve some social risk either to the speaker, or the person
spoken to, or both. People choose their words carefully based not only on
considerations of social risk, but also based on considerations such as the
relative social standing of the speaker and the one spoken to, the setting,
the topic that is being talked about, and so forth. Thus to be able to speak
well, you need to relate what you are saying to complex new facts about
social relationships. You do it all the time in your mother tongue. You fine
tune your speech depending on who you are talking to, how well you know
them, their status relative to yours, etc. In your new language you do not
yet have much of a feel for how to do this. Among other things, you need to
develop a feel for how people view social relationships. Fortunately, this
is another case of complexity which you mainly acquire through massive
exposure to, and involvement in, social interaction. But it is another
illustration of how learning the language means learning to know the people
who speak it. You can also use role-play as a means of focusing on the
appropriate use of language in specific situations, as we will see below.
There is much that people will tell you about how you should
and should not behave. Be aware, that the cultural value system is more
complex than those who follow it are aware of, and often the
"rule" you are told will be an oversimplification. So you need to
keep observing as well as listening. You should record your observations in
a journal. Be very wary of learning clear-cut, simple rules of behaviour
from fellow foreigners who consider themselves to be experts on the local
culture. Your behaviour, like your speech, will start out strange and
gradually become more native-like. Don't expect to behave like a native from
day one. On the other hand, you need good friends who will speak up at times
when you are being unacceptably weird by their standards. And whenever you
experience friction or conflict, you will want to discuss it in detail with
a sympathetic friend and find out how you might better have behaved in the
This may seem to be getting away from the topic of language
learning, but it really is not. The shared body of beliefs which is
essential to understanding speech includes many assumptions about how people
should and should not behave. If you reexamine my account of the traffic
ticket, you should be able to discover examples of such assumptions.
So then, a basic ingredient of successful language learning
is learning to know the people who speak the language, learning to know them
in depth, and in detail, learning a large body of knowledge and belief which
is shared by all normal speakers of the language, learning about the types
of social relationships that exist, and learning values that govern
behaviour, including speech behaviour. Some of the techniques and activities
discussed below will be in part motivated by Principle III.
Chapter 2. A few practical concerns
You now know the three basic requirements for continued
progress in language learning:
-- Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible
-- Principle II: Engage in extensive extemporaneous
-- Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language
you are learning.
Though I've elaborated on each of them, I'd rather you
remember the simple principles than all the other things I have said so far.
My elaboration was merely intended to make the principles more meaningful.
As I discuss language learning techniques and activities below, these three
principles should become more concrete. In the end, if all you remember is
the three principles, and if you apply that knowledge systematically, you'll
do all right. You should apply these principles in planning your overall
approach to language learning, in designing specific activities, and in
evaluating the effectiveness of you language learning strategy.
It should be obvious that I am assuming you want to do more
than "just let it happen". Some people feel they will be
successful language learners if they simply "hang around with the
people" enough. Or some linguists may feel that if they analyze the
grammar and sound system of the language linguistically, they will learn to
understand and speak the language without giving it another thought. Such
people will experience varying degrees of success, ranging from near zero,
to fairly high, depending on a variety of factors (see Thomson 1993d).
The fact that you are reading this makes me think that you
yourself would like to put some special thought and effort into your
language learning, and to do the best possible job given the constraints of
your situation and opportunities. Therefore, I have been assuming tyou would
recruit a speaker of the language to help you on a regular basis, hopefully
even on a daily basis. That will allow for a lot of flexibility in your use
of language learning techniques and activities. It may be that the language
you are learning is relatively easy, in the sense that it is quite similar
to a language which you already know well. To make matters better still, it
may be that there are extensive resources for getting comprehensible
input--newspapers, television, etc. In such a case, it might not be
essential that you have someone help you with the language in regular,
structured language sessions. But more difficult the language, and the more
distant the culture, the more important this becomes.
A person who meets with you regularly for the purpose of
helping you improve your skill in the language is what I call a Language
Resource Person (LRP). If you are to make good use of your times with your
LRPs, you will need to spend some time daily in planning and preparing for
the sessions. You will also spend time afterward going over tapes you made
during your sessions, and reflecting and evaluating what you did, as a basis
for further planning. You will probably want to do some record keeping in
order to stay organized, and to evaluate your progress. The records will be
of several types. You may keep a daily journal in which you describe your
experiences in using the language that day (in both listening and speaking),
along with cultural observations you have made that day. You will want some
sort of planning notebook in which you store the results of needs analyses
(see below), and a growing list of social situations and topics from which
you will choose when planning your language sessions. Since you will be
accumulating a lot of tape recordings, you will want to keep an index of
what is where on which tape. If you are a linguist or anthropologist, you
will want to be keeping a notebook of linguistic observations, and/or more
formal and extensive anthropological notes appropriate to your research
project. These can easily be integrated into, or better yet, grow out of,
your daily language learning activities.
Now I have made numerous references to language learning
activities without describing any of them. I will get to that momentarily.
However, before I do, a few final practical concerns need to be addressed
which will have a major impact on the scope and intensity of your language
2.1. How much time do you have?
I have suggested elsewhere (Thomson 1993d) that if you
intend to participate meaningfully in the society which uses your new
language, and if you are starting out from absolute zero ability, then you
should plan, if at all possible, to concentrate on language learning for at
least the first fifth of your total stay in the location where the language
is spoken. If you have done some language learning before arriving, you can
shorten this period, though it still would do you no harm to spend this
amount of time on additional language learning. The more concentrated time
you can devote to it the better. Five hours per week for a hundred weeks is
less effective than twenty-five hours per week for twenty weeks. For many
people, twenty five hours per week of heavy-duty language learning is
exhausting enough to be considered full-time, especially at the beginning.
Others may thrive on forty or sixty hours per week. However you define
"full-time", the key is that you be largely free of other work
responsibilities, so that the bulk of your mental and emotional resources
can be devoted to language learning. How much progress you will make in a
given amount of time depends partly on what language you are learning and
how similar it is to languages you already know well. In the case of
difficult languages, you could realistically spend a lot more than twenty
percent of your total time in the country on initial language learning.
However, in practice this is rarely possible. In any case, your language
learning should continue on a part-time basis for as long as you live there.
If you are unable to do full-time language learning, then
the challenge will be to keep your motivation high. Some people have done
great language learning while holding down another job, but those people
were motivated enough to work at it for a few hours every evening. If you
are not able to devote the major part of your time to language learning,
then you can still follow my suggestions, though where I speak in terms of
actual time spent on activities, you will need to make appropriate mental
adjustments. Even if you have only limited time for language learning, I
would still encourage you to have explicit goals as to how much time you
will devote to language learning activities of the types I will discuss, or
other activities that you may prefer.
When I speak of X number of hours spent on language
learning, I am referring to three types of activities. The central
activities involve structured language sessions in which a speaker of the
language works with you in communication activities which help you to
increase your ability to understand and to speak the language. You should
tape record some or all of what goes on in your session in order to listen
to it later, and possibly to go over parts of it in a subsequent session.
The second set of activities are private ones. For example,
you may spend a lot of time listening to the tapes that you made in your
sessions. You may also write up your observations regarding how the language
works, and add vocabulary items to your personal dictionary. If there is a
body of literature in the language, you may do extensive reading in it as a
private activity. You may also watch television or listen to the radio. So
long as you can understand what you are hearing, this will contribute to
your acquiring the language. You may also spend some time reading books or
articles about the language. Reading about how the grammar works can benefit
your language learning in various ways.
The third set of activities are those involved in developing
and carrying on a social life. For some people this comes easily. For people
like me, it doesn't happen unless I make it happen. Therefore it really
helps if social visiting and other social activities can be made a part of
my daily work goals. Thus if I spend thirty hours per week on language
learning, these thirty hours might include ten hours spent in language
sessions, ten hours of private activities (including the time spent planning
and preparing for the language sessions), and ten hours of social visiting
and other participation in social activities. Different people will have
different blends of these three components, but you should devote reasonable
attention to each.
To summarize, the three components of your language learning
1. Formal language sessions with someone who is providing
comprehensible input and opportunities for extemporaneous speaking.
2. Private activities in which you listen to tapes, read,
write, and plan.
3. Social activities in which you use the language, either
in understanding messages, in uttering messages, or both.
Suppose your time is limited. Let's say that you can only
work on improving your language skills in the evenings and on Saturdays. An
important question will be how much interaction you have with speakers of
the language in your daily life. If your work involves interacting with
people in the language many times every day, then the third component, the
social one, will be less crucial, and thus you will want to devote more of
your designated language learning time to the first two components. As we
will see, you can design your formal language sessions so that they feed
into your daily life communication situations. To some extent, you may be
able to carry out your private activities while doing other things. In
particular, you can listen to tapes made during your sessions while you are
washing the dishes, or driving your car, or jogging.
It would seem then, that if your designated time for
language learning is limited, the best use of what timyou do have will be
for formal language sessions, that is, times in which you meet with someone
for the purpose of tailoring the communication activities so that they
clearly contribute to your progress in language learning.
2.2. Whom do you have?
To become a speaker of a language is to come into
relationships. In the broadest sense, you come into a relationship with
everyone who speaks the language, in that a language can be thought of a
contract which all its users have tacitly agreed to follow. But you will
have many specific relationships that are essential to your language
learning progress. You cannot learn a language without the right
relationships with people.For example, you cannot learn a language very well
if your main source of input is television and radio, though these can be
valuable resources in a balanced language learning program. From the
standpoint of your language learning, the important relationships are of
1. Language Resource Person(s) [ LRP's].
2. Other people with whom you spend a fair amount of time
communicating--friends, fellow employees, your parole officer, etc.
3. People with whom you interact in very specific types of
encounters, such as the postman, the butcher, or the judge.
In Thomson (1993c) I outline a strategy for increasing your
network of friends, and recruiting LRPs. With regard to increasing your
network of friends the principle is quite simple. Keep meeting people until
you find a few who seem to appreciate your company. Become their friends.
Then, once you have a few friends, become friends of the best friends
(and/or close relatives) of your friends, and then become friends with the
best friends (and/or close relatives) of your friends' friends (and/or close
relatives). It is easier to become friends with the friend of a friend than
with someone who has no reason to give you the time of day. If you can tell
Bill, "Hi. I'm a friend of Joe's", and Joe happens to be Bill's
best friend, then Bill is likely to be nice to you. Probably Joe has already
mentioned you to him anyway, and he is glad to meet you. Once you're
important to a bunch of people who are all important to each other, you're a
belonger. If you haven't yet found an LRP, you should be able to at that
Recruiting LRPs is a point at which I personally experience
anxiety and internal resistance. Even though I am usually offering to pay
people, I still feel that I am somehow asking a major favour, and I guess
I'm not a very assertive person. It helps to realize that there are people
who really enjoy being LRPs, and that if you ask around enough, and people
come forward, the people who come forward are coming forward not because you
are imposing on them, but because your request has struck a responsive chord
It is a good idea when first recruiting LRPs that you not
even so much as hint at any long term arrangements until you have seen that
the person works smoothly with you. So initially, you request help on a one
time basis. If things go well, you can request help again from the same
person. If you are getting "one time" help from several people,
and then settle on one or two as regular LRPs, you will avoid causing anyone
to lose face.
You may be saying, "Whoa! This is more than I bargained
for. I don't want to hire or otherwise recruit someone to help me on a
regular, scheduled basis! Sorry. That's just not how I work." Well, I
find I can have far more effective communication experiences during the
first months of language learning if I can spend time with someone who knows
that the reason we are together is for me to improve my language ability.
You may manage to do many of the things I will discuss without resorting to
this. For me, having regular LRPs helps to make life predictable, and
insures I will stick to my intended goals. If you react against this, it may
be O.K., unless it is part of a general reaction against getting involved
with people. Perhaps you were thinking that you could learn the language as
a recluse. Read Thomson (1993c) if you don't think that "recluse"
and "language learner" are a contradiction in terms.
The third category of people whom you need, those with whom
you interact in specific kinds of encounters, will be built into the
situation. It is important that you evaluate your situation in order to
determine all of the specific types of encounters in which you interact with
people. Then you can use part of your time in formal language sessions with
your LRP to improve your ability to interact in specific types of
In pursuing relationships of these three types, there is a
big advantage in relationships with people who don't know English (or any
other language which you already know well). Since I am assuming that you
are already able to speak the new language at least minimally, I would
suggest that you consider mainly recruiting LRPs from among such people. In
addition, aim to build your network of friendships so that it includes many
such people. In many parts of the world, you will find that some people want
to spend time with you in order to practice their English. You may want to
make an exchange with these people--you spend so much time speaking English
with them and they spend an equal amount of time speaking their language
with you. However, you might find it difficult or unnatural to speak the new
language with someone who already speaks English fairly well. With
determination you can overcome your feeling of unnaturalness, but it may be
easier if you mainly relate to people who can only speak to you in the new
When I learned Blackfoot, there were very few people to talk
to who did not speak fluent English. That is an extremely challenging
context in which to learn a language. Elsewhere I have presented a strategy
for coping with this challenge ( Thomson 1993d). In such a highly bilingual
situation you are only likely to develop fluency if you employ a well
thought out strategy such as the one I discuss there. I repeat the relevant
"After you have a vocabulary of many hundred common
items, and can construct a reasonable variety of sentences, it is time to
bite the bullet. This may be a month or two following the onset of your
full-time language learning. You will tell your language helper something
like, 'Next Thursday, we will not use any English for a full hour.' Come
Thursday, you spend an hour during which all communication is in your new
language. At times you will get stuck and be unable to get your point
across. Jot it down. At times your helper will be unable to get her point
across. She jots that down. After the hour is over, you go over your
jottings together, and try to learn what it was you lacked which made
communication difficult. Repeat these 'monolingual hours' once or twice a
week until you and your helper are comfortable with them. Then tell her
something like, 'Week after next we will see if we can go a whole week
without using any English.'
"Just as your monolingual hours seemed uncomfortable at
first, so your monolingual week may seem awkward. After all, you still
communicate only with great difficulty in the new language, and it would be
easy or effortless to carry on in English. But after you are comfortable
with an occasional monolingual week, do a monolingual month. Then try a
monolingual week, not just with your helper, but with all the other
bilingual friends you now have. Do that a few times, and then try a month
with your friends. All this time, you are steadily increasing your
comprehension ability, perhaps by methods like those I outline in Thomson
(1992, 1993a). Even though the community to which you have access is 100%
bilingual in English (or some other language you know well), you will find
that you reach a point where you can largely abandon English once and for
all (in your dealings with the speakers of your new language, that
While I'm on the topic of people who are important to you in
connection with your language learning (and hopefully, important to you in
general), I should mention one other category of person: fellow-language
learner. Many aspects of language learning require a lot of will-power, and
I find that it makes things easier if I am not all alone in my struggles.
There may be people of a similar cultural background to yours who are at a
similar stage in learning the same language that you are learning. If not,
there may at least be people of a similar cultural background who are
learning some language or other. As you get together with people, you can
share ideas and frustrations. You may be amazed how this can increase your
sense of contentment and motivation.
In the earliest weeks of language learning, I think it is
best if you can have one or more co-learners who participate with you in
your sessions with your LRP. This adds flexto your communication activities,
and may make those activities more entertaining (or less boring) for the LRP.
However, you are now an intermediate language learner, and it may be better
most of the time if you work by yourself with your LRP, since no two
people's interests, needs, or rate of progress will be the same. If you do
have the opportunity to work with other language learners, a word of warning
is in order. Competitiveness can be counterproductive (Bailey, 1983). If you
are making better progress than your friend, why don't you hold back a bit
during your language sessions. Language learners can have a lot of emotional
ups and downs. You don't want to contribute to somebody's downs.
Finally, if at all possible, you ought to stay in touch with
a language learning specialist. Such a person will be able to give you
special help in evaluating your program and your progress. If you relate to
such a person while setting concrete goals, this can provide a tacit
relationship of accountability. Such accountability can be tremendously
helpful in keeping your motivation high. As a matter of fact, even if no
language learning specialist is available to you, as is often the case, you
should consider working out some sort of mutual accountability system with a
fellow language learner.
2.3. What should you learn next?
Perhaps you have all the time you need, and all the help you
need in the form of LRPs, and plenty of friends to visit, and other language
learners to encourage you, and you have made yourself accountable either to
a language learning specialist or to a fellow language learner. You also
grasp the three key principles: you need to expose yourself to massive
comprehensible input, to engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking, and to
get to know the people in depth. You feel pretty secure. Then suddenly a
question occurs to you: What do I learn?
A popular catch word in the field of foreign language
education is proficiency (see Higgs, 1984; Omaggio, 1986). By proficiency is
meant the ability to use the language for authentic purposes in real-life
communication situations. A proficiency oriented course will thus be
organized around real life communications situations. You might wonder why
anyone would want to learn to use the language for any other purposes.
Strange as it may seem, I believe that it is easy to
misapply this concept. I knew someone who said that the language learner
living in the second language community should never learn anything that
s/he does not specifically plan to use in communication. This person offered
the example of a friend who had needed to buy shoes. The friend therefore
spent several hours memorizing some specific sentences for use in buying
shoes, went out and said the sentences from memory to the shoe seller, and
returned home excited at having used the language for an authentic purpose.
The problem is, how often do you buy shoes? Perhaps some of the sentences
will carry over to other situations, but still, it probably isn't realistic
to spend several hours memorizing specific sentences for narrowly defined
communication situations. There is simply too much to learn and too few
hours available for learning it.
There is a related movement for learning languages for
specific purposes (Widdowson, 1983). It is recognized that learners will be
more motivated to learn material which relates to their area of special need
or special interest. For example, if a man is planning to work as a nurse in
Thailand, then he will be more motivated to learn if the material he is
learning is going to be useful in talking to patients and to other health
professionals. Once again, a word of caution is in order. I once heard a
nonnative English speaker fluently lecture and answer questions related to
his special academic field. While answering one of the questions he started
to talk about a party he had recently been to, and quickly became
tongue-tied. He could talk about his specialized field almost like a native
speaker, but he was not nearly as capable of talking about everyday life.
Consider our nurse once again. Once he is in his hospital in Thailand he
will be getting extensive exposure to the language of nurses and doctors as
they talk to patients and talk to each other on work related matters.
Obviously he will want to have some basic ability in dealing with such
communication before starting work, but you can pretty well guarantee that,
in the course of his day to day work, the nurse will have extensive
opportunity to improve his job-related speaking ability, even if he develops
little ability to use the language for any other purpose. So then, if you
have extra time off the job to devote to language learning, there is much to
be said for using some of it to improve your general speaking ability,
rather than working further on your job-related speaking ability.
What I am getting at is that it is important to take a
broadly based approach to learning the language, while also emphasizing your
specific communication needs. It is a matter of balance. Yes, you should let
your specific needs be a source of ideas as you design your language
learning activities. No, you should not limit yourself to your most specific
needs. So let's think about analyzing your specific needs. But let's also
think about learning the language in more general terms.
2.3.1 Specific Needs
There is a lot written about needs analysis for language
learners (see, for example Munby, 1978; Brumfit and Johnson, 1979). A
simple, practical approach to needs analysis was devised by Allwright
(described in Dickinson, 1987). You may find it helpful when you are trying
to decide what to focus on in your language learning.
Here is an adaptation of that approach. The first step is to
come up with a list of purposes for which you have needed to use the
language in the past, or currently need to use it, or expect to need to use
it. It is recommended that you begin with a group of fellow language
learners and brainstorm together. After the group discussion, you go off by
yourself and make your own list. Try to be specific. For example, you could
say that you use the language "for shopping." But you could also
break this down into specific types of shopping, and within the context of
shopping, there will be more specific communication needs, such as asking
for help in finding what you want. Some of the situations reflected in your
list may only require listening ability. For example, you may wish to be
able to understand sermons in church, or the news broadcast on television.
Many of the situations will involve two-way interaction such as bargaining
over a price. Your goal is to come up with a long list of purposes for which
you have wished to be able to use the language in the past, or wish to be
able to use it in the present, or expect to want to be able to use it in the
Let's suppose that your list of 101 items includes the
following five needs:
1. Respond to a marriage proposal.
23. Hire a domestic employee.
37. Listen to sermons.
51. Explain to a stranger my reason for being in the
52. Explain to an immigration official my reason for being
in the country.
Once you have produced your list, go over it, and give each
item a numerical rating for the frequency with which the need arises. You
can use a rating scale of 1 to 5. If a need occurs with extreme frequency,
give it a 5. If it hardly ever occurs, give it a 1.
DESCRIPTION OF NEED FREQ.
1. Respond to a marriage proposal. 2
23. Hire a domestic employee. 1
37. Listen to sermons. 1
51. Explain to a stranger my 3
reason for being in the country.
52. Explain to an immigration 1
official my reason for being in the country.
Now, in addition to frequency, you can rate each need
with regard to how essential it is. For example, you may have been able to
use a go-between to hire a domestic employee. On the other hand, you have
heard that winning the favour of the immigration official may depend on your
ability to use the language. Again, you can use a scale from 1 to 5.
DESCRIPTION OF NEED FREQ. UR
1. Respond to a marriage 2 5
23. Hire a domestic employee. 1 1
37. Listen to sermons. 1 1
51. Explain to a stranger my 3 2
reason for being in the country.
52. Explain to an immigration 1 5
official my reason for being in the country.
Then you will want to consider each item in terms of how
important it is to you personally. That is, is it something you place a lot
of value on, apart from its urgency? Having such a rating allows you to bump
something up in importance even though the need is neither frequent nor
DESCRIPTION OF NEED FREQ. URGENCY IMP
1. Respond to a marriage 2 5 5
23. Hire a domestic employee. 1 1 1
37. Listen to sermons. 1 1 5
51. Explain to a stranger my 3 2 2
reason for being in the country.
52. Explain to an immigration 1 5 4
official my reason for being in the country.
Now go back and total up the three ratings, to get a
DESCRIPTION OF NEED TOTAL
1. Respond to a marriage 12
23. Hire a domestic employee. 3
37. Listen to sermons. 7
51. Explain to a stranger my 7
reason for being in the country.
52. Explain to an immigration 10
official my reason for being in the country.
You're not done. You have determined the importance of each
of your communication needs, but you next need to determine the extent of
your current lack in communication ability in relation to each need. For
each item, decide what level of ability is demanded of you in order to
fulfill the need. For example, in dealing with the immigration official, you
may feel you need to have exquisite communication ability. When it comes to
responding to marriage proposals, you may be happy to simply get your point
across emphatically. Once you have decided what level of ability you need or
desire, decide what level you already have, and subtract it from the level
of ability you need or desire. Again you can use scales of 1 to 5, where 5
means exquisite ability, and 1 means very limited ability.
DESCRIPTION OF NEED CURRENT DESIRED DIFF
1. Respond to a marriage 2 2 0
23. Hire a domestic employee. 1 3 2
37. Listen to sermons. 1 4 3
51. Explain to a stranger my 3 3 0
reason for being in the country.
52. Explain to an immigration 3 5 2
official my reason for being in the country.
Now, compare your two sets of results. In terms of the
rating of needs, your strongest need is item 1, followed by item 52. Items
37, and 51 are tied for third place, although in your full list this might
not be the case, since there might be other 10s, 9s, or 8s. But let's assume
there are not. Now you might cross item 23 off the list on the basis of its
only being a weak need. Item 1 is a strong need (the total rating is 12),
but the need is already adequately met by the current ability (the
difference between current and desired is 0). So scratch that from the list.
Item 37 stays on the list, since it shows the greatest lack (that is, the
greatest difference between current and desired ability). Item 51 gets
scratched even though it is a fairly strong need, because, as with item 1,
there is no lack (difference = 0). Item 52 stays on the list, even though
the lack is only moderate (difference = 2), since the need is a strong one
(total = 10). So we are left with items 37 and 52.
In practice, each time you perform this sort of needs
analysis, you may end up choosing four or five items as the ones most
deserving of attention. You may want to repeat the process periodically if
you are having difficulty thinking of specific communication needs to work
2.3.2 General communication ability: Topics and language
So much for specific communication needs. I have noticed
that when people do this type of personal needs analysis, they typically
include a need such as "general conversational ability" or
"ability to make small talk with my neighbors and visitors". Of
course, that doesn't really constitute a specific need. What it does is to
indicate that learning to communicate in connection with specific needs is
not enough. You also need to be developing general communication ability.
That is, you would like to be able to easily talk about all the things that
a typical native speaker can easily talk about. You would like to know all
the vocabulary that is known to a typical native speaker. For example, the
need for you to know the word for the human navel may not yet have arisen.
You have no way of predicting when that need will arise. But the word is one
that is known to any four-year-old child, and it is a word that any
full-fledged speaker of the language must know. That is, the first time
someone uses it, and you indicate ignorance of its meaning, it will be clear
that there are still very basic vocabulary items that, for some strange
reason, you don't know. It is not a good idea to wait until you hear such
vocabulary in real-life communication before worrying about learning it. A
large portion of the vocabulary that confronts you in real life will be in
this category, and you'll be better off if you have made the effort to
become familiar with it in advance. That will increase the percentage of
input that is comprehensible, and decrease your dependence on communication
strategies. So in the case of the word for the human navel, why not become
familiar with it during a session with your LRP when you deliberately spend
a lot of time discussing the human body and most of its parts, and some of
their functions. Then the first time that the word for navel arises in
real-life communication, say in a story you are listening to, you will
already know it, and your comprehension of the story won't suffer as a
There are countless topics that fall into the category of
everyday topics. One of the best ways to come up with a list of such topics
is to frequently walk through the community and take note of items and
activities which any typical speaker of the language would be expected to be
able to discuss. You can keep this list in the same notebook as your needs
list, and refer to it as you plan your daily language learning activities.
Van Ek (1975) provides an extensive list of settings and topics which would
be important to an adult language learner in a European country. It is
reprinted in Brumfit and Johnson (1979) and Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983).
In other parts of the world you will need to come up with your own list. Van
Ek (1975) also provides a list of the functions which language fulfills
(e.g. describing, warning, consoling, etc.). It is also reprinted reprinted
in Brumfit and Johnson (1979) and Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983), and in the
U.S. Defense Language Institutes modified form, as applied to Greek, in
Omaggio (1986). This list can be taken as more universal, although the
details of how the functions are carried out will vary from language to
language. A very important source of ideas for settings and functions is
Larson (1984), since it is built around a concept of a language learner who
is in the process of becoming iinto a new society.
One useful collection of language functions is found in
Moran (1990), where each language function is illustrated by a cartoon strip
with empty bubbles. The cartoons are somewhat based on a European setting,
though many of them would be applicable in most parts of the world. The
functions of language represented in Moran's cartoon strips include
greetings, leave-takings, interrupting, apologizing, answering the door,
begging, refusing, declining an offer, offering help, requesting help,
consoling, thanking, warning, making an introduction, responding to an
introduction, asking directions, complimenting, expressing condolences,
extending an invitation, expressing distaste, answering the telephone,
expressing delight, expressing displeasure, congratulating, expressing pain,
expressfear, requesting permission, getting someone's attention, asking for
repetition, expressing ignorance, encouraging, accusing, seeking
reassurance, expressing fear, remembering, welcoming, asking about health,
requesting permission to speak, reprimanding, expressing disappointment,
expressing affection, and calming someone down.
When considering such functions you need to bear in mind
that there may be a large number of possible ways to fulfill each function,
and your choice among the possibilities may partly depend on
1. your social standing relative to the person you are
2. how well you know the person,
3. who is listening, and
4. the circumstances under which the communication occurs.
In other words, as you work on specific language functions,
don't expect to simply memorize a single sentence for each function! You
might consider role-play as a means of exploring language functions as they
are carried out with a variety of speakers and hearers in a variety of
In summary, as you plan the content of your language
learning activities you should be moving forward on two fronts. On the one
hand, you should be learning to deal with the specific areas of
communication that are most important to you. On the other hand, you should
be learning to discuss all the areas of life which a normal speaker of the
language is able to discuss, and you should be learning to use the language
for all of the functions for which it is normally used.
Chapter 3. Things to do to keep on keeping on
In discussing comprehensible input, I referred to four
stages of language learning. It is a good idea at any given point to gear
your overall approach to language learning to your current stage. My
assumption has been that the first stage is just behind you. To review
briefly, the four stages are as follows:
1. At Stage I, you had difficulty understanding speech that
was not clearly supported by pictures, objects or actions.
2. At Stage II, you have difficulty understanding speech
unless the content is fairly predictable, or else is carefully and tediously
negotiated with a sympathetic native speaker.
3. At Stage III, you have difficulty understanding speech
unless the topic is one with which you are familiar, and you have the full
context, or the meaning is negotiated with a native speaker.
4. At Stage IV, you are able to get at least a general
understanding of just about anything you hear, even if it is totally out of
context, and you merely happen to overhear it as you pass by.
Now it may be that you are actually past Stage II. In any
case, if you are planning to devote a fair portion of your time to language
learning for the next two years, you will spend most of that time in Stage
III, provided you have an effective means for moving quickly through Stages
I and II. In Thomson (1993a) I proposed a program for moving through Stage I
and getting well into Stage II. Here I will assume that you are just barely
into Stage II. Some of the ideas from Thomson (1993a) are repeated here,
since I want to start at the beginning of Stage II.
3.1. Stage II language learning activities
You have now learned to recognize many hundreds of common
words together with a variety of sentence patterns. You can use a steadily
increasing number of these words to construct sentences of your own. But you
still don't feel that you can say very much. We'll approach the language
learning activities in terms of the three basic principles:
1. Some activities will be aimed at providing comprehensible
input at an appropriate level of difficulty.
2. Some activities will be aimed at providing the
opportunity for extemporaneous speaking, and
3. Some of the activities will be aimed at helping you to
get to know the people in the ways that are necessary for you to speak and
comprehend the language easily.
Often, two or three of the principles are combined in a
In terms of comprehensible input, some of your activities in
Stage II will be aimed at exposing you to long sequences of connected
sentences in which the overall content of what is being said is fairly
predictable. In the process, your vocabulary will continue to grow, and your
ability to comprehend speech will continue to improve. In terms of
extemporaneous speaking, the main concern in Stage II is to loosen up your
tongue, and get you into the habit of managing to get your point across,
often by means of achievement strategies. In terms of getting to know the
people, among other things, you will be learning about many simple daily
activities--how they are conducted and how they are described.
Recall that your language learning activities are carried on
in three settings: some activities you conduct on your own, some you conduct
in structured sessions with your LRP, and some you conduct as a part of
social visiting or other outside social participation. Sometimes all three
settings are used for closely interrelated activities. For example, during
your private time you go over earlier language sessions and plan the next
one; during your social visiting, you often tell your friends all about what
you have been learning to talk about in your formal sessions; during your
sessions, you specifically prepare for outside social participation; etc.
3.1.1. Getting lots of comprehensible input in stage II
At this stage, comprehensible input can start to take off.
Perhaps you can comprehend many snatches of the speech that you hear around
you, but it does not provide you with massive comprehensible input. To get
comprehensible input in large quantities you need to get people to talk you
in such a way that the content of what they say is fairly predictable. You
may benefit from other input as well. Already, there will be various highly
routine events which you have learned to participate in, and to talk about.
But in terms of input which will be both comprehensible, and moderately
challenging, and which will steadily increase your vocabulary and your
ability to understand speech in general, it will be the long stretches of
relatively predictable speech that will help you the most. You will probably
depend largely on your LRP to provide this concentrated comprehensible
input, though other friends can help out.
A typical pattern will be to have your LRP talk to you in
your session, and record what she says on tape. You will then listen to the
tape on your own time, noting parts you do not understand or have questions
about. Then you will go over the tape bit by bit with the LRP in a
subsequent session, discussing what she said and getting your questions
answered. By that time you will be thoroughly familiar with the taped
material and can listen to it again on your own time, repeatedly, with full
or nearly full comprehension. A final step might be to attempt to retell the
material in your own words. You could do this first with your LRP in the
language session, and record your effort. Then, together with your LRP,
listen to your recording, and get her to give you pointers on ways you might
better have expressed yourself. Finally, retell the material in your own
words to various friends during social visits. This basic pattern--tape the
LRP, listen to the tape privately, go over the tape with the LRP, listen to
the taprivately, retell the material in your own words to several
people--can be used with many of the activities I discuss here. So let's get
on with getting some comprehensible input.
The first category of comprehensible input has been
illustrated already when I talked about having someone tell you the story of
Goldilocks. You may not know the word for bear, but I bet you'll catch on to
it quickly and remember it permanently. The same will be true of a variety
of other new vocabulary and possibly even some new sentence patterns. But
just a minute. What if your LRP doesn't know the story of Goldilocks? Well,
if she can read, you may be able to provide the story in another language
for her to read. If not, you can get a fellow language learner to help out
by telling such stories to a bilingual LRP in whatever other language she
knows. You can return the favour by telling the bilingual LRP stwhich she
can retell to your fellow language learner in the same way.
When your fellow language learner has told this bilingual
LRP the story of Goldilocks, or Little Red Riding Hood, or The Three Pigs,
the LRP doesn't need to let you know which story it is. When the LRP begins
telling you the story in your new language, you will get to guess which
story it is. Likewise when you have told the bilingual LRP a story for
retelling to your fellow language learner, you can sit and observe as s/he
attempts to identify the story.
There won't be a large number of stories that are as
familiar as Goldilocks, but you can easily familiarize yourself with a
number of simple stories from children's books or other sources which can be
used for this purpose. On one occasion my LRP was familiar with Bible
stories, as were my co-learner and I, and he used this technique with us.
This allowed for some very lengthy stories, such as the Old Testament story
of Joseph. (If a modern idiomatic translation of the Bible or any other
familiar book exists in the language you are learning, you will find that
regular reading provides a good source of comprehensible input, and you can
also have someone read such material aloud into a tape recorder for you to
listen to privately.)
Such stories are a good means of getting started in
understanding long sequences of connected sentences. In addition to fairy
stories and stories from long ago, recent events in the community or in the
world may be well known to both your LRP and you. Also, you and your LRP can
engage in various activities together. For example, you might attend some
spectators' event, or a wedding, or go planting or hunting together, or make
a trip to the market, or to the big city, or to some special attraction in
the big city. Afterward you can get your LRP to tell a fellow language
learner, in great detail, all that you and she did together. This may not be
all that comprehensible to your fellow language learner, but it will be
great comprehensible input for you. Since you are well aware of everything
you did together, what she says will be predictable enough to make it good
Stage II input.
A well-known language learning method dating from the
nineteenth century will be most fruitful during Stage II, since it provides
predictable spoken input. This is the Series Method. It can be used for
practicing speaking or comprehension, but my main focus at this point is on
comprehension. Have your LRP provide you with comprehensible input by
telling you in great detail each step in many familiar processes and
activities. Such a sequence of details, or steps in an activity or process,
is called a series. Consider the example of washing one's hands. How do you
do it? First you turn on the cold water tap. Then, you turn on the hot water
tap while feeling the water. If it gets too hot, you turn down the hot water
or turn up the cold water. Then you hold your hands in the running water.
When your hands are wet, you pick up the soap. You rub the soap all over
both hands. Suds form on your hands. You put the soap back down. You then
rub your hands all over each other, briskly. Then your rinse the soap off
your hands. You pick up the towel. You rub the towel briskly over both
hands. Then you hang the towel back up.
Another example might be all the steps in making a pot of
tea. Moran (1990) provides a sequence of pictures for this particular
series, which may help to prime your LRP. However, it seems likely that you
could come up with a lot more steps in the process than are illustrated
there. The same is true of Romijn and Seely (1988), which provides
series-like sequences for use with Total Physical Response; that is, the
language learner is actually supposed to act out the series, as each
instruction is given by the LRP. If you have a hard time coming up with
ideas for series, keep a running list of everything you do throughout an
entire day. You will end up with enough ideas for series to keep you going
for awhile. For additional ideas, take a walk, and make notes of the human
activities that you observe. Some of them will be familiar to you, being
similar to activities in your own culture, and others will be unfamiliar. It
is the familiar ones that are most useful to you at this point, since they
are predictable to you. The unfamiliar ones are more appropriate at Stage
III when you will work at becoming familiar with new topics.
If you put a little thought into it, you can use the series
method in a variety of ways. To use the example of washing hands, you can
have the LRP simply tell you how she does it in general: "First I turn
on the cold water tap. Then, I turn on the hot water tap...". But you
can also have her do it right while she performs the activities (or mimes
them), "I am turning on the cold water tap. Now, I am turning on the
hot water tap...". Or you can have her tell you how she is later going
to wash her hands before eating: "First I will turn on the cold water
tap. Then, I will turn on the hot water tap...". And you can use
various complicated patterns: "First I turn on the cold water tap.
After I have turned on the cold water tap, I turn on the hot water tap.
After I have turned on the hot water tap, I pick up the soap. After I have
picked up the soap...". Get all the mileage you can out of this method
in terms of increasing your ability to understand specific types of
sentences. What those sentence patterns will be will depend on which
language you are learning. But as a new pattern comes to your attention, the
Series Method will sometimes provide a means of exposing yourself to a lot
of comprehensible input which highlights that pattern.
Recall that you are tape-recording all of this
comprehensible input. That way you can listen to it numerous times. There is
another important use of these tapes. They will contain a lot of new
vocabulary. You can go through them with your LRP and spot each new
vocabulary item in context. As you do this, make a second tape--a vocabulary
tape. In the vocabulary tape, the LRP first says the vocabulary item, and
then repeats the entire sentence in which it occurred, and then says the
isolated vocabulary item again. If you are a full-time language learner, and
your sessions with your LRP (or LRPs) are two hours long or longer, you may
be able to add twenty-five or thirty new vocabulary items to this tape every
day. You can privately listen to the new items of the day several times,
along with some review items. You may be surprised how easily you learn the
new vocabulary and how well you retain it. The LRP may need to choose some
basic form of a vocabulary item to use when saying the word in isolation.
For verbs, this might be an infinitive form (to slurp) or a first person
singular form (I slurp) or a third person singular form (s/he slurps), or
perhaps the imperative form (Slurp!). For nouns it might be the third person
singular form that is used when the noun functions as the subject of a
sentence, as does the word alligator in the sentence Two alligators chased
my cat away from the bank. In this case, the tape would go as follows:
"Alligator. (Pause) Two alligators chased my cat away from the bank.
(Pause) Alligator." If finding the right form of the wto use in
isolation gets confusing, then the LRP can simply use whatever form of the
word occurs in the sentence. Note that there is no translation of the new
vocabulary item (that is, of alligator). Having the full sentence with the
new item in context will be enough to remind you of the meaning, and you
will be reinforcing the item in your memory as a part of the new language,
rather than as a translation of some English word.
In addition to the types of relatively predictable speech
I've been discussing, there will be other sources of comprehensible input
during Stage II. Conversational interaction, both with your LRP during
language sessions, and with friends in general, will be a major source, so
in the next section, when we talk about extemporaneous speaking in Stage II,
we'll still be talking about comprehensible input. If you are learning a
major world language you might consider watching a movie which hbeen dubbed
from English into that language. First watch the movie in English. Then
watch it in the other language. (I'm assuming you can rent the videos.) You
may find that the speech in the movie becomes increasingly comprehensible
with repeated viewings. (Movies with printed captions are a poor
For some languages there may be commercially prepared tapes
which were intended for Stage I language learners. In general, these are
more appropriate as comprehensible input for Stage II language learners!
When I was learning Urdu, I was given a tape with perhaps a hundred
"useful expressions" that was intended to be memorized. Memorizing
all of that would have eaten up a lot of the time I had available during
Stage I for actually learning to comprehend, and to a lesser extent, to
creatively speak, my new language. At Stage II it was easy to listen to the
tape, understanding what I was hearing. At that point many of the forms of
expression were easily absorbed and naturally used. For many languages there
are a variety of commercially prepared tapes, either designed for travelers,
or designed to accompany text books. You can use these as additional sources
of comprehensible input during Stage II. It may be that the variety of
language used in such tapes is overly formal, and not what is used for
everyday purposes. Why not listen to such materials together with your LRP
and discuss them (in the new language, of course)?
3.1.2. Getting your tongue loose in stage II
During Stage I, your ability to speak the language was
extremely limited. During Stage II you will reach the point where, by using
communication strategies, you can usually succeed in getting your point
across to a sympathetic friend. At the end of Stage I, you felt like you did
not have a lot of freedom in communication. By the end of Stage II you will
feel that you do have a lot of freedom. This change will come as a result of
extensive efforts at extemporaneous speaking.
You know many hundreds of the most important vocabulary
items, and you are familiar with a wide range of basic sentence patterns.
Yet it is a struggle for you to say very much. Here is an exercise. Think of
one of the most interesting events from your childhood. It must be one that
you have not yet related to anyone in your new language. Find a sympathetic
listener. Your best choice would be your regular LRP during your regular
language session. Inform her that you are going to tell her a story from
your childhood, and that you will absolutely refuse to revert to English (or
any other language that you both know well) for even a single word. It is
important that you do no advance planning or preparation. Don't spend
several days imagining how you will express yourself. You should do this
absolutely cold. As you tell the story, make a tape recording of yourself
talking. Don't listen to that tape recording, but store it in a safe place.
Done? If you are at the beginning of Stage II, you probably
found the experience stretching, to say the least. Now forget about that
story. Don't try to tell it again to anyone for a few weeks. Then, as you
are getting into Stage III, tell this same story to someone else, again
taping it. Now compare the new tape with the earlier one. You will notice
that your tongue has really loosened up. How did it loosen up? Through lots
and lots of extemporaneous communication.
So what you need are activities that will keep you talking.
Telling stories from your own past is one good way to do a lot of talking.
You may think you have nothing interesting to tell, but you should
nevertheless have plenty to tell. You might start by thinking through your
whole life story to date. Spend an hour or so making lots of notes. You may
find that you will have enough to keep you talking for several language
sessions. Whenever you engage in conversational practice with your LRP you
should tape record it. I have found that a stereo tape recorder which
accepts two microphones is useful for this. Lapel microphones work well,
since they stay relatively close to the sound source without being a
distraction. Tell your LRP that you want to learn to talk all about your
previous life experiences, and also to learn about hers. You can give your
family's background, and talk about your earliest memories, describing the
setting, and the general details of your early life. As you get stuck, your
LRP will attempt to help you. It is good if you don't break into English (or
any other language that you both know well) at these points. Rather, you can
come back to them afterwards. You and your LRP can listen to those parts of
the tape. If she is bilingual, you can tell her, say in English, what you
were trying to say, or wanted to say in her language. She can then tell you
how you might have said it. You can tape all of this discussion. It
shouldn't be too long before you are consistently able to negotiate the
desired meaning without resorting to another language. Early on, you may
find this helpful at times. But it is better if you do it after you have
finished the story, so that you have the experience of extended
extemporaneous speaking without reverting to another language.
At the spots where you did have difficulty getting your
point across, you need to identify the nature of the problem. If the problem
was that you lacked the necessary vocabulary, have the LRP record the
relevant word or idiom on your vocabulary tape in the manner described
earlier: first she says the vocabulary item in isolation, then she says the
whole sentence which contains the item, then she says the item again. You
can record this right onto the tape of your language session and later dub
it onto your ever growing vocabulary tape. (I find that I use at least two
tape recorders for all the things that I do with tapes, usually a small
stereo one for making tapes, and listening to them as I travel about, and a
larger double cassette for dubbing, and listening to tapes at home.)
Getting back to your trouble spot, the problem may not have
been related to vocabulary. It might have resulted from your not knowing a
particular sentence form. Then you can create a communication situation in
which you can hear that form over and over as comprehensible input. For
example, suppose you needed to be able to express the idea of one person
making another person do something. You might have your LRP talk about many
situations where one person makes another person do things: school teachers
make children read aloud; traffic police make people stop; parents make
children be quiet in church; the government makes people pay taxes; etc.
After she has come up with many examples, you might come up with many more
of your own, attempting to formulate your own sentences. In the case of some
sentence patterns, the Series Method will provide a ready-made means of
emphasizing the detail that you wish to focus on. In the discussion above I
showed how it can be used to provide a lot of repetition of a particular
As you cover various phases and details of your life, you
can encourage your LRP to share similarly. Much of what she says may be a
challenge for you to understand, but you can replay those parts of ttape to
her. Rather than simply asking, "What does that mean?", why not
attempt to explain to her, in the new language, of course, what you think
she might have meant, and let her correct you, also in the new language.
Another important source of ideas for discussion in the
language is your day to day life while you are learning the language. It is
a good idea each day to tell your LRP or someone else everything you did the
day before. Tape record your account, and then go over the tape with your
LRP or friend. Stop at spots where you had difficulty, and decide whether
the difficulty was due to a lack of vocabulary, or sentence patterns, and
then handle the problem area in the ways already suggested. You might get
your LRP to also give an account of her previous day's activities, and go
over that with her.
Remember, it is a good idea if you follow up on whatever you
converse about with your LRP by conversing about the same thing with a few
frienwhom you visit or who visit you. Remember, if you are a full-time
language learner, such social visiting should be viewed as part of your
ordinary work day. If you have been working at developing relationships,
there should be a small number of people who know you well enough that they
can communicate with you successfully. As I say, there is a big advantage to
communicating with familiar people as opposed to strangers. You will be more
relaxed with them, which will make it much easier for you to process and
respond to what they are saying. And they will have a good feel for your
current level of ability, and will therefore be able to communicate with you
at a level that you can handle. Whereas much of what a stranger attempts to
say to you initially may be unintelligible to you, your good friends will be
able to rattle on and on to you in language that you can understand. It is
not that they will speak at the same level that you do. Rather they will
speak at a level at which you can comprehend, which will be beyond the level
you speak at. As you are exposed to speech which is beyond your current
speaking ability, but within reach of your current comprehension ability,
you will be receiving precisely the level of comprehensible input that you
need for your speaking ability to continue to grow beyond its present state.
Part of your learning should be related to your specific
needs list, as discussed above at some length. These needs may be framed in
terms of topics you need to be able to discuss, or in terms of real life
situations in which you need to be able to communicate. If a need is stated
in terms of a topic, you can use an approach similar to the one I suggested
for telling stories from your life. Suppose you want to be able to discuss
child care. Make some notes (in English) on the topic of child care. Then
attempt to talk about child care to your LRP. You might discuss the topic of
child care as it is carried out within your own culture, and ask your LRP
for reactions from the standpoint of her culture, tape recording the entire
interchange. Then go over the tape, and focus on places where you had
trouble communicating in either direction. If the communication problem was
due to your lack of vocabulary or sentence patterns, you might focus on
these. If the communication problem was caused by your lack of knowledge of
this aspect of the culture, then you will want to discuss this area of the
culture (in the local language) at some length. Now, having discussed this
topic thoroughly with your LRP, you are in a better position to discuss it
with friends while on social visits. By the time you have discussed the
topic of child care with four or five friends, you should find that your
ability to discuss this particular topic has improved markedly.
Others of the needs in your needs list will be stated in
terms of situations in which you need to communicate, such as
"responding to a proposal of marriage". For starters, there is
much to be gained from treating these situations as topics, that is,
learning to talk about these situations and talking about them extensively
with a number of people. Another good technique for learning to communicate
in specific situations is role-play. In any communication situation there
are at least two roles: the role you have, and the role of the person with
whom you interact. For example, your role might be that of a bank customer,
and the other person's role might be that of a bank teller. Now you want to
learn to talk like a bank customer, not like a bank teller. Therefore, in
role-play, you should take the role of the bank teller.
"Just a minute", you say. "How will I learn
to talk like a bank customer if I take the role of a bank teller?"
Well, how else do you expect to learn? If you start out by taking the role
of bank customer, assuming you are doing this because you don't yet know how
to talk like a bank customer, you won't know how to talk. True, you don't
know how to talk like a teller either, but that is less important, since
that is not what you mainly want to learn. But as you play the role of
teller, your LRP or friend will talk to you in the role of a customer. Now
you will hear how a customer talks, and even make a tape of it. Of course,
you may foul things up by not behaving like a proper bank teller. But now
that you have some idea of what a customer says, you can trade roles, and
get some idea of what a teller actually says. Then switch back, and have a
somewhat more authentic role-play in which you hear a better example of what
a customer says, which is what you mainly want to learn. You do also want to
learn the sorts of things you might expect the teller to say, since that
will make it easier for you to understand the teller in real life. You can
repeat this role-play with a number of friends. It is good if you can record
any role-play with a number of people, since you want to get a general idea
of how to talk in a given role, and what you will have to respond to, rather
than just memorizing a single example of how somebody did it during a single
role-play. You can listen to the tapes many times.
One special type of role-play is called Strategic
Interaction (see Di Pietro 1987). In Strategic Interaction, each role-play
is centered around what Di Pietro calls a scenario. In a scenario, there is
some complicating factor which demands creative communication. For example,
in the case of the bank customer and teller, the bank teller might be given
a record of the customer's account which says that it is overdrawn, and the
customer is given a play bank book which shows that there is still a healthy
balance. The two records could differ in terms of both deposits and
withdrawals. The problem might be that there are two account holders with
the same name, but different account numbers, and the teller is unknowingly
looking at the account record of the other person. The account number is
conspicuous enough that it will eventually be noticed by either the customer
or the teller. Through spoken interaction they would first become entangled
in the problem and eventually find the solution. Obviously, this would
require the help of a third party (such as a fellow language learner) who
would invent the scenario so that the nature of the complicating factor
would be unknown to the participants. An excellent approach to any type of
role-play is to first observe pairs or groups of native speakers performing
the role-play before you attempt to do so yourself. This should be
especially productive in the case of Strategic Interaction.
An excellent way to find weaknesses in your general speaking
ability is to attempt to do on-the-spot oral translation of written
material. This prevents you from using avoidance strategies, forcing you,
rather, to develop new areas of language ability. A wide variety of printed
material can be used for this purpose. In Pakistan we found a book that
contained a number of first person accounts of people's daily work. Each
account was two or three pages long. They were written in English, but the
subject matter dealt entirely with life in Pakistan. The idea of this
technique is not to translate simultaneouswhile reading. Rather, you read
several sentences which form a natural unit, perhaps a paragraph. When you
have grasped this whole unit, look away from the printed material, and tell
your LRP or friend what you have just read. You may prefer to think of this
as retelling rather than translating. But you are reading the material in a
language that you know well, and retelling it in the language that you are
learning. In the book about people's daily work in Pakistan, there was one
account of a fisherman. At one point the fisherman says that the fish are
either sold by weight, or at auction. Consider the phrases by weight and at
auction. Both of these could be a challenge to a Stage II language learner.
The language learner may initially get the meaning across using achievement
strategies. That is, s/he may give descriptions or examples of what s/he
means, expressing the ideas in roundabout ways (try it). S/he would then ask
the LRP for the correct way to express these m. The advantage of translating
is that it forces the learner to relinquish control over what s/he is going
to say, and to break new ground when the need arises. Otherwise, s/he can
get into the habit of staying in comfortable, familiar territory. Being
forced to express every meaning on the page that is translated can be a
helpful, stretching experience. This technique is appropriate once you are
well into Stage II, and in Stage III.
Apart from such focused communication activities, a good
part of your speaking efforts will occur in uncontrolled social situations
where you have to attempt to cope with whatever comes your way as the need
arises. Your ultimate goal is to be able to do just that, easily, and in any
situation. However, by employing somewhat structured and focused
communication activities with an LRP as a means of improving your ability,
you will find that you can progress more quickly than if you leave your
communication experiences entirely to the whims of fortune.
3.1.3. Keeping organized during stage II
It should be obvious that you need to spend a reasonable
amount of time in preparing for your daily sessions with your LRP, and you
may also want to put some thought and preparation into your informal social
visiting as well. Your ideas for your next day's session will partly emerge
as you go over what you did in today's session, and you can supplement this
with ideas from your needs list. All of this planning would occur during
your private language learning time, which might consume two hours
altogether, during which time you will also engage in various other private
activities, as I have discussed. Then you might spend two hours working with
your LRP, and two hours in social visiting. You can spend additional time
listening to comprehensible tapes while you are washing dishes, showering,
cycling, skiing, or sleeping. And hopefully, you will be keeping your
journal up to date, recording your daily experiences as a language learner
and participant observer in the new culture. Make special notes of times of
tension or conflict, and of times of communication difficulty or
communication breakdown. You may also think of things to add to your needs
list while writing in your journal.
The use of your tape recordings brings me back to your
concern for massive comprehensible input. As you listen to tape recordings
of your language session, it is good if you use a double cassette to dub
important bits of the session onto another tape. Periodically, say once a
month, you can dub samples of your own speech onto another tape in order to
observe the improvement in your performance. Every day you will want to dub
key portions of the speech of your LRP or other native speakers onto a more
condensed tape. For example, every time your LRP uses the Series Method and
tells you all the minute steps in some common activity, you will add this
your condensed tape. In general, any stretches of speech by your LRP or
other native speaker which contain new content, and which you can
understand, should be added. If there are stretches that you cannot
understand, you can dub these onto yet another tape, and later go over them
with your LRP.
Going over difficult segments will provide the basis for a
lot of extemporaneous conversational practice in subsequent sessions. With
the help of your LRP, you will come to understand these difficult segments,
and will then be able to add them to the collection of material that you can
comprehend. The collection of taped material that you can comprehend is what
I have elsewhere called a "comprehensible corpus" (Thomson 1992).
The term corpus is used by linguists to describe their entire collection of
speech samples for a language they have studied. Your comprehensible corpus
is an ever growing collection of taped speech segments with which you become
familiar by discussing them with your LRP as necessary, and by repeatedly
listening to them. By the end of your full-time language learning period,
you may have a comprehensible corpus of forty or fifty hours. Being familiar
with such a large sample of speech will contribute to your general feel for
the language. This general feel for the language will be the basis for
continued progress in your ability to speak it yourself.
3.1.4. Principle III during stage II: getting to know the
people who speak the language you are learning
Most of the activities discussed so far contribute to your
getting to know the people who speak the language you are learning. Take the
Series Method. On one occasion I wanted a Pakistani man to demonstrate the
Series Method to a group of people, using his village language, which we had
all been learning for a few days. In order to give him the basic idea of the
Series Method, I ran through a series in Urdu. It involved making tea, and I
had all of the ingredients and the pot there with me to use as props as I
spoke. After I had gone through all of the steps in making tea, describing
what I was doing right as I did it, I asked this man if he would now do the
same thing using his village language. To my chagrin, he responded, "Is
it O.K. if I make the tea the way we do it here in Pakistan?" I then
saw the steps I should have followed. Thus the Series Method led me into
sharing this area of human experience with Pakistanis in general.
Or consider the use of familiar stories like Little Red
Riding Hood. These may not tell you a lot about how local people think.
However, after hearing the version which you already know, you might ask the
speaker to retell the story in a localized version, as though the events of
the story had occurred in that part of the world, within that culture. This
may be necessary even at the first telling in some cases. For example, I
found the story of the three little pigs in a published Urdu booklet, but
the pigs had been changed to rabbits, since most Muslims are uncomfortable
talking about pigs. (The pictures were still pictures of pigs, but in the
written story they were always referred to as rabbits!)
As your LRP or friends tell you of familiar recent events,
or of activities you have shared together, you will begin learning to see
local events through local eyes. And as you relate your past life
experiences to the life experiences of your LRP and friends, or discuss
topics such as child care, or whatever, you will be expanding your awareness
of the world in which your new language is used. Role-play will further
contribute to your learning the language as a vehicle of local thought and
life, rooted in local experience.
18.104.22.168 Focusing on Social Skills
During your daily journal writing or at other times of
reflection, you will be making note of times when you experienced
interpersonal tension, discomfort, or conflict. These are part of a
universal phenomenon among language learners who are living in the second
language community: culture shock. Furnham and Bochner (1986) are leading
experts on this topic. They observe that culture shock is often discussed as
if it were some sort of mental illness, or, in their words, an intrapsychic
pathology. They argue that the source of culture shock is not inside the ind.
Rather it lies in what happens between people. It is not intrapsychic in
origin, but interpersonal. The key to overcoming it, in their view, is to
discover the interpersonal causes. The interpersonal causes of culture shock
can be understood in terms of specific social skills which you need for
functioning in the new society, but have not yet acquired. Social skills are
the skills you need for behaving appropriately in interpersonal
interactions. Furnham and Bochner believe that to some extent, social skills
can be consciously learned and practiced.
For example, there may be specific social skills related to
warding off flirtatious advances. You lack these skills, since you did not
grow up in this culture. But you can learn them through role-play. In
reflecting on times of interpersonal tension, discomfort or conflict, you
want to be especially concerned with recurring causes of interpersonal
stress. The fact that a problem frequently recurs is a dead giveaway to the
fact that you are lacking a socialskill. You can learn a lot about the
problem area simply by discussing it with a variety of people and learning
their perspective on the situation. But you can also work on developing the
specific skill through role-play. In this application of role-play, you
might perform in a given role in the manner you typically do in real life.
Your LRP can thus see how you approach it. Then your LRP can show you how
she would handle the situation. Finally, you can perform the role-play using
the LRP's approach. Bear in mind that in any culture, different individuals
have different levels of social skills. At this point, however, even people
with relatively poor social skills probably have better ones in that society
than you do.
22.214.171.124 Conversational-interactional skills
There are certain social skills which are involved in
carrying on a conversation. These differ from one culture to the next. For
example, in an English conversation, there are a variety of ways the current
speaker can continue to "hold the floor", and a variety of ways
the current speaker can give up the floor. To use a simple example, if the
speaker says, "Do you know what happened next?" it means that s/he
will continue to hold the floor, though you may insert a quick
"Mm-hmm", or some other appropriate word or phrase, while
earnestly shaking your head. On the other hand, if the speaker says,
"What would you have done in that situation?" the effect is to
relinquish the floor to the listener, who then becomes the speaker. One way
to give up the floor is to simply fall silent. But how long does the speaker
need to remain silent before the listener is free to start talking? That
depends entirely on the language and the culture. And there will be some way
to hold the floor while you grope for words. Languages have what are called
hesitation devices, such as the ubiquitous English "uh". These can
be most helpful to the language learner! Languages and cultures will differ
with regard to the acceptability of interrupting, or talking while the other
person is still talking, and each language and culture will have its own
ways of interrupting. You will notice that the listeners in a conversation
follow social rules. Rather than sit there looking dead, the listeners will
respond in various ways, either with words or other vocal sounds, or with
non-verbal communication such as head movement and facial expressions, or
with both verbal and non-verbal communication. An example occurred above
when the listener said, "Mm-hmm."
Like other aspects of language and culture, you can learn a
certain amount about the rules for conversational interaction by careful
observation. However, again as with other aspects of language and culture,
you will acquire a large amount subconsciously through massive exposure to
people who are conducting conversational interactions.
3.1.5. Focusing on special aspects of the language
If you're at all like me, you probably keep wondering when I
will get around to talking about learning the grammar of the language, and
improving the accuracy with which you speak the language. How do you find
your mistakes? How do you overcome them?
Actually, I haven't been ignoring this issue. First of all,
I pointed out that the vast majority of grammatical features of the
language, and rules for interaction in the language, you will absorb from
comprehensible input in your language sessions and real life situations. As
you become thoroughly familiar with the language, you will naturally acquire
the ability to use the language correctly with respect to countless details.
You will not be aware of most of those details. If you are a linguist, you
may be aware of a lot of details. But even if you are a linguist, you will
acquire far more than you will be aware of, simply by becoming thoroughly
familiar with the language, through massive exposure to comprehensible
Secondly, I have talked about things you might do when
communication is difficult or when it breaks down. This may happen, for
example, while you are relating your activities of the previous day to your
LRP. In that case the breakdown may occur because you lack certain
vocabulary or sentence patterns. Similarly, if you are unable to understand
part of what your LRP or friend says to you, it may be because you lack
vocabulary or sentence patterns, or it may be because you lack some area of
knowledge regarding local life and culture. When the problem involves a
sentence pattern that you have not learned, I suggested that you engage in
some communication activity that will provide you with a large amount of
exposure to that pattern. For example, Carol Orwig recently told me of
learning Nugunu, an African language in which there is a special verb tense
form that is used for events which occurred on the previous day, as opposed
to events further in the past. It was easy for her to get a lot of exposure
to this form by getting people to recount their previous day's activities.
And it was easy to get a lot of practice using this form by recounting her
own previous day's activities.
Most grammatical details will naturally occur with high
frequency in specific kinds of speech. With a small amount of ingenuity you
should be able to think of a way to engage in communication which will
contain a large number of examples of the particular sentence form you wish
to focus on. Or you can just make a point of using a particular form even if
it is somewhat artificial. For example, one linguist who was learning
Japanese spent a half day per week in the home of a Japanese couple. Part of
the time they devoted to using English in order to benefit her hosts'
language learning, and part of the time they devoted to Japanese, for the
benefit of her own language learning. She would sometimes have a particular
sentence pattern in mind and try to use it as often as possible. For
example, one week she focused on passive sentences in Japanese. So instead
of saying, "Someone helped me", she might say, "I was
helped". This gave her a lot of practice with the sentence pattern, but
it may have led to an unnaturally high incidence of this pattern in her
speech, or she may have sometimes used the pattern when it was
inappropriate. Nevertheless, it was like a game between her and her hosts,
and it contributed to her ability to use difficult sentence patterns. (This
story is told in Stevick 1989, chapter 7).
If you don't have a lot of background in grammar, you may
find this discussion intimidating. You may not remember what passive means.
Fortunately, knowing the name of a sentence pattern is not necessary. When
communication breaks down because the person speaking to you uses a form you
don't understand, or because you need to use a form which you don't know how
to use, you can summarize the problem on paper in your own words, or by
writing out examples of the sentence pattern. Suppose the sentence causing
the difficulty is I was helped. You can focus on this pattern without
knowing what it is called. Engage your LRP or a friend in communication
about times when you, the person you are talking to, and others known to
eitheof you, were helped, as well as times when you or they were hurt,
robbed, tricked, etc., etc. While discussing these things, attempt to use
the I was helped pattern, that is, avoiding mention of the person who did
the helping (or hurting, robbing, tricking, etc.).
A good exercise for you at this point would be to record the
speech of someone who doesn't speak English well. Find each place where the
person spoke in an unnatural or incorrect way, and design a communication
activity which highlights the problem sentence pattern or vocabulary items.
You might want to consider using pictures as a conversational aid in some
cases. If you go through this exercise, I think you'll get the hang of
designing communication activities which highlight particular areas of
grammar or vocabulary. You might also consult Thomson (1993a) where I
illustrate communication activities which highlight a large variety of
possible sentence patterns from the standpoint of learning to comprehend
Something else you will want to consider is reading about
the grammaof the language, either in textbooks, if there are any, or in
linguistic monographs or articles. You may not in general be motivated to
read about grammar, but since learning this language seems to dominate your
whole life, you may find that such materials are suddenly interesting and
rewarding to read. You may not understand all of the technical jargon, but
the fact that you already know a lot of the language will help you to figure
out the meaning of the jargon from the language examples that are provided
as illustrations of what is being described by the jargon! By the way, don't
believe everything you read, especially if the writer was not a fluent user
of the language for a number of years.
Now you may have the opposite problem. You may love grammar,
and feel uncomfortable if you are not trying to consciously think of every
aspect of the grammar of the language as you learn it. But remember that in
principle that is impossible. And practically speaking, what advantage is
there to spending a lot of time thinking about aspects of the grammar that
don't cause you any problem? For example, in English the typical word order
in a simple sentence is Subject-Verb-Object, as in "John helped
Mary" (here the subject is John, the verb is helped and the object is
Mary). In Urdu, as in many languages, the typical order is
Subject-Object-Verb (as if we said "John Mary helped", meaning
that John helped Mary). In observing many native speakers of English who
were learning Urdu, I did not see a hint of evidence that anyone had any
problem with the basic word order, nor have I seen any evidence that native
speakers of Urdu who are learning English have any trouble with the basic
English word order in simple sentences. People seem to learn the basic word
order pattern effortlessly. So then, it wouldn't be a good use of time to
focus on it for several hours. And myriad details of the language you are
learning will fall into this category. However, there will be times when you
discover that you do not know some sentence pattern that you need in order
to express a particular meaning. You can focus on that pattern by using it
[Parenthetical note for linguist readers: Many linguists
have told me that they can only learn to use something in speech once they
have consciously analyzed it. Since they must know that it is logically
impossible to become truly fluent under such a restriction, I take this
claim as a hyperbolic way of saying that they find linguistic analysis to be
beneficial to their language learning. That is certainly true of me, and I
would always encourage someone facing a difficult, previously unstudied
language to get some linguistic training. The most important area of
analysis for the language learner is probably the obligatory closed class
inflectional morphemes marking categories such as tense/aspect/mood,
person/number/class agreement, and case. Most linguists will find it helpful
to organize forms into paradigms. Still, learning the paradigms and learning
to use the morphemes in extemporaneous communication are very different
Now, if any non-linguists are reading this note, please
don't start getting nervous. Just go ahead and get your massive
comprehensible input, extensive extemporaneous speaking practice, and
knowledge of the people, and you'll learn the language better than many
readers who understand expressions such as "obligatory closed class
grammatical morphemes", but who ignore these three key principles of
People learning English typically have difficulty with the
word order that is used in questions. Instead of saying, "Who has John
been helping?" they may want to say, "Who John has been
helping?" For such people, there may be some benefit in focusing on
this sentence pattern. For example, someone learning English could have her
LRP ask her hundreds of such questions about photographs which they are
jointly viewing, and then the language learner could ask hundreds of these
questions of the LRP, as a means of practicing the troublesome sentence
pattern in the context of real, extemporaneous communication. But the point
is, only put this sort of special effort into grammatical features that you
have trouble with. Much of the grammar will come to you automatically,
without you worrying about it, or even thinking about it, if you are exposed
to massive comprehensible input, and engage in extensive extemporaneous
There used to be a widespread belief that the learner would
benefit from drilling in various ways on particular sentence patterns in the
abstract, apart from using the patterns meaningfully in communication. The
benefits of such pattern drills have been generally called into question.
Your goal is not to be able to produce the pattern as an end in itself, but
to use it in communication. You can get just as much practice using a
pattern in communication as you can manipulating it in a meaningless pattern
drill. Also, designers of pattern drills tended to have the students drill
on patterns regardless of whether or not they were ones that caused
difficulty. In current language courses, such drills are not used nearly as
much nor as widely as they once were, since it is recognized that students
need to be learning to communicate extemporaneously in the language. When
the students' ability to communicate is hindered by their lack of
familiarity with a particular sentence pattern, then it is common practice
to stop and focus on that pattern. Or if students consistently make certain
errors, there may be some focus on the problem. But the more common concern
nowadays is to get the students using the language extemporaneously, both as
listeners and as speakers.
Closely related to the issue of grammar is the question of
whether you should get people to tell you whenever you "make a
mistake". There is a near universal belief among language learners that
it is desirable to have every error corrected right while they speak. They
may tell people, "Please tell me whenever I make a mistake." But
does this really make sense? Remember, it is normal to start out speaking
very "poorly" and gradually get better and better. How can people
correct every mistake? For a long time, unless you only say things that you
have memorized, almost everything you say will be a "mistake" in
the sense that you will not say it in the best or most natural way. But
you'll get better if you keep talking and talking, and keep being exposed to
language that is correctly formed, and within the range of what you can
currently understand. The widely accepted view today is that you should
mainly concentrate on communicating. Concentrate on understanding people,
and on getting your point across. If you do that, your speech will improve.
But if people really were to correct your every "mistake", you
would get very little communicating done, since you would spend most of your
time talking about the form of the language, rather than using the language
as best you can to convey your desired meaning.
Having said this, I want to neverthelessoffer a reasonable
approach to discovering weakness and problems in your speech. I say this
approach is reasonable because it doesn't take you away from real
communication. What you do is communicate something to your LRP and record
it as you talk. If you've been following my suggestions above, you'll be
doing this anyway. But perhaps once or twice a week you might go over a tape
of your own speech with your LRP specifically for the purpose of noting ways
in which you might have said things more naturally, more precisely, or with
greater grammatical accuracy. Suppose you have made a recording of yourself
telling a story to your LRP. Play it back, a sentence at a time, and each
time ask the LRP if she can think of a better way to say that sentence.
Often she will have no amendments to suggest. When she does suggest an
alteration, write it down in your notebook. The page should be divided into
three columns. In the first, write your original sentence as you said it
extemporaneously while telling the story. In the second column, write the
LRP's improved version. In the thcolumn write out what you perceive your
mistake to have been. In the process you will learn new ways to express old
meanings. Some of the discoveries will feed into your own speaking ability
at once. In other cases, you may wish to design communication activities
which emphasize a particular sentence pattern or grammatical element,
providing many examples of the pattern or element in comprehensible input,
and many opportunities to use it in extemporaneous speaking.
Another point at which you may want to think about the
grammatical details of the language is during your daily time(s) of
reflection and journal writing. As you listen to tapes of your day's
language learning activities, you can write down any new observations you
might have about the language. I would encourage you also to be making a
simple dictionary into which you can daily add new words that you learn.
This will provide you a means of keeping track of your vocabulary growth.
3.2. Stage III language learning activities
That was fast! You're already at Stage III. Imagine how much
slower your progress would have been if you had left matters to chance. You
might have eventually reached Stage III, and you might not have. You might
have developed a certain level of speaking ability, and then become
extremely "fluent" in speaking at that low level, without much
further improvement. This is called fossilization. But you haven't
fossilized, because you have followed a strategy for exposing yourself to
concentrated comprehensible input, and for getting extensive practice at
extemporaneous speaking. If in addition to using powerful strategies during
Stage II, you also used powerful and appropriate strategies during Stage I,
and assuming the language is of average difficulty, then you'll have only
been learning it for three or four months and already you'll have reached
Stage III. Stage III is a long stage. You'll be in Stage III for many
At all stages, the goals are the same: get massive
comprehensible input, engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking, and get
to know the people who speak the language you are learning. Achieving these
goals gets easier as you go. In Stage I, which may not have lasted all that
long (depending on how you went about it), achieving these goals required a
lot of ingenuity. Therefore I needed to write at considerable length about
Stage I language learning activities in Thomson (1993a), where I also took
the reader well into Stage II . The Stage II activities which achieve these
same three goals are far simpler, and my discussion of them here is somewhat
briefer than my discussion of Stage I activities there. My discussion of the
Stage III activities will be similarly brief. This is partly due to the fact
that the methods discussed here provide extremely rich comprehensible input
and conversational interaction without the sort of semi-artificial
"gimmickry" that was needed in Stages I and II. Here in the truest
sense, you learn the language by using the language rather than by focusing
on the language as such.
3.2.1. Getting exposure to input on familiar topics
I have defined the stages in terms of what it takes for your
input to be comprehensible. At Stage I, you had difficulty understanding
speech that was not clearly supported by pictures, objects or actions. At
Stage II, you had difficulty understanding speech unless the content was
fairly predictable, or else was carefully and tediously negotiated with a
sympathetic native speaker. Now at Stage III, you still have difficulty
understanding speech unless you are familiar with the topic, and you hear
everything in its full context. You continue to need to negotiate meaning
with your conversational partners, but it is not nearly as difficult as it
was at the beginning of Stage II. During early Stage II, you relied a lot on
a small number of friends who were specially committed to you and knew you
well, and were therefore good at communicating with you. Now you can greatly
broaden the number of people with whom you can fruitfully negotiate meaning
in conversation, since it is no longer such a taxing experience.
Now you need lots of input in which familiar topics are
discussed. Suppose you are a physics student, and you have the opportunity
to enroll in a physics course dealing with an area of physics that you would
like to learn more about. That will give you a lot of comprehensible input
on a topic that is already somewhat familiar to you. (You may get a 'C' in
the course, but who cares?)
For most languages, taking university courses in the
language will not be a possibility, but you may still be able to find people
who can talk to you about topics with which you are somewhat familiar. A
story that is unknown to you, but drawn from your own cultural background
would also qualify as comprehensible input in Stage III. For example, your
LRP could learn a story from one of your fellow language learners, or some
other friend belonging to your own national background, and then tell you
the story in your new language. If you are a church going person, you may
find that much of the material in sermons is on topics which are familiar to
3.2.2. Becoming familiar with unfamiliar topics
However, there is something far more important than getting
people to talk to you on familiar topics. There is a severe limit to how far
that can take you. What is more important is for you to increase the number
of local topics with which you are familiar. This takes us back to the
matter of schemas, and the fact that successful communication depends on a
large body of shared knowledge and experience. Recall how your understanding
of my traffic ticket anecdote depended on your knowing the general schema of
how traffic tickets are given in North America. Each culture has a large
number of schemas that are partly or wholly unique to it. Also, there will
be schemas which are important in your new culture which were far less
important in your original culture. I go many years at a time in Canada
without ever attending a wedding, and when I do, it is quickly over. In
Pakistan, by contrast, weddings are one of the major social events. They are
very elaborate, and the activities associated with engagements and weddings
go on for days. Now a Pakistani learning my culture would probably think
that s/he needed to quickly learn the general Canadian wedding schema. Of
course, it is something s/he needs to learn, but it is far less important
than s/he might imagine. A Canadian in Pakistan might likewise
under-estimate the importance of learning the wedding schema. In either
case, it would be a serious mistake to assume that just because the two
cultures both have weddings, the schemas are the same, or even similar.
This obviously brings us back to the Principle III. Learn to
know the people whose language you are learning. From here on in, Principle
III is in the foreground. During Stage III, as long as you are applying
Principle III in a major way, you will be exposing yourself to increasing
comprehensible input (Principle I), and engaging in extensive extemporaneous
speaking (Principle II) without worrying about it.
To some extent, you were learning cultural schemas when you
used the Series Method. However, your point in using the Series Method was
to hear speech that was highly predictable. That assumed that in using the
Series Method you concentrated on schemas that were already familiar to you.
This puts them into the category of gimmicky, semi-artificial communication
activities. The advantage was that it made the content predictable, and
hence comprehensible, during Stage II. This enabled you to become familiar
with a lot of new vocabulary, and gave you a lot of practice in listening to
the language with understanding. But in normal communication, a speaker does
not tell the listeners the minutest details of things they already know.
You can now use the Series Method with all kinds of schemas
that are unfamiliar to you. Your goal can be to become familiar enough with
these series that you can produce them yourself, in your own words. That
does not mean that you memorize them. Rather, you may have several people
tellyou a series, and then you attempt to tell the basic series to several
people as best you can. Some of "your own words" will be words
that you have acquired in the process of learning the series.
126.96.36.199 Ethnographic interviewing
The Series Method brought us to the brink of one of the
major Phase III learning activities--ethnographic interviewing. However,
ethnographic interviewing is far more like normal everyday communication
than the series method is. In authentic communication, it is commonly the
case that the speaker has information that the listener lacks, the listener
desires the information, and the speaker desires to give the information to
the listener. This is often true in ethnographic interviewing. The LRP has
information which you lack. You desire this information, and she desires to
give it to you. It is still not natural communication in the sense of being
exactly like the speech that goes on in conversations between two native
speakers. First of all, you are being told things that native speakers would
not need to be told, since they already know those things. Second, your LRP
is still using careful, simplified speech in talking to you, in order to
enable you to understand her more fully and more easily than you would be
able to understand her if she spoke to you exactly as she speaks to native
The word "ethnography", in its most general
meaning, refers to the description of culture. When people speak of
ethnographic methods nowadays, they generally have a more specific meaning
in mind: coming to understand a culture from within its own frame of
reference, through intensive observation and interaction with members of
that culture. A professional ethnographer is first of all a skilled
observer, noticing, and recording, a myriad of details in a situation which
the untrained observer might miss. After making extensive observations of
specific events, the ethnographer attempts to understand the cultural system
which gives meaning to those specific events. From the standpoint of a
member of the culture, how is each event related to other events, and how is
each understood in terms of its causes and its purpose? The ethnographer
attempts to uncover the organized knowledge system by which members of the
culture regulate their behaviour and interaction. The crucial idea here is
that the ethnographer seeks the insider's perspective on events and
relationships within the culture. Can you see why the language learner needs
a good deal of this ethnographic spirit? Spradley says that his book on
ethnographic interviewing is "in a sense... a set of instructions for
learning another language" (Spradley 1980, p. 21) .
What you want to do as a language-learner- cum -ethnographer
is to get people to reveal to you their knowledge of their culture, and to
allow you to start seeing their world through their eyes. Often this will
mean getting people to talk about things which they know, but do not often
consciously think about. You will need to keep emphasizing to people that
you are really ignorant of even the simple details of their lives. Then, as
people tell you things that to them are hardly worth mentioning because they
are such common knowledge, you should express appreciation, reminding them
that you are quite ignorant even of such mundane, common facts of life
A challenge you face right off is how to decide which areas
of the culture to ask about. You may have already been making a list of
social situations, back when you were looking for conversational topics by
touring the community. A social situation, in Spradley's terms, can be
understood in terms of 1) a place, 2) actors, and 3) activities. (see
Spradley 1980, pp 39 to 52) . By a place is meant either some specific
place, such as the village square, or a type of place, such as a cornfield.
People use that place or type of place for a particular purpose or set of
purposes. For example, the village square might be used for feasts, and for
political speeches. When a place is being used for a purpose, that purpose
will be defined by who the actors, or participants, are and by what they do.
In the case of political speeches, the actors may be the chief, or some
other political figure, and the crowd who stand and listen to the speech.
The activities include the giving of the speech, which will have certain
typical characteristics, and they will also include all that the members of
the crowd do while listening.
In any culture there will be a large number of social
situations. Think of breakfast. What is the place? Who are the actors? What
are the activities? Or how about an interchange between a salesperson with a
wagon load of goods, and a potential customer at the door of her home? Or
how about a woman at the village well? Or how about two women meeting at the
village well? The world is filled with social situations. Even a single day
of detailed observations should provide you with a long list of social
situations that can form the basis for discussion with your LRP and other
friends. In addition, in the course of interviewing people, you will learn
of many social situations that you have not yet observed. Your aim is always
to discuss a specific social situation with people who actually participate
in it. They are the ones who are certain to possess the cultural knowledge
which underlies successful performance in that social situation.
The interview itself makes extensive use of questions.
Spradley (1979), pp85-91, describes thirteen different varieties of
questions under the general heading of descriptive questions. These fall
into five major categories:
1. Grand tour questions
2. Mini-tour questions
3. Example questions
4. Experience questions
5. Native language questions
Native language questions are used to find out how to talk
about particular experiences. For example, Spradley wanted to ask tramps in
Seattle about the experience of getting arrested, but first he needed to
find out their terms for jail, and for getting arrested. It turned out that
a jail was referred to as the bucket and being arrested was described as
making the bucket. Once he knew the correct terms, he was able to ask people
to tell him all about making the bucket. Since he was interested in tapping
their knowledge of their world and experience, it was important that he use
their terms. Only their terms specifically refer to their experience. If he
were to simply ask about "getting arrested and going to jail" he
might get a lot of information, but he would be working from his own
pre-existing frame of reference rather than from the frame of reference of
For you as a language learner, the application of this
principle is straightforward. If you want to learn about the experience of
using a taxi, you could simply ask about it in some way that is
communicatively adequate, perhaps using communication strategies. But why
not begin by learning how to ask about using taxis? Then suppose the person
you are questioning uses a genericword to describe the person who hires the
taxi. The generic word might mean "person" or perhaps
"customer". You should ask if that is the normal word used to
describe that person. You may find that there is a more specific word such
as passenger. Now you will be better able to ask questions about passengers
using the language that is normally used in that culture. You can increase
the likelihood of getting the normal expressions by asking people to use the
term they would use when talking to a normal participant in that culture.
Needless to say, your goal is to ask your questions, and hear the responses,
entirely in the new language.
Now let's go back to the first type of question in
Spradley's list: grand tour questions. You may have observed a number of
social situations in the corn field, including some sort of religious
ceremony, the ploughing of the field, and the planting of the corn. A grand
tour question dealing with the planting of the corn might have the form,
"Could you tell me everything you do during a day of corn
planting?" This is what Spradley calls a typical grand tour question.
It is called typical because it is not asking about a day's planting, but
rather about a typical day's planting. This is a good starting point,
because it helps you to start internalizing the general schema which will
serve you as you discuss any specific day of planting. Spradley's second
type of grand tour question deals with a specific instance, and is thus
labeled a specific grand tour question. You might ask, "Could you tell
me everything that you did yesterday as a part of your day's corn
planting?" I find that I get a much fuller answer to a specific grand
tour question than to a typical grand tour question. Just the same, dealing
first with the answer to a typical grand tour question, and learning the
appropriate language for discussing the situation, will improve the
likelihood of your understanding a large part of the responses to the
specific grand tour questions. Spradley also talks about guided grand tour
questions and task-related grand tour questions. In answering a guided grand
tour question, someone might take you to the cornfield, and describe the
activities that go on there as you walk about the field together. In the
task-related variety, you would ask your friend questions about the activity
right as it is being performed.
Perhaps the grandest tour you can ask for is a description
of a typical lifetime. Many of the events and stages that are mentioned in a
description of a typical lifetime will provide ideas for additional grand
tour questions. For example, you might hear that a major ceremony occurs
when a child is six months old. Such a ceremony would provide the basis for
a grand tour question. You could also ask for a specific description of a
specific person's entire life. In most cases, this would involve people
telling the story of their own lives. It is good to get such accounts from
people of a variety of ages and backgrounds.
In addition to asking about a typical life-time, and a
specific life-time, you might ask about a typical year, a typical month or
week (if it's relevant) and a typical day, meaning a day in general, as
opposed to a day during planting, a day during harvesting, or a market day.
You can also ask for specific tours of such time units.
Mini-tour questions arise directly out of grand tour
questions. Your common procedure in asking a grand tour question would be to
tape record the response and then go over the tape with the person who gave
the response. As you go over the recording, you will notice details that
could be elaborated on. For example, when a motor-rickshaw driver gave me a
grand tour of what he does when he gives a ride to a passenger, he mentioned
starting the rickshaw. When we went over the recording, I asked how he
starts the rickshaw. That was a mini-tour question. By way of response, he
told me in some detail the steps he goes through in starting the rickshaw.
Like grand tour questions, mini-tour questions can be typical, specific,
guided or task related. For example, I could have asked him to take me to
his rickshaw and give me a demonstration, with explanation, as he started
the motor. That would have been a task related mini-tour question. In
addition to suggesting mini-tour questions, the responses to grand tour
questions will also suggest additional grand tour questions.
Like mini-tour questions, example questions grow out of the
answers to other questions. For instance, in discussing planting corn, your
friend might mention poor cornfields, and you could then ask for some
examples of poor cornfields. It may turn out that there are a variety of
conditions that can make a particular field a poor one.
Experience questions involve asking the person to tell an
interesting experience. You might ask, "Have you ever had an especially
interesting experience planting corn?" It is good if you have worked
through some grand tour questions and mini-tour questions on the same topic
before asking experiences questions. That is because the responses to the
grand tour questions and mini tour questions will supply you with cultural
schemas which will enable you to comprehend the stories that are told in
response to experience questions. My rickshaw driver friend told of a time
when a female passenger jumped out of his moving rickshaw without his
knowledge because she had doubts about his intentions. This story revealed a
number of values that go into defining good rickshaw driving, and also
opened up wider cultural issues having to do with interactions between men
There is much more to Spradley's method than this. Asking
descriptive questions is just the first step. The subsequent steps take you
more deeply into understanding how members of the society experience the
component parts of social situations. Spradley takes you from seeing a mere
social situation, that is, actors performing activities in a place, to
uncovering a cultural scene, that is, understanding the meanings that
members of the culture attach to the actors and activities, and how those
actors and activities are related to one another and to other actors and
activities. An important concept is the cultural domain. You can spot
cultural domains within the answers to descriptive questions when the
speaker indicates, either explicitly or implicitly, something along the
lines of X is a type of Y, or X is a way to do Y. Here you can see that the
speaker is assuming a whole category of objects or actions within the
culture. For example, in connection with corn-planting, your friend might
mention that planting corn on the day someone died can cause bad luck. This
might suggest two possible cultural domains: causes of bad luck, and
instances of bad luck.
As you spot possible cultural domains, you should try to
flesh them out. What are some other things that cause bad luck? You may be
able to add to the list by questioning many people. What are some things
that happen to people who have bad luck? In addition to noticing possible
cultural domains while going over the tape-recorded responses to descriptive
questions, you may also notice possibilities through direct observation.
Sometimes simply observing complexity is enough to clue you into a cultural
domain. If you observed a sweets shop in South Asia, you would notice a
considerable variety of sweets. Here is a conspicuous area of knowledge
which may be universally shared by members of the culture. What are all
those sweets? What meanings are attached to them? You might learn that
certain sweets are distributed to neighbors on certain occasions. That could
clue you into a cultural domain. This domain might start out as
"Occasions when people distribute the sweet called laddu to their
neighbors". Once you get a list of such occasions you can then find a
better name for the cultural domain by reading the list of occasions to
people and asking people for a cover term that refers to all such occasions.
People might respond by saying, "Those are all examples of times of
celebration." Once you have the cover term, times of celebration, it
might people to come up with additional instances of the domain, that is,
additional times of celebration, which may go beyond those in which the
sweet call laddu is distributed to neighbors. The distribution of laddu to
neighbors might then turn out to be itself one instance of a cultural domain
of ways to celebrate.
The label for cultural domain might be similar to one of
-- Ways to do X
-- Kinds of X
-- Parts of an X
-- Stages in doing X
-- Places for doing X
-- Reasons for X
-- Uses of X
A good time to look for possible cultural domains is when
you are privately listening to the tape recordings of your interviews. Not
all of the possibilities you spot will pay off, but many will. Out the
numerous examples of cultural domains that you find, a few will turn out to
be particularly fruitful. This was the case when Spradley began learning all
the ways to make a flop which were generally known to tramps in Seattle. It
turned out that there were over a hundred ways to make a flop, and that this
knowledge was generally shared by members of the tramp community. When you
stumble onto such an extensive cultural domain, you know that you are
dealing with an area of majconcern within the culture.
For fuller details, and further steps in ethnographic
analysis, you will need to refer to Spradley (1979, 1980). I hope I have
whetted your appetite for using ethnographic interviewing as a major means
of improving your language ability during Stage III. Ethnographic
interviewing achieves the goals related to Principles I and II. Many
responses to questions will be lengthy, providing comprehensible input at
the time, as well as later when you listen to the tapes. You can go over the
tapes in detail with the speaker, discussing what she said, and clarifying
what needs to be clarified. This will stimulate a large amount of
extemporaneous communication. Once you are familiar with a lengthy response
to a question, you can attempt to say it in your own words. For example,
suppose your LRP has given you a verbal grand tour of a wedding, telling of
each event in sequence. After going over the tape, you can rewind it, and
then attempt to describe a typical wedding yourself. After each few details
that you describe, you can play a little bit more of the tape, and see how
close your description is to that of your LRP. You would need to do this
with that LRP present, so you would actually have someone to talk to.
In addition to satisfying Principles I and II
(comprehensible input and extemporaneous communication), through
ethnographic interviewing, you will be getting to know the people on a major
scale (Principle III). As you become thoroughly familiar with an ever
increasing number of areas of local experience, knowledge and belief, you
will be increasing the number of topics that are familiar to you. The result
of this will be that when you hear people talking in any context or
situation, you will increasingly find that it provides you with additional
comprehensible input. Thus eventually you will reach the point where much of
what you hear said in the course of your life will directly contribute to
your language learning (Stage IV).
3.2.3. There are so many ways to talk
I mentioned the lecturer who could speak fluent English when
talking about his field of expertise, but whose speech became halting when
he began talking about a party he had recently been to. This illustrated the
importance of learning to talk about all of the normal topics of everyday
life. But there is more involved than learning the appropriate vocabulary
and idioms for a particular area of subject matter. People would normally
lecture in a form of language that is different from the form in which they
would chat about the events of Saturday night's party. Within a single
language, there are different forms of language, known as language
varieties. The fact that you are good at one variety does not mean you are
good at them all.
It is often noted that written language is different from
spoken language. Some of these differences are related to the fact that a
reader has as much time as s/he may desire to process what is on the page,
whereas a listener must process speech as rapidly as it is spoken, and
attempt to keep up with the speaker. One result of this is that written
language may use more complicated sentences. Also, a writer can be much more
careful than a speaker, since s/he can slowly edit and revise what she
writes. Spoken language, on the other hand, will contain many false starts
and incomplete sentences and errors of various types.
But it may be an oversimplification to contrast spoken and
written language in this way. Biber (1986)shows that a more basic difference
has to do with whether the language used is highly interactive, which is
more common with conversational speech, or more carefully edited, which is
more common with writing. But some spoken language is relatively careful, as
in the case of a prepared speech, and some written language is somewhat
interactive in style, as in the case of a note from a child to a classmate.
Another factor that Biber shows to distinguish different varieties of the
language has to do with whether the content is abstract or concrete.
Abstract language occurs, for example, when someone is proposing reasons for
making a particular decision, or giving explanations of why something is the
way it is. Concrete language deals with specific things, situations and
events in the world. Still another of Biber's factors in determining the
general variety of language that is used has to do with whether the speaker
is discussing some particular displaced situation, as in the case of a story
about something that happened at another time and place, or is talking
either about the immediate here and now, or about the world in general.
[Parenthetical note: I have only dealt with one small aspect
of language varieties. Other issues relate to geographical varieties (called
dialects), male varieties and female varieties (called genderlects), and
varieties based on the social status of the speaker (called sociolects),
Characteristics of language of the type discussed by Biber
will show up to different degrees in the different situations in which
language is used. For example, a news broadcast will be quite edited, and
generally concrete, dealing with specific situations, but it may contain
interviews which are more interactive, and excerpts of speeches, which are
more abstract. More careful, edited varieties of language, such as lectures,
may seem more difficult than simple conversation, in that they involve more
complicated sentences, and a larger number of distinct vocabulary items.
However, less careful, unedited varieties of language may seem more
difficult than careful varieties, in that they involve rapid, slurred
speech, and leave the listener or reader to supply a lot of implied
information. In the final analysis, different varieties of language bring
their own varieties of difficulties with them, and so the key is to learn
them all, by exposing yourself to comprehensible input in them all, and
getting practice in the extemporaneous, creative use of the ones that are
relevant to you. In some cases, as with news broadcasts, you only need to
worry about comprehension ability.
You may need to look around you once again, and start making
a list of the kinds of language events that occur in the community, and the
contexts in which language is used. There may be somewhat different
varieties of the language used for conversation between strangers,
conversation between friends, conversation in a family, school room
teaching, university lectures, sermons, stories by the campfire, stories for
small children, telephone conversations, personal letters, business letters,
newspapers, etc. You probably shouldn't worry too much about what goes into
defining every different variety of language. It will have to do with a
variety of features of the language including the choice of words, the used
of fixed phrases and sentences, the complexity of sentences and the types of
sentences and grammaconstructions. If you are a linguist, you may analyze a
lot of these details, but once again, it is impossible to analyze as much as
you hope to acquire, so you again must put some faith in the input
hypothesis: with lots of exposure to comprehensible speech and writing in
all of these different modes and situations, you will develop a feel for
what variety of language goes with which situation.
Some of these varieties of language will be less important
than others. You should concern yourself with the ones that are part of the
shared experience of everyone in the society, and those that relate to your
special areas of expertise and work. You will want to expose yourself to
respectably large samples of language as used in the different situations.
To the extent possible, you should tape record samples of the different
varieties of spoken language.
In some cases, as with news broadcasts, that is easy. So why
don't I use news broadcasts to illustrate the general strategy for learning
a special variety of language. (Unfortunately, in the case of most of the
world's languages, there are no news broadcasts.) If there are, and if you
have not yet learned to understand them, they may impress you as
representing a difficult variety of langu. Record a few news broadcasts on
tape and go over them with your LRP, in the normal manner. That is, discuss
the recordings bit by bit, adding new words and idioms to your vocabulary
tape as necessary in the manner suggested earlier, and discussing areas of
culture and experience that are new to you. After going over these tapes
thoroughly with your LRP, continue to listen to them privately. Once you
have processed a few fifteen minute news broadcasts, you will probably find
that you can now follow brand new news broadcasts surprisingly well, and can
often successfully guess at the meaning of new words. So then, this variety
of language turns out to be less difficult than you expected. You may find
the same to be true of any variety of language you tackle.
Some varieties of language will be less easy to tape-record
than news broadcasts, but it will still be worth the effort. For example,
you may want to get the preacher's permission before tape-recording a
sermon, and even more so the chief's permission before tape-recording his
speech. Your comprehension ability has now reached the point where you can
work easily with relatively poor quality recordings. It's not that you no
longer care about the quality of the recordings, but you can get by with
relatively poor quality ones when that is the best you can do. The hardest
language to tape record is possibly the most important variety of language
for you to learn. It is what Burling (1982)calls rapid colloquial styles. He
testifies eloquently to the difficulty language learners can have with
ordinary "street speech".
"It was relatively easy for me to gain access to formal
varieties of Swedish. I learned to read, to understand the news on the
radio, and even to understand the relatively formal language of a classroom
lecture, but I was often baffled by the language spoken over coffee cups (p.
Burling goes on to suggest that rapid colloquial speech is
probably not, in principle, more difficult than other varieties of the
language. But the learner needs to tackle this particular variety. The
methods I have proposed will work here too. Go over tape recordings with
your LRP until you can understand them easily. Collect several hours of such
speech, going over it with your LRP as each sample is recorded. Once you
have thoroughly gone over a sample, and are familiar with it, listen
repeatedly to the tape. In addition, with this kind of language, as with any
other, you need to continue experiencing it in brand new, real-life
situations. In some cases the "informal" variety of the language
may be essentially a different language from the "formal" variety.
This would be the case with German in Switzerland, for example. With most of
the world's languages, the difference between varieties will not be this
Granted, it is not easy to tape-record the most informal
colloquial speech as used in relaxed chit-chat. And it may not be necessary.
But if you find that you have the problem that Burling describes above, it
may be worth the effort. You might ask your friends to talk with each other
in your home about topics like "my most embarrassing moment," or
"a time when I was in danger of being killed". With the right
topics people will quickly become absorbed in what they are talking about,
and forget all about the lapel microphones clipped to their collars. It is
also good if you can get two strong minded individuals to interact on a
topic with regard to which they hold opposing views. To work on your
speaking ability, you can yourself participate in such a lively discussion,
and later, with the help of your LRP, go over your own performance as
captured on tape, and find ways that you might have been more colloquial.
You can do the same with other varieties of language that you use, such as
lectures, sermons, telephone conversations, personal letters, stories by the
campfire, or whatever.
In deciding which varieties of language to specifically work
on, you can use your needs list, or your list of language events that occur
in the culture, or simply reflect on your life. Is there some particular
variety of language that is difficult, and for which you keenly feel your
lack? Perhaps it is stories by the campfire. I'll use this as an example,
and you can make appropriate adjustments for your own situation. For
example, with you the need might be to understand sermons, or soap operas.
But let's assume that you are concerned with stories told by the campfire.
You do fine with rapid colloquial conversational interaction, but you really
feel left out when the fireside stories begin. Then tackle fireside stories.
They may be quite lengthy at times, so you might want to look for several
which are reasonably short. Tape record them, in as natural a setting as
possible. If you can't record them at the fireside, try at least to have a
small audience of native speakers, or at least a single native speaker, for
the story teller to talk to as you make the recording. Later go over the
tapes with your LRP. Each time you fail to understand something, find out
why. It may be that you are lacking many of the cultural schemas which the
story teller takes for granted. When you find this to be the case, stop and
do a grand tour question, or a mini-tour question to help fill in this gap
in your knowledge of the culture. Explore any areas of the culture which you
need to understand in order to understand the stories. Work with new
vocabulary or sentence patterns in the usual manner. Once you can understand
most of what is on the tapes, listen to them privately many times.
As you work through tapes with your LRP, and become
thoroughly familiar with what is on them, you can add any extended speech
samples you record, along with the stories themselves, to your ever growing
comprehensible corpus. By the end of Stage III you may have fifty hours of
tape recorded speech in this corpus. You can pull any tape off the rack, and
play any part of it, and listen with understanding. In Thomson (1992 )I
suggested that your comprehensible corpus might contain an hour of
comprehensible material covering the range of what you learned to comprehend
during Stage I. During Stage II you might add another four hours of the
types of predictable speech which were typical of Stage II: familiar
stories, accounts of recent events known to both you and your LRP, Series
Method materials, etc. During Stage III, you might add another forty-five
hours of material. That sounds like a lot, but fifteen minutes of material
three times a week for ten months equals forty-five hours. Fifteen minutes
of material from ethnographic interviewing or other sources such as campfire
stories should keep you plenty busy with your LRP for an hour or two. If the
language has a writing system, and scribes are relatively inexpensive to
hire, you would do well to have a lot of this material transcribed, since
written variety can provide powerful reinforcement of the spoken input. If
you are a linguist or anthropologist, or folklorist, then you will clearly
want to have a lot of the material transcribed, so that you can process it
in various ways and archive it. As a linguist with an interest in discourse
structure, you will want to attempt to collect five or ten hours of speech
from people who have a reputation as outstanding speakers, speaking to real
audiences of at least one other native speaker, saying things that are
important to them, and which they are wanting to say to the particular
audience (see Austin Hale's suggestions described in Thomson, 1992).
Friends of mine have gotten much of their comprehensible
corpus by having people read written materials aloud onto tape. This way
they could first practice reading, and discuss sections which they found
incomprehensible, and add to their vocabulary tape, etc., as appropriate,
while working on their reading skills. Then the LRP would read the material
into a tape recorder. Much of the material was geared toward children's
education, making this a good way for the learners to acquire a lot of the
widely shared knowledge of the community.
I place a lot of emphasis on working with tapes. Obviously,
most language learin times past, if they succeeded, did so without the help
of tapes. And despite my constant reference to them, you should not forget
that they are a supplement to your real-life exposure to the
language--conversational interaction and involvement in communication events
of various types. Most of your "massive comprehensible input" will
ultimately come from such real-life experiences. The value of your language
sessions and your use of tapes is that they accelerate the rate at which
this real-life input becomes comprehensible. But then you need to keep
getting the real-life input. That is why, if you are a full-time language
learner, you are devoting two hours or more per day to social visiting and
other involvement in communication events. In many ways your language
sessions and tapes feed into this real life language exposure. For example,
if part of your real-life exposure involves listening to sermons, you use
your language sessions as a means of improving your ability to understand
sermons. And while you are visiting someone socially, or being visited, if
you have been doing ethnographic interviewing related to "ways to catch
a rabbit", or "all that goes on in a naming ceremony", then
you attempt to engage in conversation about "ways to catch a
rabbit," or "all that goes on in a naming ceremony". But your
language sessions are not limited to things which will immediately feed into
your outside communication experiences. Remember the human navel? You have a
huge amount of language to become familiar with in order to be able to cope
with the endless variety of unpredictable real-life communication needs that
will arise. Your language sessions and tapes, in addition to feeding into
specific communication needs which you face in the outside world, also
contribute to your general communication ability which you constantly need
in the outside world. In any case, in the midst of all of my emphasis on
language sessions and tapes, don't lose sight of the fact that the main
thing you are concerned about is the outside world, chock full of people
communicating in this language in all its varieties.
3.3. What about Stage IV?
That naturally brings us to Stage IV. In this stage you are
no longer a full-time language learner. Since most of the language you are
exposed to in real life is immediately comprehensible to you, your main
concern is to be sure that you are exposed to the language in a major way,
on an ongoing basis, in real life. This has a lot to do with the choices you
make in relation to your lifestyle. Suppose you are now going to work at a
desk forty hours per week, and you have two choices. You can rent a plush,
spacious, well-furnished, air-conditioned office of the sort commonly rented
by the people who held your job before you did. Or alternatively, you can
rent a desk in an office shared by a number of local office workers who
interact in your new language off and on through the day. Then suppose you
need a secretary. You can hire one with excellent English, or you can hire
one who finds it much easier to speak your new language with you than to
speak English with you. And you can choose a residence that isolates you
from people, or one in which you cannot avoid interacting with people. When
people try to visit you, you can drop whatever you are doing and communicate
a clear message of "Right now, you are more important to me than
anything else", or you can communicate an implicit message of
"You're interrupting something important". Such reactions will be
part of what determines whether your visitors are many and frequent, or few
and far between.
You may not be an office worker, but whatever you are doing,
you will face similar life-style choices. If you choose a work situation,
co-workers, a residential situation, and a leisure life which keep you
immersed in the language, you will continue to progress in the language,
since you'll continue to receive massive comprehensible input (Principle I),
to engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking (Principle II), and to get to
know the people who speak the language (Principle III). But you may also
become burned out before your time. Therefore, as part of your highly
effective lifestyle you need to allow for adequate escapes and retreats.
Have a place that you can get away to whenever you feel the need for a
little peace and quiet. Have a private place where you can go to work when
you must have a few days of uninterrupted, concentrated work. And have some
close friends among people from your own cultural background or a similar
one. Don't spend the majority of your time with them, but do spend quality
time with them fairly frequently. And when you are with them, don't fall
into the trap of talking negatively about the host society. That can quickly
get you feeling down in the dumps. True, there is also a point in talking
openly with such friends about your frustrations, and knowing that they
won't condemn you for it. But some people get into the habit of flippantly
running down the host society, making it a major topic of conversation,
whenever they are with fellow foreigners. If you have really been serious
about getting to know the people who speak the language (Principle III),
such talk will make you uncomfortable, since it is most often rooted in a
deep lack of understanding of the host people where you are living.
I don't want to give the impression that you will not want
to get further help from someone like an LRP during Stage IV. But it will
probably be more of an occasional thing rather than full time. Do you want
to perfect your speech? You can continue recording yourself as you use the
language in communication, and go over the tapes with an LRP. Almost anybody
can serve as an LRP at this point. If you find that you are having trouble
with a particular aspect of the language, you can devise a communication
activity which will allow you to use the problem construction or vocabulary
items repeatedly. Finally, you can work on written composition. When writing
the language it is much easier to get all of the grammatical details right
than when speaking it, since you have all the time you need to think about
what you are writing, and you can easily go back and make corrections. So
you may want to write compositions of various sorts and go over them with an
LRP to discover varieties of errors you may be unaware of. Actually, it is
profitable to work on written composition in this way even during earlier
stages, especially Stage III. Similarly, you can benefit considerably from
reading, especially if there is a large body of literature in the language.
As a matter of fact, to a large extent, you become a good writer as a result
of massive comprehensible input which you receive as a reader. When you have
difficulty understanding portions of written material that you are reading,
these can providthe basis for discussions with an LRP.
Chapter 4. Conclusion
As I said at the outset, all you really need to remember are
three key principles:
-- Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible
input (possibly including written input).
-- Principle II: Engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking
(and possibly writing).
-- Principle III: Learn to know the people whose language
you are learning.
The rest of what I have written was intended to make these
principles meaningful. First I explained some of the main thinking behind
them. Then I showed concrete ways to put them into practice. One additional
principle is important: the best way of putting these three principles into
practice will depend on your stage of language learning. In Stage IV, merely
listening to a story by the campfire provides you with comprehensible input.
In Stage II, the same story would be utterly incomprehensible, mainly just a
blur of sound, and therefore it would not qualify as comprehensible input.
You may come up with many of your own approaches and
activities which put the three principles into practice. No one will do
everything exactly according to my suggestions, and some people may end up
using approaches that are very different indeed. However you go about it, if
you expose yourself to massicomprehensible input, engage in extensive
extemporaneous speaking, and get to know the people whose language you are
learning, and if you do these three things persistently enough for a long
enough time, you won't do badly. You won't do at all badly. I promise.
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