Case history and language acquisition

As a teacher of French trained in best methods and practices in the early 1990’s at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, I had the privilege of laying solid foundations for my own theories of language acquisition.  Alice Omaggio Hadley’s Teaching Language in Context painted all the right parameters, reviewing current research and thought on language acquisition.  In the classroom, professors and peers helped shape and refine my conception of best practices. Alongside mentor teachers, I began putting together a toolkit for helping students become bilingual.  This set of beliefs and methods was largely influenced by Stephen Krashen and his focus on acquisition versus learning.

As a language student, I had done both.  In high school and even in college, I had “learned” French, had committed vocabulary, expressions, rules and exceptions to memory.  I had also lived in an international dorm and had been immersed in French. I had read literature, had learned song, had watched film.   My own language skills and comfortable fluency, however, never exploded until I spent a year in France and fell in love with my future spouse and future mother of my children.  This second phase of my education further distilled my views on “best” theories of language acquisition.

Krashen recently published an article in the TESOL Journal entitled “Case Histories and the Comprehension Hypothesis” (June 2014), in which he examines a number of individual, documented cases of successful attempts–along with one unsuccessful attempt–at acquiring language.  In all the successful cases, the one consistent correlation, independent of other variables, is the presence of comprehensible input.

To these cases, I humbly add three more, my children.  They were all three born to parents whose native language and second language were closely matched and complementary.   Familial exposure, nursery rhymes, children’s books, games, videos, music–indeed the entire body of experience and material that aids in the raising of a child–all was steeped in two equally important languages and cultures.  Both Maman and Daddy had acquired another language, both Maman and Daddy valued and embraced both languages and cultures, and neither Maman nor Daddy could tolerate an existence where one was not nurtured and sustained.   As a result, and with perhaps only slightly more effort than that of raising a monolingual child, all three of our children have more fluency in two languages than many high-school language students ever attain in their second language.  I say “slightly more effort” because now that the oldest two are in school and surrounded by age-mates who speak only English, we must make efforts–travel, books, videos, music, etc–to ensure that they maintain their mother tongue.  “Slightly” more effort because the travel required would still be required if cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived on another coast as opposed to across the ocean.

It could be argued that these three cases do little to illuminate a theory of “second” language acquisition.  Their acquisition of language itself was perhaps perturbed by building two language systems at once.  Nonetheless, their development over the last ten years has formed the third phase of my education.

My children prompt in me a slight departure from Krashen and the purely “comprehensible input” proponents.  First, the input used with my children, as with every infant, was not at first comprehensible, but through repetition, gestures, images, patience and love, it became so.  Second, the output, which went from mere recognition and indication of understanding through simple sounds, becoming single words, later chunks, and finally full discourse, has been expected and corrected.  “Mmm…mamm” was adjusted and re-modeled until it became “Maman”.  Like every parent, we have pushed them to use their words, elated when they could sing the alphabet song or finally say how old they were, etc.  The two-year old is still in the early stages of the process, yet he understands and correctly uses “si” versus “oui” versus “non” as well as any student I have taught.  The older two have considerably greater abilities in the more advanced stages of linguistic proficiency in English, since they are now “studying” all things in English.   However, all three are at relative ease in English AND French.  Not once have they ever studied, completed a homework assignment, or taken a quiz on the nuances of using the preterite versus the imperfect and yet they inherently possess all those “skills” we try hard to inculcate with our Level II students.

My case histories share much with those cited by Krashen.  Like the indigenous people of the Vaupes river , my children had no choice but to learn the “other” language because of newly-formed families.  Like Heinrich Schliemann, they memorized excerpts of quality target language, not “corrected essays” but more age-appropriate nursery rhymes, “comptines”, etc.  Like Lee Kuan Yew and his son, my children have to produce and practice both languages so that they stay current and come back to one or the other.  Much like Andrew Weil and Armando, my children had and continue to have the language, both languages, modeled incessantly.

The fundamental tenets of my practice have been shaped by all three phases of my education, but most poignantly and most recently by the joy and challenges of raising bilingual children. In my classroom, as in my home,

  1. I am to model constantly, to do everything, from acting out to repeating, from gestures to pictures, from rewording to rewarding, everything possible to make the input comprehensible.
  2. But, it is acceptable, natural, and normal to not understand fully, because all that matters is understanding more fully, moving toward knowing fully.
  3. I am to be patient and to treat them as I would my own children, presuming that they WILL acquire both languages.
  4. I am mindful, though, that my students have L1 firmly rooted, that they will translate, that they will want to “study”, process grammar, memorize rules, create lists of vocabulary. These processes alone are not enough and I must help them see that speaking about French is not the same as speaking IN French.
  5. I am also keenly aware that adolescents do not want to be treated as infants and that regressing to infancy is unsettling.
  6. Therefore, a balancing act is required.  While they are my “babies”, my students are young adults who deserve such consideration  Early output is desired and encouraged, with errors a part of the mix.  Early output helps alleviate the frustration of being an infant and supplants it with pride at emerging bilingualism.

To researchers, writers and theorists,  for putting me on the path to understanding how language is learned,  to my wife, for teaching me more French than any textbook that I have ever read, and to my children for showing me language acquisition in its purest state, I thank you all.

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