Confronting the Elephant in the Room:  Second Language Acquisition

Confronting the Elephant in the Room: Second Language Acquisition

November 18, 2017

We've got to get real for a second.  Most language teachers haven't had the training to truly understand language. Language in terms of linguistics -- syntax, vocabulary, grammar -- YES...we're experts.  However, HOW a person acquires (is communicative: can speak, read, write, and understand), or Second Language Acquisition, most teachers are not as proficient. 

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory (or theories) are the blended study of linguistics, sociolinguistics,  neuroscience, education, and psychology. There are a number of hypotheses that play into SLA, making it a pool of information that will make any busy teacher’s head spin. That’s probably why, if you were to ask around about it at a department meeting, you’d hear this:


Historically, there has long been a gap in World Language methodology and educational programs at the undergraduate level and the teaching of SLA, something so critical to our understanding of how students process language “learning”.  It’s like the disparity between drug researchers and the doctors who are prescribing them. Focus (drug researcher = SLA academic) and multifaceted responsibility (doctors = WL teachers) Additionally, given the plethora of possible Master’s programs that a teacher can complete, it’s no wonder that even those teachers with advanced degrees may not truly understand language acquisition. This, unfortunately, can also cause confusion when we talk about language teaching practices. 

There it is...the elephant. ← are we teaching our students in the way that will create an environment for acquisition, or are we focused on memorization of minutia that they won’t remember at the next level?

If I can attempt to sum it up in just a few words (my apologies to the linguists of the world) language ACQUISITION is a complex evolution based not on learning rules, but rather, based on the input that the learner receives.  The input must be based on communication and negotiation of meaning, and not on memorization of rules or non-contextualized material.  

For example, if students learn a “chores” unit, they will discuss the chores that are completed by a variety of people in a house, via the textbook video series, or the colored-pencil drawing in the text.  They will knock out some flash cards, cram a little bit, and they will be able to perform well on assessment. However, when (if EVER) they need to recall such a topic, it was so unrealistic in its original context, that they will likely have to revert to making vroom noises and moving their arm back and forth to ask for a vacuum, when they, say need to clean up their room during a study abroad visit.  On the other hand, if you learn a word in context? In a real life situation? It’s often yours forever.

As Bill VanPatten conservatively calculates in his text, While we’re on the topic (2017), a learner requires over 14,000 hours of input to gain the fluency of a native speaking 6 year old (VanPatten, 2017, p.37).

That’s a lot.

Given that we see our students for an also conservatively calculated 180 hours a year (for a kid with perfect attendance, you teaching bell to bell, and NEVER using a sick day), things don’t add up.  Of course, we can shift our focus a bit on the use of homework and other language development activities, but even in a four year program, our students only get 720 hours with us. So, as you can see mathematically, we need to re-examine the way we think about how a learner acquires language. have an amazing schedule with 188 student contact days and you do a student trip that EVERY kid goes on all four years?  We’ll be generous and call that 2000 hours. Still, so incredibly far from 14,000.

Yet I digress.  We, as teachers, all need more understanding of Second Language Acquisition.

Then  there’s the time factor.  Bill Van Patten has a great text, that, while it’s not necessarily a SLA guide, is, in fact an excellent model for understanding communication, and is based on SLA theory.  There are also sections that offer a more developed presentation of SLA, but it’s brevity would be appreciated by any teacher reading solely at Sustained Silent Reading time. At only 125 pages, While We’re on the Topic should be on every language teacher’s reading list, or as a book study for departmental professional development. If you are even more interested, his other texts, such as From Input to Output, have a lot of amazing information as well.  If we ever have the chance to cross paths, we’d love to share more with you and your colleagues!

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