Thursday, March 08, 2007

principle wanted, again

I'll never forget this title of a help-wanted ad I encountered years ago when looking for an esl/efl job, perhaps the one I've got now. It was run by an elementary school, and I was inclined to suggest to them that I had a few principles to offer, the first being, learn how to spell when you publish. But I veered off, stayed out of public primary education, and ended up where I am today instead.

Speaking of principles, however, I am looking for a name for what I have been working on: a series of principles that deal with the learner and how the learner begins to adapt to picking up and incorporating elements of a language.

When Krashen first came on the scene, parts of his philosophy resonated deeply with thousands of language teachers, especially the part about the distinction between learning and acquisition. Speaking jut for myself now, I could relate to that, having seen it in the classroom and understanding it in myself and my own experiences with learning a language. Other parts of his theories, namely the "language acquisition device" which, due to its awkward name, sounded like some little machine placed in one's innate machinery, made much less sense.

Acquisition researchers came to scorn him for several reasons: first, he was way too popular. Second, how can you define acquisition vs. learning? How can you quantify it? And, this "device"- what's up with that?

Krashen, I believe, is now at the end of his career, much more involved in the bilingual-ed controversies especially as they have played out in California, and may not be so worried about the way acquisition researchers have scorned him over the years. He is, after all, famous in his own right, and for good reason. He at least laid out a system that made sense to thousands of people who recognized the kernel of truth that it captured.

This is why, twenty years later, I'm beginning to wonder: exactly why is it impossible to quantify the distinction between acquistion and learning? I have seen it played out in front of my eyes for years. I have seen people store information temporarily, pass tests with it, and go on to prove, sometimes in the same hour, or same sentence, that the aspect of grammar in question was no more part of their working grammar than encryption code. They learn a structure, pass tests using it, recognize what they need to know and prove they know it, yet it's somewhere way way down the road, that they actually slip into using it in appropriate circumstances.

The answer to this lies in the mind's internal sense of prioritizing, reorganizing, making life simpler and smoother. We have a surface organization and a deep organization, and we're not likely to mess with the big potato until we're good and sure it's worth our while. But the mind is a ruthlessly efficient organizer, and if a new reality truly intrudes upon it, it can and will act upon the new information...that's because we're survivors, and have learned to read the writing on the wall.

I've moved the work here while I stew on it, and decide how to incorporate things like this post into it. I've written a bit about Krashen; that's here. For now, the looming tesol presentations forces me to keep my eyes on the road.

But for the record, what I'm getting at is this:

I believe that the point at which the learner reorganizes, acquires and uses something, whether it be using a structure regularly, or putting knowledge of a word in an active memory-retrieval site, can be found, measured, sought and exploited. We can orient our teaching and learning around the systematic crossing of these thresholds; teachers can work with learners to say, hey, it's not enough that you just learn this. What you want to do is use it enough until you convince yourself that it's something you want to use every time, and put it somewhere where you have access to it every time you open your mouth.

Now this is a kind of rustic way to put it, but it boils down to this: the learner has control; the learner's personal organization system, the mind's own secretary, works on its own schedule, and it may not be as cooperative as the learner himself/herself, who will often learn, understand, and use information to pass tests quite well, even intending to improve his or her grammar, to no avail. The acquisition preceeds at an entirely different pace than the learning. Yet it does proceed, and we can see it.

I need a better name than "volume theory," but, it'll come to me.

Back to work. But first, I'll get some sleep. 071 just ended, and spring's a-poppin', lots going on, and young ones growing, right in front of my eyes.

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