Sunday, August 26, 2007

The -s dilemma

I have left my Krashen book at work, and I am at home, late at night, but I feel I ought to comment on this before it slips my mind. One of Krashen's original hypotheses was that there was a distinct order in which people acquire grammatical forms, and that that order was not really affected by the order in which you taught things, etc. Therefore you could arrange a syllabus however you wanted, and it wouldn't really change anything; people would acquire in their own order, regardless of grammar "teaching", can the grammar class, it doesn't have any effect anyway.

Now one thing I like about Krashen was that he did all this while keeping an eye on the classroom and on classroom teachers; he was partly right, in that the order of acquisition is often independent of what is happening in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. However his attempts at finding an immutable "order" were futile, and it certainly wasn't genetic, or universal, or the same for all second-language learners, or even all first-language learners. Or, to be more exact, if there is a common order, they couldn't prove it, or didn't find it.

And, in the book I have, where he looks back over his entire legacy, he brings up the -s dilemma, almost as if that was the thing that beat him. For, if you listen carefully to immigrants, and people who have been here for many years, some have never acquired the habit of putting -s on verbs appropriately. They have learned everything else: relative clauses, complex sentences, etc. But they are still saying, He study English. She live in Chicago.

Now if there were a natural, immutable order, wouldn't this be about the first? It is certainly one of the simpler, more basic rules. It is a rule upon which others are built. Yet, here we are, sometimes 15, 20, 25 years into an acquisition history, and it's not acquired. What's up with that? It felt to me, in reading, that Krashen had been reduced to mumbling into his beer about his failure to explain this. He promised to explain later, but if he did, I never found it.

I maintain that acquisition order can be explained; that it goes straight to human motive and whether a form is necessary to communicate something that could be communicated without it. Thus the answer is, simply, because they can get away with not doing it. Because, unlike other forms, there is little price for not worrying about it.

And the calculations of "price" are scientific- psychological with a human dimension, but measurable, different from person to person, and clearly explainable. It is and always will be a mistake to explain such things as due to complexity of the form itself, or someone's inability to understand or know how to conjugate a verb. People "know how" to conjugate a verb. Though there may have been a point at which they didn't "know how" the verb system worked, it is impossible to explain an extremely late acquisition of -s to "knowledge," since they have now heard -s millions of times; they have even produced it millions of times, in other environments, on plural nouns for example, or possessives, when it's far more necessary to convey specific meaning. So it's also not explainable in terms of the complexity of the sound or the difficulty of producing it under pressure (though I guess that's possible). I think these may be factors, for some learners, especially at the beginning, but in the big picture, for people who are still working with it after 20 years-they begin to fade.

I suspect that if a person were systematic in looking at all learners (and perhaps somebody has done this), he/she would find that in fact people acquire -s at all different times in their acquisition history, depending on different independent variables, which could be mapped out and explained, at least theoretically. Why did someone go thirty years and still not get it? And another person pick it up right away? Surely not because of its essential complexity, or the basic nature of the language itself. Surely people who are looking at this, trying to explain it systematically, have found something they could share. Or, like Krashen, they end up mumbling in their beer, unable, truly, to explain anything?

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