Sunday, February 24, 2008

Krashen 2 me

I've been rereading a book that I reviewed a while ago; the review appears here:

Leverett (2003). Review of Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures, by Stephen Krashen,
TESL-EJ, vol. 7, no. 2, Sept.

but I have much more to say about it, four and a half years later. I'm about to embark on a project that uses Krashen's work as a starting point, and I have to decide whether to base it on him and his hypotheses, or just base it on my own, weaving him and his ideas into it. He is an interesting guy in the world of language acquisition, and I have a lot of respect for him, partly because he watched teachers and learners carefully for years, and based his observations on the same kinds of things we teachers experience continually. He is lambasted regularly by researchers who denounce his hypotheses as unprovable, and I'll leave that one alone until I can either attempt to prove one, restate one so that it can be proven, or dismiss it as irrelevant altogether. But there's more to it than that, even. He rose in prominence at a time when one dared not challenge Chomsky, and Chomsky was wrong about a number of things, in my book. Here are some of my observations on rereading this small volume.

1. He apparently started a major argument on the value of teaching discreet grammatical points; he has long maintained that this is worthless, since we can raise students' conscious awareness of rules, but only temporarily, and even then only at huge cost. Much of the book he addresses to reviewing the studies of people who tried to fight him on this; this was what some have called a "noticing" group of studies, basically trying to prove that, if you point out grammatical forms to students, and make sure they "notice," they'll do better on tests and ultimately will acquire those forms. Of all the things he said and did, this may have been the biggest, if only because hours and hours of studies have now been wrapped up in this argument. But I'm getting a little impatient with the argument in general, both sides, for reasons I've yet to put carefully into words.

2. One stores one's conscious learned knowledge in a Monitor, which has a capital M like the Civil War Battleship. However, he also uses Monitor as a verb, in which situation it is also capitalized; we Monitor our own output, but we climb upon our capital M's to do it. Actually I think he's making more out of this than necessary. We listen to ourselves, yes. Do you Mind?

3. Then there's the LAD, language acquisition device, a term coined by Chomsky who maintains a genetic disposition to language, through this genetic little device that we all carry around, that just acquires language for us, like magic, thus separating us from animals who don't have the same genetic makeup. I'm a little impatient with this device too. I'd like to see if maybe WalMart can sell me a couple of them, maybe I'll turn them around on resale.

4. Affective filter. Here's my problem with the filter. Supposedly it keeps stuff from coming in, when you're feeling anxious, unhappy, upset, distracted, etc. That's what a filter does. But we're talking about acquisition here. My feeling is that anxiety, unhappiness, distraction, etc. mess up the process in two different ways, and neither of them have to do with input. First is when you lose faith or desire to acquire the language, you lose motivation, and it's hard to wake up in the morning and consciously commit yourself to knowing the language better. You are, after all, taking on a second, and foreign, identity, and at our core we rebel against this. But this doesn't affect our input, or how much we understand of what we hear or read. It can affect how much we try to decode, but that's slightly different. Second, improving one's language is basically experimental- it takes time, energy, noticing, deliberate and proactive as a process. Kind of like choosing a new, faster route to work, and seeing if taking the tollway will cut off five minutes of one's commute. But one doesn't do this when one is late, harried, anxious, upset, or in any way distracted. On those days, like Monday for example, one sticks to the usual route, and grips the wheel with severe resolution, which is actually counterproductive, as we well know. Affective factors are important- don't get me wrong. But it's not a filter...

5. i +1. Here's what bothers me about this. Teachers worldwide have loved this since its inception. It basically says you have to give a student language at the exact level of their learning, plus a little bit. So that they can use what they already know, to figure out one thing at a time. Makes sense, yes? In fact I've made a living spotting appropriate level of materials for students; even today, I feel confident that I can spot level pretty quickly and do well with it.

So here's what bothers me. This i +1 terminology makes it sound like language is a system of abstract theoretical formulae, concepts which must be deeply meditated upon and ingested carefully, one before the other. But it's not. It's basically linear, very simple, though the stunning variety and complex interplay of rules throws people off every time. Sure, there is some embedding of sentences- relative clauses fit into basic sentences, sometimes several times within a single sentence- so therefore, for example, one would have to learn a basic sentence, before one could look at relative clauses. But this isn't deep conceptual stuff. When I was in college, we were on the block plan; we studied only one subject for an entire month. Sciences hated it. They said, you had to spend time to learn these concepts, and you couldn't build on them because you were in such a hurry, you had to move on to another concept before a student had really taken in the first one. But the language people didn't share that kind of frustration. We learned Russian very well (I studied Russian in two of the coldest months in Iowa history, much like Feb. 2008 has been for Carbondale)...the i + 1 terminology gives us the impression that one has to master concepts to get to a level, then move on. I'd like to get at what one really has to do, to move on in any language. I think there are levels, natural plateaus. I don't think they are conceptual, though. I think they're simple, like paths through the forest. One has to be comfortable with them, before one understands them, let alone takes them. But this is much more of a linear process than the terminology would imply.

6. Finally (and this goes back to the beginning), I have lost the page, but Krashen at one point admits that adults learning a second language occasionally need to have some grammar points explained to them. Or, at least he admits that this is acceptable in the context of a language classroom, an appropriate thing for a teacher to do. Students ask, we answer, that's ok. Maybe he published this entire book, so that he could bury that one little concession, deep on some page where I was unable to find it again after I went back looking for it. Yet first time through, it hit me, even in passing, like a red neon EAT sign in the Mojave desert. Of course! They ask because they need to know. We answer because we know they're sincere and they need to know (not because we really believe that we know all the answers)...

This is just the beginning, by the way. More to come.

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