Speak When You’re Ready

You know how, in most beginning and intermediate foreign language classes, the teacher explains a grammar principle, and then you practice speaking the language in pairs or small groups? If this is familiar, can you say from your personal experience that your practice in speaking the language has developed your ability to communicate fluently? Ignore what conventional wisdom dictates, and think about your actual personal results.

I’ve taught Spanish to both youth and adults, and in my first 2 1/2 years I used this traditional language practice method. Sadly, I saw little or no language improvement as a result of classroom speaking exercises. At first, I thought it was me. I felt bad that the students weren’t learning to speak or carry on even simple conversations expressing their own thoughts. I did a lot of research to find a better way.

You will find that I often refer to the findings of language education researchers. Everyone has their opinions about what is effective in language education, but I strongly prefer principles that are backed by credible research. One of the most important researchers in the field is Stephen Krashen. He has been a leader of effective language learning research for decades. In the last post, I quoted Krashen talking about comprehensible input. The quote goes on to refer to the ineffectiveness of producing language in the early stages of classroom instruction. Starting from where it began in the last post, Krashen continues, “the best methods are…those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready’, recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.” The traditional method of expecting students to produce contrived Spanish conversations from assigned textbook topics will never succeed in producing fluency. What does work well is using a few frequently-used Spanish phrases or verb forms in an engaging manner. Sufficient repetition in a relevant way provides input that a learner can comprehend and eventually acquire.

I have seen this working in the classroom. When a student has listened to enough comprehensible input to acquire a Spanish verb form or phrase, s/he then understands how and when to use it. This is the time when the student is ready to speak with confidence. My observation as a teacher and experience as a foreign language learner supports this. Spanish, and any other foreign language, is acquired by listening to comprehensible input, not by speaking before the language is acquired.

Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).

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