Sunday, February 25, 2007

learner feedback

Among other things this semester I'm studying second language acquisition, and I'm attempting to acquire a second language-- Amharic.

It's fascinating to look at my own acquisition of Amharic in light of the theory we've been reading. In particular I'm taken by the interactionist approach.

Basically, the interactionist hypothesis states that interaction promotes language acquisition (duh!) for two reasons:

1) it increases opportunities for learners to receive comprehensible input. If you say something incomprehensible, I'll ask you to clarify and eventually you'll say something I can comprehend, thus facilitating my language acquisition.

2) it increases opportunities for learners to produce modified output. If I say something, and you don't understand it, I'll try again until I say something that makes sense. Then, as you correct my grammar, I'll keep revising my utterances. What's actually happening is that I'm forming hypotheses about how to produce language and then testing my hypotheses on you. Your reaction helps me to reject my false hypotheses and revise them-- eventually (hopefully) I'll hit on a hypothesis that produces grammatical language, and your reaction will confirm my hypothesis.

Of course, interaction isn't the only way learners acquire language, but it's among the most effective. It's one thing to memorize vocabulary and paradigms and quite another to practice using them in communicative language.

The thing with interaction is that you can't do it alone. And it takes a lot of scaffolding. For example, if the teacher asks you a question, you pay attention to every word he says, because you can manipulate those words in your response.

But what's happening, is the instructor's giving a lot of the instruction in English. So I'm not repeatedly exposed to the Amharic forms that I'm then expected to manipulate. It's as simple as this-- if he says, in Amharic, "tell me about your day," then I've got the Amharic word for "day" fresh in my mind and can start talking. But if he says it in English, then I've got to rack my brain "bother, what's the word for 'day' again?"

Yes, I should know the word for "day" by now (it's qen), but it's one thing to have a passive understanding of language and quite another thing to be able to spontaneously produce language. Spontaneous production is an end goal, but a pretty long-term goal-- think of how much easier it is to have a conversation in your native language than to give a speech in your native language. It's just naturally hard for us to produce language outside of an interactive setting. Because language was made for interaction.


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