Saturday, February 25, 2012

How & Why of Dual-Language: Advancing Acquisition with Krashen Part 1

Most people chuckle with regret when asked about their experience learning a second language in high school and college.  They had high hopes for becoming bilingual or trilingual but their conversations are now limited to simple sentences spoken in present tense with basic, highly frequent vocabulary.  These former students completed three, four, or five years of foreign language courses and yet their speaking proficiency could only be classified as Intermediate.  As the years progress and with lack of use, many slip from Intermediate to Beginner.

On the other hand, someone who had the opportunity to be immersed in a second language at a young age for an extended period of time may be able to speak at a fluent rate and with extensive vocabulary.  However, if this individual had no cause to formally refine his grammar, he too may still be considered only an Intermediate speaker due to many grammatical errors.

What is it about that Advanced level proficiency that makes it so hard for a language learner to leave behind his Intermediate status?  We see it all the time with ELLs in our classrooms.  They seem to hit the Intermediate wall and can easily linger there for years.

Stephen Krashen, a leading research and activist in the field of bilingual education, proposed five hypotheses or notions on second language acquisition.  This week, we are going to look at the first hypothesis, the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis.  Krashen made a distinction between the subconscious process that children undergo when they acquire a language versus the conscious construction of knowledge when they are learning the grammar and rules of a language.  Krashen claimed that the acquisition system was a more natural system because it focused on meaningful interaction and communication.  The learned system was based on formal and explicit instruction in the way a language works. 

 In order for an ELL to be classified as an Advanced speaker, he must show evidence of language acquisition by participating comfortably in most conversations and academic discussions using more abstract content vocabulary.  Yet he must also show he has learned the language through his grasp of basic grammar and past-tense verbs.

 Most classrooms tend to overemphasize one or the other.  Just as the phonics versus whole language debate culminated with most educators agreeing on the need for balanced literacy.  The debate over whether language is best learned or acquired must end with an agreement on the need for balance.  At EL Saber Enterprises, we hold to the belief that meaningful interaction is crucial to instruction that is embedded with opportunities for formally understanding the rules of the English language.  Continuously checking for this balance in our instruction will help our students to advance their language proficiency year by year and for the many years to come.

Next week, we will look into more of Krashen’s hypotheses and how they can help us maintain this balance.

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