No Downside part 5: Fighting The Real Enemy

I had a neighbor—a real neighborhood treasure—who went to the doctor because of severe heartburn. The doctor prescribed the usual medicine designed to treat usual cause of the heartburn, but Paul’s symptoms did not improve. He returned to the doctor, who gave him stronger medicine to treat the usual cause of persistent heartburn. When this didn’t help, Paul returned for some tests. He learned that he had cancer of the stomach and esophagus, and within a month, he was gone.

When you’re trying to defeat an enemy like a deadly disease, you need to be sure you’re fighting the actual enemy. If you devote your attention to what you merely perceive to be the enemy, the real enemy continues its destructive work.

In language instruction, we would all like to eliminate errors in writing and speech. If we think about it for a bit, we realize that that errors are not the enemy, but a symptom; the enemy is whatever causes students to make errors. We blame a lack of effort on our students’ part. We vow to give students more speaking and writing practice. We correct the same errors over and over, year-after-year. We use points in an attempt to bribe students to improve speaking and writing skills.

For most students, that will not work. You can teach them how to trick you into thinking that they’ve learned stuff, by helping them to prepare for the test over it, but very little of value will survive once that test it over. It’s not your fault. You can’t defeat the real enemy as long as you’re devoting your energies to attacking things that, while they may be capable of producing the same symptoms, are not the root cause of the disease.

When we ask students to talk or write, they do what they know: they think in English, then translate into L2. People are not wired to speak or write while consciously processing grammar.

Whether it’s a fourth-year student saying “me llamo es Nathan”, my Brazilian wife omitting her direct object pronouns in English, or a Colombian friend saying “I dreamed with a giant pink rabbit last night”, for people who should “know better”,  the root cause of errors in L2 is thinking in L1.

Here’s the thing: on one level, we all know this, and we tell our students, “don’t translate—think in Spanish”. And that is the solution—thinking in L2 is the only stake that penetrates the heart of the error monster. But that’s way easier said than done, and it’s wrong to tell students to think in L2 if the work we ask them to do encourages translation from L1!

So how do we get students to think in L2? I make no pretense that this is easy—I’d argue “impossible” within a traditional classroom. In my experience, in which my circumstances don’t permit a full commitment to comprehensible-input based instruction, it is best not to tell students to “think in Spanish”, but instead “ask yourself what sounds right in Spanish”. That is much less daunting for student and teacher.

But the short answer to the question “how do we get our students to think in L2?” is simple: we give them no other choice. We structure our classes in such a way that students are immersed in comprehensible spoken and written language. When we abandon activities focused on conscious grammar processing and error correction, we find we have all kinds of time left over that can be used to fill their heads with correct, comprehensible language! When students are exposed to lots of comprehensible language, the part of the brain whose job it is to figure out the rules (and later, the exceptions) gets the opportunity to work the same magic that is worked in its heyday, when it made a dumb little kid who wasn’t even trying fluent in L1 by age 4.

There’s all kinds of research to support this, but then again, there’s research supporting all kinds of crap. The thing for me is that, when we think about it, it’s self-evident. Plus, I’ve tried both ways, and I’ve seen the difference with my own eyes. Here’s an example from my experience that shows the practical difference between the two approaches in a nutshell:

Before comprehensible-input based instruction: tell students until blue in the face, over the course of years, not days, with little to show for it: “the on the possessive goes with the thing owned, not the owner!”

After comprehensible-input based instruction: Spanish I, after exactly zero formal teaching of the possessive pronouns (but after several comprehensible stories and readings in Spanish that included them), in a spontaneous moment with no particular grammatical focus, a student answering a question about who he went to the mall with, says “…con mi amigos”…stops, shakes his head because that didn’t sound right, and corrects himself, “um…con mis amigos”.

Correct grammar, nature’s way.


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