STUDY OF SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
Modern theories on second language acquisition (SLA) are based on a communicative approach. This approach is derived from observing the natural process by which children living in a foreign country pick up a foreign language unconsciously and spontaneously, without explicitly studying its grammar structures.
Therefore, new methods for learning a second language (L2) emphasize the need to approach language learning through communication. They make speech the primary stepping-stone in acquiring L2. In my five-year experience as an English teacher, I mainly used textbooks where students were required to study grammar structure, memorize vocabulary, and work on written exercises filling in blanks and matching columns. Little room was given to speaking or verbal exercises. Most of the time, I had to adapt some lessons and add extra activities and materials to make them more entertaining, communicative and up-to-date.
In this essay, I will cover the different elements involved in classroom learning: teacher, students, and the right setting that facilitates teacher-student interaction. I will also cover the factors affecting these elements and the learning process. I will discuss how to evaluate students’ needs and develop an appropriate syllabus for S1. Finally, I’ll discuss how to approach learning L2 based on some SLA principles and my own experience, comparing it to Oxbridge’s approach.
Teachers are our first element of study. Without them, the classroom learning process would not be possible. Teachers with the right attitude can always inspire and motivate students to learn L2. Teachers play different roles at different levels of the learning process. For example, they are models whom students imitate as they learn their first words of English. It is of the utmost importance that they always come well prepared and enthusiastic to class. Teachers act as classroom managers, controlling class dynamics, making smooth transitions between activities, without interruptions or prolonged silence. They should keep in mind that the Teacher Talking Time (TTT) should always be less than Students Talking Time (STT). However, in lower L2 levels, teachers are allowed more TTT for explanation. In some modern SLA methods, teachers become playmakers by providing clear instructions, guidance and monitoring students while they work on activities. They have to be alert and continuously analyze the classroom’s situation in case an activity does not work, identify the underlying problem, such as poor student motivation, lack of understanding, tiredness, sensible topics, and act accordingly.
Students themselves come with a combination of attitudes, capacities and knowledge that affect their ability to learn L2. Before a syllabus can be defined, teachers need to identify learners´ goals, potentials, and difficulties, taking into account their age, learning experience, needs and motivations. The syllabus should address their goals and difficulties, and strengthen positive factors.
With regard to age, teachers must take into account language interference from their native language (L1) is higher in older students. Younger ones are more open-minded about learning new structures. This interference from L1, present at some level in all students, along with over-generalization and simplification, results in students using interlanguage. Interlanguage is a natural stage in the L2 learning process, which should not be systematically corrected. On the contrary, teachers should always praise students’ efforts and motivate them through different communicative activities. Other difficulties that a teacher can face are lack of motivation and negative attitudes towards learning L2.
Teachers also play a major role in motivating all students to participate in the learning process, by engaging them and creating an open and dynamic classroom setting. A traditional classroom setting, where students face a teacher prescribing grammar structures with a desk and a blackboard behind, makes the students passive receivers rather than active learners. A new classroom setting must break barriers between students and teacher. It should not create them. Teachers have to be approachable and someone students feel they can talk to and trust. Seating arrangements should allow easy access to teachers and bring them to the same level as students. Within this setting, teachers can control class dynamics, organize time and the right execution of activities, as well as monitor students.
There are other factors that affect L2 learning process. Once teachers have connected and created a bond with the students, they can use affective factors to motivate students. They can also reach out to them by grading the language to the level of the group, providing simple instructions, avoiding translating into L1, using cognates when possible, addressing students by their names, keeping eye-contact and smiling. Thus, students feel welcome and comfortable to participate in all class activities without fear of making mistakes. Another motivating factor is the type of L2 input material used by teachers. All materials should closely relate to students’ interests and include activities that foster language interaction. Depending on the activity, teachers can use images, online text, short stories, and real objects. For example, an image can easily engage students, be the subject of a study and activate a conversation.
Once students have been assessed and their English level identified, teachers can develop the right syllabus addressing their goals and needs. In the development of the syllabus, teachers need to take into consideration four skills for successful communication: speaking and writing (productive skills), listening and reading (receptive skills). They also need to know when to apply each one of them to each learning activity, depending on the students´ L2 level and goals.
In SLA, speaking is a priority for learning activities at all levels. Students at lower levels develop talking skills by listening to the teacher giving instructions and explanations. This process follows a natural development where children learn to talk by imitating their parents.
All activities at lower levels focus primarily on vocabulary and grammar structure. It is said that good teachers are those who master teaching beginner’s level (S1). Teaching S1 is probably the most difficult task teachers encounter. It is difficult to teach an activity to someone who has no knowledge of L2 without translating into L1. In order to achieve this goal, a comprehensive development of the syllabus is necessary to enable a broader communication capacity. Teachers must display a wide array of resources to introduce students to L2 step by step. Speaking slowly, grading their language to provide simple and clear instructions and the using cognates are vital for communication. With the help of a lot of visual material, real objects, mimes and body language teachers can convey meaning. They become actors in a centre stage where they need to come to class well rehearsed. They must use all possible means to explain and engage students in the activity at hand. How can teachers achieve it? First of all, they need to start with very simple structure and vocabulary activities. Perhaps, the first activity’s objective could be greetings and introductions:
- “Hi! My name is Robin.” “What is your name?”
- “My name is (name).”
- “How are you, (name)?” “Are you fine?” ‘I am fine.”
From then on, teachers can introduce a series of simple functions with generic words using images and objects (e.g. “I have this.”; “I live here.”; “I go there.”). Later, as students extend their vocabulary, they substitute generic words for specific nouns (e.g. “I have a pen.”; “I live in Madrid.”; “I go to the cinema.”). During the exercise, teachers correct grammar usage, vocabulary and pronunciation at every point of the activity. Sometimes students will answer in L1, and teachers should reformulate L1 response into English. Repetition of corrected sentences and drilling of TL are necessary. At the end of every activity, teacher should ask concept check questions (CCQ) to confirm learning of TL.
The Oxbridge model starts every class with a quick question (QQ) to bring students into English mode. It is followed by a revision of the previous class, the presentation of new material and finally wrapping up and confirming TL understanding with CCQ. In my opinion this is a good technique, but a series of random unrelated activities is not. My teaching approach will differ from Oxbridge in combining three activities, vocabulary, structure and topic into one coherent lesson for a given class. First, vocabulary activity would be introduced. It would be related to the following structure activity, which in turn would introduce the topic. In other words, instead of having six to eight different random activities, I consider it more effective to teach interrelated activities. For example, let’s take the topic of food. The first vocabulary activity would deal with different types of food, cooking methods, etc. Students would be engaged by use of images and they would identify TL with each type of food and their names. Second, the structure activity could be about present simple and adverbs of frequency: “What do you usually eat?” “I hardly ever eat fast food.” Thirdly, the topic activity could deal with healthy diets, with students discussing and debating their eating habits. In this last activity, TL could be: well-balanced meals, fats, cholesterol, and diabetes.
In conclusion, one of the most positive aspect of Oxbridge model is the fact that teachers can share their activities with each other, building a large resource data base and saving time for preparing and rehearsing their lesson’s activities. This shared system enables teachers to be fully prepared to teach and provides students with the means to learn a second language.