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Second Language Acquisition: The TFI Model

By Soorya Hariharan

Teaching students English as a second language is one of the important tasks Teach For India fellows are charged with. Naturally the first thought that comes to one’s mind is “What is the best way to teach someone a second language?” There exists extensive research on this topic as it is probable many educationists had already thought of this question.

The works of Stephen D Krashen on this topic are noteworthy. Many researchers use his works as a reference for language acquisition. His work draws insight from Noam Chomsky, another noted linguist who has researched extensively on first language acquisition. Krashen developed a set of hypotheses about second language acquisition that have taken root in the field of second language teaching. The Five Hypotheses are:

  • The acquisition-learning hypothesis
  • The monitor hypothesis
  • The natural order hypothesis
  • The input hypothesis
  • The affective filter hypothesis

More information on the five hypotheses can be acquired from (Klein 1986).

The points to be highlighted are:

  1. Krashen (2003) says that speaking in the target language does not result in language acquisition
  2. Krashen stresses that children, while learning a target language must not be forced to speak the language in the early stages of learning. They need to be allowed a “silent period” where they are actively listening and getting enough comprehensible input (Klein 1986, Krashen 1981)
  3. In accordance with point 2, the affective filter hypothesis further suggests that increased anxiety levels hamper language learning. When asked students which aspect of language learning caused them most anxiety, they placed speaking in the foreign language at the top of the list (Young 1990)
  4. There exists a distinction between language used for social interaction and academic learning. BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) is used for day to day social interactions and can be achieved in 6 months to two years. However, CALP (Cognitive Academic Learning Proficiency) is language used for academic purposes, and this, research has shown takes anywhere between 5 to 7 years (Klein 1986).

The methodologies that TFI follows is opposed to the points mentioned above. As soon as they enter classrooms, TFI fellows are expected to use only English. They are encouraged to talk to students, and elicit responses from students only in English, however limited their vocabulary may be. Moreover, this is expected to happen as soon as we enter the classrooms. This clearly opposes the concept of allowing for a “silent period” and the idea that language learners feel a great deal of anxiety when asked to speak in the target language.

Another perspective (and this may be refuted by other fellows and staff members in TFI) is that it seems like most of the emphasis is on “Spoken English”. There is, of course emphasis on reading and writing too, but it seems like the Spoken English component dominates. This is opposed to the idea that speaking in a target language does not result in language acquisition.

Students are expected to rise to “grade level” in the shortest possible time span. While the practicality of this expectation is valid since students are way behind grade level and the process of closing this gap should be expedited; expecting them to be at grade level in two or three years is a tad too ambitious. Research clearly suggests that to achieve CALP, it takes five to seven years. A shift in focus from the ultimate goal of being at grade level, to that of the various methods and processes to achieve this goal could perhaps be a better alternative.

Structured Immersion and Bilingual Education:

There has been a raging debate for years regarding the effectiveness of structured immersion as compared to bilingual education. Stephen Krashen is a strong advocate of Bilingual Instruction when compared to structured immersion. De Jong (2002) concluded that students in a bilingual programme performed better when compared to students in a structured immersion programme. Dolson and Mayer (1992) compare the effectiveness of three programmes – Late Exit bilingual, Early Exit bilingual and Structured Immersion. What is more interesting than the mere question – “Which programme was superior?” is the various findings delineated at the end of the research paper. The pertinent finding to be highlighted here is that “Providing substantial instruction in the students’ primary language does not impede the learning of the second language” (Dolson & Mayer 1992) – in this case, English.

Very often, the features of a structured immersion programme are misunderstood. Structured immersion programmes are designed for students to rapidly acquire English skills to be on par with their native peers. A closer look into the salient features of the Structured Immersion programme indicates that (Dolson & Mayer 1992):

  1. Teacher uses L2 exclusively for instruction. Teacher’s use of L1 is informal, such as giving or clarifying directions
  2. Content areas are used to teach L2
  3. L2 is used to teach content
  4. Students are free to use L1 among themselves and with the teacher
  5. Teacher is bilingual
  6. Children are mainstreamed as soon as they demonstrate proficiency in English. This transition into an English-only program usually occurs within two or three years after entry into the immersion strategy program
  7. There is a limited primary language component

Points 1, 4 and 5 indicate the importance of the primary language in the acquisition of the secondary language. This is also opposed to the idea of students being encouraged to use only English in class, even with their peers. Point 5 says that the teacher should be bilingual, and understand the local language. Although there may be some fellows who know the local language, there are a large number of fellows who teach in a city without knowing the commonly spoken language. The idea conveyed to fellows during their training is that they do not need to know the local language of the city that they will be teaching in. It is in fact believed that fellows knowing only English will actually accelerate the students’ learning process. The students that are catered to come from low socio-economic backgrounds and have very little exposure to English. In this situation, it becomes all the more important to use the local language in aiding the acquisition of English as a second language.

(Klein 1986) gives us some insights into SLA contexts: Formal Study versus immersion in a country in which the language is spoken. It can be concluded that implementing immersion in a country in which the social language is not the target language is not possible. In a country like India, with so many languages and cultures, implementing an immersion programme to teach English could be counterproductive.

References:

Dolson, D. P. and Mayer, J. (1992). Longitudinal Study of Three Program Models for Language-Minority Students: A Critical Examination of Reported Findings. Bilingual Research Journal, 16:1&2, 115, 126.

Klein, W. (1986). Second Language Acquisition. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. California: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Young, D. (1990). An Investigation of Students’ Perspective on Anxiety and Speaking. Foreign Language Annals, 23:539-553

De Jong, E. J. (2002). Effective Bilingual Education: From Theory to Academic Achievement in a Two-Way Bilingual Program. Bilingual Research Journal, 26: 1, 16.

Author:

Soorya Hariharan is currently pursuing M.A in Education in Azim Premji University. He was a TFI Fellow from 2012-2014.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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