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Language Acquisition and the Contemporary English Classroom
By: John De Mado

In its purest sense, language is a symbol system. Through it, the human mind assigns meaning to the world. Although there are many symbol systems that we employ to that end, such as art, music, math and gesture, language is the system to which human beings have the greatest general recourse. It is at the foundation of all learning.

Furthermore, contemporary research underscores the fact that the linguistic symbol system is largely acquired (learned) rather than taught. In fact, most children have attained substantial control over this symbol system before they ever set foot in an American school house. MIT's Steven Pinker firmly contends that "Every language has to be learned." Moreover, Pinker states that "Children deserve most of the credit for the language that they acquire" and that there is "Evidence corroborating the claim that the mind contains blueprints for grammatical rules." This last statement, of course, echoes the bold thinking initially put forth by famed linguist Noam Chomsky.

This research comes to us at a time when the American 'English' classroom is in the midst of considerable metamorphosis. Limited English Proficient (LEP) students are increasingly visible within the mainstream English classroom, as are special needs children, propelled there due to the mandate for a more 'inclusionary' educational model. To this mix, add the presence of native English speakers whose ability with and affinity for the language seem noticeably restricted. Many teachers of English bear testimony to the difficulties involved in teaching their discipline today. The confluence of varied languages and language abilities encountered in the contemporary English classroom invites reconsideration of the way we have historically approached our discipline. Perhaps enhancing our understanding of Language Acquisition Theory and subsequently employing the requisite language acquisition strategies will help us to transmit the symbol system more effectively to more of our students.

When we reflect on the nature of language, we observe that it is primarily deployed by human beings for problem resolution. For Limited English Proficient students (historically those whose lingua franca is other than our own), the English language can actually become the problem when language arts are focused upon a priori to the basic acquisition of the language.

How then do we jumpstart the language acquisition process in LEP students?

Stephen Krashen postulates that language acquisition is, in fact, a byproduct of input. Reading to students in a highly visual, dramatic manner provides 'comprehensible input', which in turn helps students to negotiate meaning. Broad, varied student reading, both assigned and self-selected, can serve to enhance vocabulary, improve syntactical and grammatical knowledge, facilitate the writing process and remediate spelling. As suggested by Krashen, "The richer the print environment, that is, the more reading material available, the better the literacy development."

Providing LEP students the opportunity to voice their opinions and to problem solve in English, in both written and oral fashion, can also encourage language acquisition. Error correction should be minimized at first as hyperfocus on language rules can actually subvert the language acquisition process.

For those concerned with the impact of such strategies on the native English speakers who share the classroom, research points out that the language acquisition techniques used to help LEP children generally enhance the language learning of all students.

Students with specific learning and physical disabilities can be accommodated in the English classroom through a clearer understanding of the nature of the condition and by taking specific strategic steps to encourage language acquisition. The following suggestions will illustrate the point:

For students with a hearing impairment, highly visual and/or manipulative instruction, as opposed to straight lecture, enhances interpretation. As a rule, the English teacher should anticipate their general difficulty with idiomatic expressions, vocabulary, syntax and grammar. It is important to seat the child toward the front of the classroom and, depending on the nature of the impairment, to that one side of center which best enhances his/her chances for hearing. As a caveat, be aware that many hearing-impaired children intentionally avoid wearing their hearing devices in school and among their peers. Gentle insistance on the teacher's part can help assure its use. Bear in mind as well that hearing devices amplify all sounds equally; therefore, positioning the student away from distracting sounds such as ventilators, hallway noise, aquariums, etc. is of utmost importance.

Books are available in Braille, large print, or on cassette and CD for the visually impaired student. The Library of Congress as well as the American Foundation for the Blind and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped can help teachers to locate such resources. Alternative means of gathering language and information, such as monoculars, closed circuit TV and telescopes, can be of great assistance to the visually impaired student and may be available on loan through the Assistive Technologies of Alaska as well as the Special Education Service Agency. Even specially designed language-building games such as Scrabbleä can be obtained through the Consumer Products Department of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, NY.

Increasing numbers of English teachers attest to restricted language ability (RLA) in their native English-speaking students. Limited performance in oral and written self-expression, atrophied vocabulary, poor grammar and syntax, along with weakened reading comprehension are cited most often. Student inability to change linguistic registers is noted as an area of concern as well, with students tending to remain almost entirely in an informal register regardless of the nature of the assignment or situation. These observations are substantiated by a recent article in the New York Times which traces the history of the free fall in the SAT scores beginning in the 1960's. The author states that although math scores have rebounded, "Scores on the verbal portion of the SAT and the NAEP remain flat, showing little signs of recovering from the Great Decline."

What causes RLA in native speakers of English?

Though the factors are, no doubt, varied, they fall into three broad categories:

Sociologically, we are a society travelling at hyperspeed. In our day to day interactions, there is precious little time for deep discussion, reading and reflection. Our dialogues are often truncated and reduced to mere sound bites. Assorted family members are working outside the home. Discussion at the dinner table is curtailed. Fast food restaurants proliferate. We even prefer the squawking box at the drive-in window over face-to-face interaction. Howard Gardner, Harvard Biologist, points out that various intelligences and abilities can be either massaged or minimized during any given époque. He theorizes that in preliterate societies, the verbal linguistic intelligence (exclusively oral/aural), coupled with the interpersonal and body/kinesthetic intelligences took precedence over all other intelligences. Traditional societies, spurred by a newly found emphasis on literacy, continued to stress the verbal/lingusitic (primarily reading and writing due to the invention of the printing press) and interpersonal intelligences but simultaneously oversaw the decline of the body/kinesthetic intelligence. Contemporary industrialized, secular societies such as ours primarily focus on the math/logic and intrapersonal intelligences, evidencing little interest either in the verbal/linguistic or the interpersonal intelligences. With a degree of irony, Gardner notes that in an age when the United States is poised to become the information merchant to the world, the national composite verbal/linguistic intelligence is ebbing.

The technology used by contemporary American youth is largely designed for private consumption and includes such devices as personal cassette players, personal CD players, personal video game players, personal micro TV sets, etc. As a result, children spend a substantial portion of their time in silent isolation, locked in their own private world. If they acquire any language from these devices at all, it is of a 'pop' nature. Language production, of course, is generally not a byproduct of usage.

With regard to education, the language rich curriculum that is so much a part of early primary school (grades K-2) eventually gives way to an increasingly silent curriculum, largely driven by the need to transmit factual information. The shift occurs somewhere around third grade and continues through the university level.

The quantum effect of these three factors over an extended period of time is Restricted Language Ability (RLA) in all too many of our students. Language atrophies where silence abounds. It is possible to plateau, if not stunt and conceivably devolve linguistic growth in human beings. As teachers of English, we can help to reverse this trend by making language acquisition an issue within our school districts. Whenever possible, journals should be kept. Oral and written portfolios should be maintained. Oral interviews should be considered for alternative assessment. Publishing and oral defense of thesis should be encouraged. Debate, public speaking and drama should be omnipresent. Children should be read to at all grade levels, using age appropriate materials written in various registers. Foreign languages should be varied and first presented to children as early as Kindergarten, if not sooner. Language should be viewed as the ultimate problem-solving mechanism. Clearly, education is enhanced where language flourishes. The linguistic symbol system is ultimately the vehicle through which we pass on the wisdom of the ages. As such, language acquisition is every teacher's task.

In order to build effective communicators, three psycholinguistic traits must be nurtured consistently from grade to grade and across the curriculum. They are those of risk-taking, vulnerability and intuition. In fact, Howard Gardner suggests to us that the period from birth to approximately seven years of age is the highly intuitive stage in human life. He refers to the "intuitive learner" as "…the young child who is superbly equipped to learn language and other symbolic systems…" Witness the amount of language acquisition that occurs during this time frame. In particular, the trajectory for language acquisition is nearly vertical between eighteen months and three years of age.Virtually all young children take risks for deeper understanding, are willing to be vulnerable and exhibit a high degree of intuitive behavior. They consistently hypothesize, theorize, postulate and make logical assumptions based on observation and the knowledge that they have gathered to date.

We need to recognize that people who communicate take risks. There is an exponential relationship between language learning, learning in general and the amount of risk-taking exhibited by the student and that encouraged by the teacher. Consequently, teacher attitudes, acquaintance with Language Acquisition Theory and techniques, and linguistically sound instructional materials will dictate the degree to which these psycholinguistic traits, and thus language in general, gain access to the classroom.

In response to the issues raised within this essay, the author would like to offer the following 10 Organizing Principles for English Language Development.

They should be viewed as reflections into the nature of that ever mercurial, quicksilver, and elusive commodity we refer to as Language.

  1. Language is a symbol system. It is at the foundation of all learning.
  2. The linguistic symbol system is acquired rather than taught.
  3. Language is largely a problem-solving device.
  4. When language is not viewed in the context of problem solving, it quite often becomes the problem.
  5. The language acquisition techniques used to help LEP children generally enhance the language learning of all students.
  6. Language acquisition is a byproduct of input.
  7. The enforcement of language rules should not subvert the language acquisition process.
  8. Broad, varied student reading, both assigned and self-selected, can serve to enhance vocabulary, improve syntactical and grammatical knowledge, facilitate the writing process and remediate spelling.
  9. There is an exponential relationship between language learning, learning in general and the amount of risk-taking exhibited by the student and that encouraged by the teacher.
  10. Language acquisition is every teacher's task.

    1. Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: Morrow, p.20
    2. ____________. p.40
    3. ____________. p.43
    4. Krashen, S. 1993. The Power of Reading: Insights From the Research. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, p.36
    5. Johnson, George. Tests Show Nobody's Smart About Intelligence. New York Times. March 1, 1998, pp. 15-16, Section 4
    6. Gardner, Howard. 1991. Frames of Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. USA: Basic Books, p. 6