May 24, 2008

order of acquisition

More thoughts on Susan Gross' article "Order of Acquisition"

First to give credit where it is due, "order of acquisition" is one of Krashen's hypotheses. The article is explaining the hypothesis and talking about its practical implications.

Grammatical features of a language are acquired in a predictable pattern, although there is no way to list all the grammatical features of any language - there are too many!

In English, the order of acquisition for verb morphemes is -ing, regular past tense, irregular past tense, 3rd person present tense -s.

In Spanish, some uses of the subjunctive are acquired before some uses of gender.

The problem with this, as I see it, is that traditional classes don't allow for this natural acquisition process. We teach specific grammatical features each year, and expect students to learn and internalize these structures, even when they aren't in the natural order! For instance, we teach present tense in first year, but past tense is not until second year. Or, although we all know that young children tend to drop the verb in sentences, we fault our students heavily for doing the same thing.

The examples in the article are that first children do not use the copular verb at all. Sentences will be similar to "Tommy tall."

Second, there is a gerneralization of the verb. In English students will use the verb "is" for everything, in Spanish they use the verb "es" whether the sentence is in first, second or third person is irrelevant.

Although there is a natural order for acquisition, Susan reaffirms the fact that we should not shelter the grammar input from students. Which is, of course, what we traditionally do. We only speak or provide reading materials in the present tense for the entire first year. Only when students have mastered this concept do we begin to think about other tenses, and even then we stay in the shadow of the land of present tense, using complex verbs for future tense and recent past.

She points out the fallacy of waiting to provide input until a child is ready for the next stage. Young children would never acquire their first language - or at least not as quickly - if parents waited to provide input until their children were ready to progress.

In TPRS, we are urged to shelter vocabulary, not grammar. Although even that isn't as sheltered as in a traditional class. Or, rather, it's sheltered in a different way. In a TPRS classroom, students are not expected to memorize long lists of vocabulary words, but vocabulary is presented in the class through comprehensible stories. For the most part, we focus on the high frequency words of the language (duh!) but we also allow for student interest (like erizo - hedgehog, I never would have learned that one if a student had not wanted to talk about his pet in class.) Students are also exposed to many vocabulary words through their reading. I think the sheltering of vocabulary is more in what we repeat, and what we expect students to be able to learn.

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