Language Use and Its Effects on Comprehensible Input in EFL Classrooms

This essay is an abridged and translated version of my another essay called "İkinci Dil Öğretiminde Hedef Dil, Ana Dili ve Araç Dil Kullanımı".

According to the dynamics of the language classrooms, we have two types of interaction: Classroom Language and Instruction Language. Although nevertheless, these concepts look similar, they differ depending upon the instructor, learner, materials, course designers or curriculum and institutional conditions or authorities, etc.

Classroom Language means the language that speaks by the individuals of the classroom inside or outside of the institution. Instruction Language, on the other hand, comprises the language that speaks by the instructor to provide the input of the target language. For instance, even the instructor uses the target language while the language teaching process, it is quite possible to see the usage of another common language between the learners in reality. In this sense, we can classify the language choices in three main sets of factors: Target Language, Medium Language, and First Language.

  1. Target Language Usage:

Using the target language as a classroom language or an instruction language might have an important role on creating a real communication environment and supporting productiveness of the learners, especially given the fact that there may be few opportunities for learners to encounter aforesaid atmosphere outside of class settings (Hall, 2001; Halliwell and Jones, 1991; Macoro, 2000; Macdonald, 1993 as cited in DiFrancesco, 2013).  However, when it comes to applying this when and how the main determiners consist of the strategies selected in reference to the classroom dynamics. Concordantly, we can specify the implementations for the target language use as follows:

  • The instructor can use the techniques of Total Physical Response by concreting objects, visuals, gestures, facial expressions, and body language.
  • The instructor can fill the silent moments with talking in a target language environment. For instance, technical issues can be verbalized in the target language to show the actions that can possibly occur in the natural and real world’s situation of the target language.
  • To check comprehension, instructors and learners can develop specific gestures or codes between them. For example, they can try to understand each other by acting out or drawing.
  • The instructor can also teach grammar in the target language by making form-meaning connections. Usage of visual material such as animations or presentational softwares might be helpful on this.
  • Leaners should be thought simple language phrases or questions to interact in the target language during class sessions. The instructor can provide these expressions in posters or colored cards as an easy reference for learners during the activities.
  • Learners should be aware that they do not have to understand every word they heard, instead of that, they can try to catch the keywords and form a guess as to the overall meaning (DiFrancesco, 2013).

2.First Language Usage:

Using the first language in the foreign language teaching process has many different reasons for instructors and learners. While instructors are using the first language to explaining grammatical or complex structures, learners choose to use the first language for communicating and enlightening the meaning. However, besides all, first language usage comes to easier than other options for both of them. The first language is actually can be helpful for second language acquisition as long as it is using fairly balanced.

In the US, researches have shown that instructors utilize English for discipline and classroom management, grammar explanations, clarification, saving time and avoiding ambiguity (Duff and Polio,1990; Kraemer, 2006; Wing, 1980 as cited in DiFrancesco, 2013). According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, the first language can be used for classroom management and explanations, however when it comes to implementing activities, presentations and exercises, target language should be used. Nevertheless, first language usage should be gradually decreased and the ways that would increase self-studying must be augmented by adding verbal and written authentic materials to the curriculum (MEB, 2002). The factors that would provide an effective way for first language use can be explained as follows:

  • Instructors can use the first language to arouse a sense of security in learners.
  • They can build background prior to reading, listening, speaking and writing tasks and activities by using the first language.
  • They can give some comparative and typological examples between the grammatical features of first and target languages.
  • Instructors can maximize intake by using L1 to make the input comprehensible.
  • They can use the mother tongue to avoid giving learners the feeling of identity-threatened by the total rejection of their mother tongue.
  • They can help the students with comprehension problems when L2 fails or is not effective enough (Ostovar – Namaghi and Norouzi, 2015).

3.Medium Language Usage:

We can describe the medium language as the common language between learners and the instructor inside or outside of the classroom. Medium language helps to explain oneself and easies comprehension.

According to Brufit (2001), wherever there are social differences, it reflects the language (as cited in Futurelearn, 2017). For this reason, if the classroom has students from different cultural backgrounds, medium language usage might have an important role. We can assume intercultural communication skills significant as much as the four main language skills for multicultural classrooms. Because language teaching should be more than teaching grammar and vocabulary and consequently the acquisition of the target language’s culture is part of the learning process.

Teaching cultural dimensions have been always problematic for foreign language teaching. In that case, what is the point that makes culture essential for EFL settings? In second language teaching, it progresses naturally. Even a special effort, the learner can discover the target society’s cultural believes, values and behaviors. Beside of this, second language teaching classes has a broad range of cultures in case of international classroom profiles. Therefore, the learner’s international communication skills are not limited by only the target culture. For this reason, provide an intercultural awareness in the classroom needs the effort of the instructor in EFL settings.

If the foreign language teacher uses a common language as a medium of the instruction, she/he must be considered the factors as follows:

  • Every learner has a different learning style.
  • Cultural patterns might be identical for the groups, in this case, interruptions can be tolerated, and some of the students can be shy to ask questions.
  •  The instructor should have some typological information about the target language and the medium language to compare.
  • The medium language can increase the metacognitive skills between the learners, it also can make easier to discover the target language.

According to Krashen (1985) understanding messages is the only way to learn a language which means receiving comprehensible input. From this point of view, we can talk about different interactions that are possible to see occurring the target language usage, first language usage, and medium language usage. For instance, when we think of an EFL classroom in Turkey, target language usage must contain some syntactic dimensions. On this point, it is quite possible to come across a complaint from the learners such as “I can understand but cannot speak!”. Understanding without speaking shows us the level of comprehension stuck on the semantic state. Therefore, the instructor would be careful about not just the comprehension of the input, also the output. If we take on the hand the same classroom again if the instructor chooses to use the first language in a fair amount. This might help to compare Turkish linguistic features with English which also called inter-language grammar (Gass,1997). The acquisition of inter-language grammar helps the learners to evaluate the input to output.  Besides of all, there is also another point which possible to come across in EFL settings is miscommunication. It can be seen as “misunderstanding” or “half understanding”. These kinds of situations are another important reason to identify language usage in EFL classrooms.

When we considered all these together, it is obvious to take separately Classroom Language and Instruction Language, when it comes to choosing the language in use. However, a “fair amount of usage” can confuse methodologically the instructions and also it gives them a free space to designing their lessons by considering classroom’s dynamics. When these dimensions absorbed properly, the appropriate language use must be chosen for comprehensible input and consequently output.

References:

CEFR (2002), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Avrupa Ortak Başvuru Metni), Ankara: MEB, Turkey.

Difrancesco, D. (2013), Instructor Target Language Use in Today’s World Language Classrooms, MultiTask, MultiSkills, MultiConnections (Editör: Stephanie Dhoanu), Central State Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Futurelearn (2017), English as a Medium of Instruction for Academics Online Course, Southampton University, https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/emi-academics

Gass, S. (1997), Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner, Lawrance Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Krashen, S. (1985), The Input Hypothesis, Longman.

Ostovar-Namaghi, S.A. (2015), Namaghi, S., First Language Use in Teaching a Foreign Language: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Findings, US-China Foreingn Language, Eylül, S: 13.

First Language Acquisition of Children

Languages are the most important invention of our species. We use it in our daily life to communicate, integrate and interpret. However, humans are not able to use language when they born. Even so, everyone can learn their first language unconsciously when they were babies on certain health conditions. Babies learn sounds, words, meanings, and constructions but how they learn to use language in the context of communication? Do they learn language instinctively or unconsciously? Clark (2013) approaches to this issue by discoursing the nature and nurture of the humankind:

“Do children have to learn everything about language and language use from scratch? Do they start at birth with John Locke’s tabula rasa, or do they come with certain things already pre-wired? The debate over this has led many to draw strict lines between “nature” (any innate capacities and structures children born with) and “nurture” (what they gain from experience).”

According to her, it is almost impossible to distinguish nature from nurture in development and even if the infants have a learning mechanism for language acquisition, it would have focused only on syntactic structure.

If we contextualize the first language acquisition process, we can focus on two dimensions of language: social and cognitive (Clark,2013). Language is a social part of our life; we use it to have a conversation with each other. As social creatures, language allows us to be part of our community. According to this reality, we can say that children learn the language to be a participant in a conversation. The social dimension of the language motivates us to learn the language.

Usually, children start talking at age one. When we consider the cognitive dimensions of the first language acquisition process, we can observe that children have already had about twelve months of life experiences. So, what they know by the time? They can identify objects and actions, recognize faces and use some tools. All things considered, they are setting up descriptions about the things they see and observe (Clark,2013).

Infants produce their first words at age one and they became able to speak fluently by three or four. This talking made them part of social communication. Children’s learning process of talking begins with infancy. At seven-ten months, they start to babbling. After they produced their first recognizable words, they combine these words with gestures and intonations around age two. Until age six, they learn how to use language for a large array of functions. By around age ten or later, they have mastered a wide range of skills, like rich vocabulary and complicated constructions.

However, comprehension does not develop with production. Children can understand many words before they had biological maturity to produce them. Besides biological abilities, this situation is also similar to the second language acquisition process. People tend to be understanding than speaking. Stephen Krashen (1985) describes this population with the term of “non-speaker” in his book that he explains his Input Hypothesis’s issues and implications. According to his approach, a non-speaker’s case can be explained by the presence of a strong output filter, a hesitancy to perform for psychological or affective reasons. If we compare the inadequate performing of the second language with the first language acquisition process of an infant, we recognize that the biological inabilities turn to psychological hesitations and social anxieties in the advancing years.

When we looked at the early words of children, we see that they have a vocabulary of around 14,000 words by age six. However, it is fewer when it comes to production. According to Clark (2013), learning a word requires assigning it a meaning, finding out which grammatical category it belongs to, and identifying the constructions it can appear in. On this point, Chomsky (in 1986 at the Boston University Child Language Conference) distinguishes the language as two levels: the surface level and the deep level. Languages can differ on the surface level, whereas at the deep level, all of them express the same meaning. He terms that by Universal Grammar which contains all the human languages. According to him, children are born tie in with this term. They get clues from their society’s language and these clues reinvigorate their instinctive knowledge of Universal Grammar. Subsequently, they apply the rules and become users of the language without awareness (Gillen, 2003).

Besides the instincts, children learn languages by observing, interpreting and participating in social settings. In this connection, Vygotsky believes that children listen to the language used around and to them and start to use it. In this way, they gradually become able to understand it (as cited in Gillen, 2003). We learn languages to interact with others. This need to make language learning an obligatory for us. We can observe this on children’s talk to themselves. By doing this, they experience social relations and improve their abilities in the language. When children became more social, this behavior simply disappears.

What do children really talk about when they became able to literally talking? What words their early vocabularies contain? A survey about young children’s first 40-50 words of Clark (1979) shows that their first 50 words fall into a fairly small number of categories such as people, food, body parts, clothing, animals, vehicles, toys, household objects, routines and activities or states. As the same research reported, not surprisingly, young children talk about what is going on around them. For example, the people they see every day; toys and small household objects they can manipulate; the food they themselves can control; clothing they can get off by themselves; animals and vehicles, both of which move and so attract attention; daily routines and activities; and some sound effects (Clark, 2013).

All things considered, when it comes to acquiring the first language, there are various stages to pass for a child. However as first language acquisition studies say, all these stages complete without awareness. Even so, all of them are essential in the first language development process, if one is missed, the child will not be able to repass. Therefore, the environment has an important role in this development. Parent’s speech, even if it is modified has a key point.

Understanding the first language acquisition process helps us to improve new methods for second language learning. Because people never lose completely their proficiency in their first language. If children’s language learning continuum can have combined with L2 settings, learning a new language can become more desirable for all ages.

References:

Clark, Eve V. 2013, First Language Acquisition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Clark, Eve V. 1979, Building a vocabulary: Words for objects, actions, and relations. In P. Fletcher & M. Garman (eds.), Language Acquisition (149 – 160). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gillen, J. 2003, The Language of Children, London and New York: Routledge.
Krashen, Stephen D. 1985, The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, Longman.