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Creating A Framework For Successful Language Acquisition And Academic Learning

posted Feb 17, 2010, 11:41 AM by Quốc-Anh Vương   [ updated Feb 17, 2010, 11:40 AM by Chí-Thông Nguyễn ]





Phap Dam, Ph.D.

Professor of Linguistics and Education

Texas Woman’s University



My dear colleagues and friends:


              In spite of fascinating and useful discoveries made by second-language acquisition researchers in the recent past, we still have plenty to learn about how a second language is acquired. Yet, I believe we sort of know enough now so as to make specific safe and feasible recommendations for language teachers.


              The good news is that people of all ages can efficiently acquire a second language. As a life-long learner of languages I can vouch for this truth, although I must admit that as I age, I have to try harder in my language learning. It is now quite a challenge for me to store new vocabularies and grammatical rules in my cluttered brain! But I will never give up this great hobby of mine. The not-so-good news is that, according to a study in the year 2000 by researchers Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow, the acquisition of English by language minority children has not been universally successful. It seems these children are having a harder time learning English [1]. We all recall that in the early 1980s Jim Cummins found out it would take these children from 5 to 7 years to learn English. But now, as we read more recent studies by researcher Virginia Collier, it may take something like from 7 to 10 years!


              All of us want to see students make quick progress in ESL, but in language education, the saying “haste makes waste” makes a lot of sense, for there is no way to accelerate the natural and subconscious process, which is the developmental aspect of language acquisition. But we should be pleased to know that there are effective ways to enhance the socio-cultural and cognitive aspects of language acquisition.


              There is plenty of evidence that formal teaching does not speed up the developmental process. ESL textbooks typically introduce the “-s” ending for the simple present tense verb when he, she, or it is the subject (he eats, she swims, it crosses). Attentive students may get it right on a written test, but they keep ignoring it in speech and in writing. Only after years of exposure to English will they have acquired this ubiquitous ending. Thus, sequenced teaching materials have little validity in the ESL classroom. It’s interesting to note that even native speakers of English take time to master the “-s” ending for the verb in the simple present tense that has a third person singular subject. They master the “-s” ending marking noun plurality (cats, dogs, boxes) significantly earlier.


              In light of the above, we may now wonder about a “natural order of ESL acquisition” and whether we know enough to sequence appropriate grammatical lessons for English language learners. The truth is that we know very little about that “natural order.” We know that the “-ing” form of a verb, the plural noun marker “-s” and the helping verb “be” are acquired early. Next are the auxiliaries (such as can, may, and must) and articles (the, a) followed by irregular past tense (such as came and went). Morphemes acquired late are the regular past tense marker (“-ed” ending), the third person singular present tense verb marker (“-s” ending), and the possessive case marker (“’s” ending). There is nothing new beyond those grammatical morphemes. I wish we knew the acquisition order of such important items as the passive voice and the use of verb tenses. Acquisition order of ESL syntax is still very much an uncharted territory.


              In the meantime, I agree with Virginia Collier that second language acquisition is best developed “through contextual, meaningful activities that focus on language use, combined with guidance along the way from the teacher that sometimes involves a focus on language form” [2].  I should like to add that a balance between fluency and accuracy should be the bottom line of ESL education.


              Best practices and state-of-the-art strategies to provide meaningful activities for English language learners have been identified and illustrated. One outstanding collection of such practices and strategies is the second edition in 2004 of the textbook FIFTY STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS written by Adrienne Herrell and Michael Jordan and published by Pearson Education, Inc. Those fifty powerful strategies can be used across curricular areas to support the learning of students by providing comprehensible input, increasing verbal interaction, reducing the students’ anxiety, and offering active involvement of the students. Here are the names and descriptions of some of those strategies: “Advance Organizers: Getting the Mind in Gear for Instruction,” “Language Focus Lessons: Planning Lessons to Support the Acquisition of English Vocabulary and Structures,” “Communication Games: Creating Opportunities for Verbal Interaction,” and “Syntax Surgery: Visually Manipulating English Grammar.”


              As mentioned earlier, while we cannot do much to rush our English language learners’ subconscious linguistic acquisition process, we certainly can do quite a bit to help them emotionally and academically in the classroom. I am going to share with you some of the things we can do to enhance their self-worth and academic achievement while they are still subconsciously acquiring more and more English.


              Academic development in first language undoubtedly has a positive effect on second-language schooling. Even when the two languages do not share a writing system, literacy development, subject knowledge, and learning strategies developed in first language will all transfer to second language. This simple fact is indeed the beauty of bilingual education. Let me illustrate the importance of mastery of the first language through my own story. At age 18, a very long time ago, I left Vietnam to study English in America. I was truly, how ironic, a limited-English-proficient English major in college! I spoke an idiosyncratic form of English. It was unnatural, and it entertained my American classmates. When I first met my very friendly American roommate, he wanted to know about the weather in Saigon when I left just a few days before. I gave him this answer: “My dear friend, when I took leave of my beloved fatherland of Vietnam, the weather was scorchingly hot.” With a big smile he said, “Phap, you speak like William Shakespeare!” Quite embarrassed, I asked him to express that idea in “plain American English” for me. Ever smiling, he replied, “When you left Vietnam, it was hot like hell!” I had other problems with English too, like idioms and basic language functions. It was really a miracle that I did not flunk out of college. I was “saved” by my mastery of Vietnamese and by my excellent command of French. Skills I had mastered in Vietnamese and French transferred to English. My mastery of Vietnamese provided me with academic skills and subject knowledge in general. My knowledge of French, a language related to English, saved me lots of time in acquiring English vocabulary. I found the “cognates” between French and English so beneficial!


              Efforts should be made to include social and academic language development into every lesson. We could start a class with social language development through activities that activate students’ previous knowledge and experience related to the lesson. Academic language in the lesson should be made comprehensible by means of visuals, charts, maps, and technology. Each content area has its specific lexicon and grammar (also called collectively as “register”), which must be taught to the students. For examples, in mathematics vocabulary there is a specialized meaning for some everyday words such as “product” and “square,” and in science grammar the passive voice is frequently used. I believe I have just endorsed the validity of the well done “sheltered content classes” for English language learners.


              The Natural Approach, promoted by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in the early 1980s, has proved to be very effective for second-language acquisition. It seems to me that successful teachers of English language learners all do what the Natural Approach advocates: providing comprehensible input in a stress-free environment. Indeed, such exciting activities recommended by the Natural Approach as Total Physical Response (TPR), Jazz Chants, music, and humanistic activities are all conducive to second-language acquisition. Music not only reduces anxiety in second-language learners, it also stimulates them with meaningful input. Who can resist the powerful appeal of such lyrics as: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray”? Thinking back, I believe romantic Spanish music helped me the most in my development of Spanish literacy. Back in the early 1960s, Trio los Panchos were the kings of Spanish music in the United States. I quickly fell in love with their sensual renditions of  “Bésame mucho,” “Perfidia,” “Solamente una vez,” and other songs.  I bought their records, kept listening to those musical gems until I memorized all the lyrics. Then I did something that I am still proud of: I wrote down on paper all the lyrics I had memorized, as a form of dictation! With the help of a dictionary, I got all the words written correctly, all the accents on the right syllables. The sentences in those songs contain important grammatical rules. For example, in the song “Bésame mucho,” the sentence “Piensa que tal vez mañana esta muy lejos, muy lejos de ti” contains the imperative form for the verb “pensar,” the future tense of the verb “estar,” and the reminder that the subject “yo” is not needed for the verb “esta”!


              There has been quite a controversy about how far an English language learner’s “interlanguage” is influenced by his or her native tongue. Some linguists even say that native-tongue interference is not an important factor in interlanguage. Well, there are also linguists, including myself with 40 years of experience in language learning and language teaching, who do not support that view at all. We see native-tongue influence as the reason for many of the characteristic errors made in English by international students. In my own experience, Spanish-speaking students tend to “negatively transfer” the following features to English: dropping subject pronouns in sentences (Came to Texas last year), placing modifier after head noun (My teacher lives in a house nice), using a flexible word order (Arrived our teacher late this morning), using the simple present tense instead of the present perfect tense (We wait for you since yesterday), and using the reflexive verb construction instead of the passive voice construction (The school built itself in 1960). In Vietnamese, plurality and past tense are expressed by separate words such as “several” and “already” rather than bound morphemes such as the “-s” and the “-ed” inflectional suffixes in English. The Vietnamese speakers who treat plural and past tense as optional rather than obligatory in English are simply transferring Vietnamese syntax to English, causing a predictable error. Understanding the “logic” behind the errors made by English language learners can help us teach them more efficiently. Consciousness-raising or helping learners by drawing attention to distinctive features of the second language is a useful teaching technique. An example of consciousness-raising is telling Spanish speakers to make sure to show subject pronouns in English sentences, or reminding Asian students that the balancing word “but” is not necessary in an English complex sentence which begins with the subordinate conjunction “although.”


              What about “positive transfer” from native tongue? This is undoubtedly a huge bonus, especially in the vocabulary domain, which we must help students take advantage of. There are thousands of cognates between English and Spanish, and many of them exist in academic vocabularies. Helping them master these important words in Spanish also means helping them expand their vocabulary in English. Of course, we have to warn them about “false cognates” such as embarazada / embarrassed and constipado / constipated. Fortunately, there are far more true cognates than false ones. Speakers of Asian languages such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Khmer do not have this bonus. They need more time in their acquisition of English vocabulary.


              In the current literature on second-language acquisition, little is said about “output.” While we all know what good input should be like in the ESL classroom, nothing has been identified as good output. And quite frankly, I have seen pretty bad output from English language learners. There must be more effective ways to improve their output so that it is more grammatically acceptable. It seems only simple structures that are salient are “acquired” successfully without being taught. Complex structures that are seldom used all appear to defy subconscious acquisition. Let me give you some examples, using the daunting system of verb tenses in English. The simple and salient tenses are the “simple present” and the “simple past,” which many English language learners can acquire with relative ease. But the more complex and less frequently used tenses like the “past perfect” (I had met him before he became famous) or the “future perfect progressive” (By this time next year, we will have been living in China for two months) can hardly be trusted to the students’ language acquisition device. They must be “learned” by the students. There are plenty of teachable moments for us to help them. I do believe that we should pay more attention to our English language learners’ spoken and written output and that we should be more demanding in terms of accuracy.


Thank you so much for your attention and may I wish all of you a great summer!





[1] Wong Fillmore, Lily, and Catherine Snow. 2000. What Teachers Need To Know About Language. U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement.


[2] Collier, Virginia. 1995. Promoting Academic Success for ESL Students. New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages – Bilingual Educators (NJTESOL-BE).



*Keynote speech by Dr. Phap Dam at the First Annual Symposium on Second-Language Acquisition and Diversity organized by The University of North Texas on June 11, 2005.