Thursday, December 15, 2016

Some common areas of misunderstanding of the GPA (or under-understanding); thank you Kelsey Arabic Program

Someone called my attention to an article on the web page of a language school—The Kelsey Arabic Program:

The article is called

"Why Our Arabic Program Is Not a GPA Program". 

It made me feel like writing a FAQ article, but I'll start with the questions they raise.

1) Do language schools need to justify not following the GPA?
No. It is good to have a variety of language schools. That should lead to steady, healthy innovation. When schools have desired a monopoly in a country or region it has caused frustration or grief both to the administration and to the clients.

At the end of the article we read, "We appreciate that GPA advocates have introduced new ideas to the language learning discussion, and we wish success for those who take advantage of the services of GPA programs..." I appreciate this gracious spirit, and likewise appreciate all that the Kelsey School has contributed for generations and with success for those who take advantage of the Kelsey services.

2) How is the relationship between first and second language learning viewed within the GPA? 
A growing participator following the GPA is not "learning language like a child". The child is developing mental comprehension and production processes that will be deeply entrenched in the same person as a "second language learner". The Kelsey article mentions the differences in the social context of children and adults, which we would also emphasize. This is not to say that we should ignore child language learning. If nothing else, it contributes to our overall understanding of language. Child language learning helps to create the cognitive and social context of adult language learning. Someone once said that the L1 is the initial state of the L2.

(The 1989 "Fundamental Difference Hypothesis" mentioned in the Kelsey article is not relevant in the approach to linguistics--usage-based, frequency-driven associative learning, etc.--taken in the GPA. In fact, in a 2009 SSLA article, Bley-Vroman--the originator of the "Fundamental Difference Hypothesis" --rejects his earlier "Universal Grammar"-based notion, and turns to conceptions  similar to the ones we embrace in the GPA.)

3) Is the GPA a "naturalistic language learning method"? 
No. By "naturalistic second language learning" is meant simply participating as best one can in the life of a host group and not attending language classes or using any structured program or plan. In the GPA we call naturalistic language learning "lifestyle growing participation". We contrast that with "special-growth participation". We have a program for 1,500 hours (or more) of these latter activities. This is definitely not a case of "naturalistic language learning".

4) Does the GPA have anything to do with Krashen?
Little. There is a tradition in SLA research starting with Krashen and sometimes called "Input-Interaction-Output" approaches.  After Krashen's Monitor Model, which originated in the late 1970s, the line of research was extended by many, including his student Michael Long, and Merrill Swain, Susan Gass, Alison Mackey, and many others. I think Bill VanPatten's theory would be counted as being in this tradition. These approaches are more broadly in the "Interlanguage Tradition" coming from Larry Selinker (early 1970s), and before him, Pit Corder (late 1960s). These are cognitivist traditions, in which what goes on in the head is taken to be the subject matter of second language acquisition research. The social context is acknowledged as being there, and may be a source of some independent variables for research, but is not a locus of the process of interest! The GPA, on the other hand, though it has a serious cognitive dimension, that dimension is different from what is found in "rule-based" (or parameters-based) understandings of language. The GPA actually takes its sociocultural dimension (starting with Vygotsky as interpreted by Wertsch) as the conceptual starting point. And the GPA's cognitive dimension is not concerned with rules but with processes of comprehension and production. As to the issue of grammatical form, we follow "usage-based" accounts, such as those of Joan Bybee (one of my teachers) and Adele Goldberg.

5) Does the GPA "derives much of its theory and techniques" from the Krashen-Terrell Natural Approach?
No, not really. Phase 1 special-growth-participation activities involve a lot of TPR, but I learned the use of TPR directly from James Asher's writings. The Natural Approach held that as long as the input is comprehensible for everyone in a class, it would provide enough i+1 input for everyone's needs. Asher by contrast built specific grammatical patterns (input floods, in fact) into the TPR. One thing that does sound Krashenesque in our First 100 Hours program is our use of the phrase "silent phase" for the special-growth activities of the first thirty to forty hours of Phase 1. I now regret having used their phrase.

I will admit that when I personally discovered SLA in the early 1980s (through a visit to the UCLA bookstore) Krashen was a ubiquitous name and very influential. However, I soon read challenges to him, such as a book by Rod Ellis, and in any case, I never accepted his Input Hypothesis. I felt that comprehensible input was central to the development of comprehension ability, but I observed the phenomenon of "receptive bilingualism" (say, with children of immigrants) and saw that it falsified Krashen's hypothesis that listening alone could produce speaking ability. In any case, even if Phase 1 special-growth activities do remind some people of the Natural Approach, that criticism would only apply to the first 100 hours out of 1500 hours. That would be 7% of the total plan. That hardly counts as "much of its theories and techniques" of the GPA.

6) What about "other language skills" apart from "vocabulary acquisition" "in the early stages of GPA"?
We have a strong emphasis on vocabulary all the way through, aiming for a comprehension vocabulary of over ten thousand words by the time of Phase 6. In Phases 1 through 5, the vocabulary is mainly experienced in the context of larger patterns--questions, instructions, descriptions, stories, abstract explanations, etc. (depending on the phase) in interactive contexts in particular.

7) What about "Formation of complete, formally accurate sentences"?
Regardless of the approach, when foreigners are interacting in the host language in everyday situations, they have a high incidence of non-native-like utterances. "Formation of complete, formally accurate sentences" is more possible in controlled settings, but not so much in normal life. The "G" in "GP" is key to us. In all phases we depend on "assisted performance" (or we like to say, "assisted participation") including recasting and interactive alignment, along with "focus on form" (in Michael Long's sense that contrasts with "focus on formS"), input and output flooding, and structured-input activities in which a particular formal feature that seems to be getting blocked (in Nick Ellis' sense) is made task-essential and the GPs start hearing and understanding it. We follow certain principles in these activities that work well for us. We also encourage regular use of "record yourself for feedback".

8) What about "explicit instruction on the structure of" the language.
If this refers to the popular "three PPP's" pattern (present, practice, produce) it doesn't fit into the GPA narrative. The activities mentioned in response to question 7 above can make formal features highly salient, and the task-essentialness of the formal features can be seen as a fostering "guided induction". In Lightbown and Spada's terms, we do not try to "get it right from the beginning," and we recognize that most won't even "get it right in the end." Thus we emphasize comprehensibility and intelligibility rather than nativelikeness, and aim to grow into Phase 6, where we continue growing, rather than plateauing after an earlier Phase.

9) Are the programs using GPA comprehensive in their approach?
We feel the GPA is comprehensive, including the special-growth-participation activities. We have a saying, "We don't do language, we do people—and people talk a lot". Human reality is discursive, and each languacultural world lives by it's own symbolic meditational means. That demands a comprehensive approach. Not only do we include 500 hours of deep-life-conversation activities (nee: deep-life interviewing) in Phase 4, but add another 500 hours of "widening understanding" conversations in Phase 5, centred around a growing corpus of native-to-native recordings.

10) What about literacy?
Certainly graphic representations of speech ("writing") have played an enormous role  development of human life. We say it is the most important of all inventions. Growing participation, in the GPA sense, is not "learning the language" but rather, being nurtured and apprenticed more and more deeply and broadly into the practices of a people group (with verbal interaction as much of the warp and woof of their practices, of course). Suppose that in a particular group, literacy practices are nearly universal. Then GPs who are being thoroughly nurtured and apprenticed into that world will be nurtured into its literacy practices (and oracy practices), which also implies using reading and writing for the functions that reading and writing have for host people. If literacy is more of a specialist ability in a group, then some GPs will grow into literacy if they are participating in particular, literate specialist groups. In any case, the major factors in determining reading ability for adults becoming literate in a host world are 1) their overall "proficiency" and 2) their level of reading ability in their home language. Reading ability is developed through extensive reading (and in a diglossic situation, conversations about what is read). Writing ability will be founded on reading ability, and also developed through extensive practice, interaction and feedback. Different host peoples' different literacy-related practices mean that people following the GPA will not have one approach to literacy for all languacultural worlds. Each strategy needs to be well-thought-out and left open to rethinking.

11) What about professional, trained teachers?
Host people who have chosen language teaching as their profession and have persisted in it, are likely to enjoy working with foreigners. Professional, trained teachers may or may not be nurturers. Many non-teachers who were trained to be nurturers end up reverting to being teachers (as they understand the teacher role) and not nurturers.  One problem with trained teachers, though, is that with the GPA we are asking them to learn new skills and attitudes of nurturing, and experienced teachers may have strong beliefs about their role that clash with the GPA philosophy. That doesn't have to be the case, though.

Note, though, that we don't encourage a lot of highly technical discussions of grammar, etc. Rather, we make grammatical features "explicit" in ways that don't divert attention from personal interaction. This means that people without such technical knowledge can be nurturers, even if they don't qualify as teachers.

12) What about a hybrid approach?
A popular phrase is "principled eclecticism". We feel the GPA is eclectic (and informed by a wide range of disciplines). In Phase 1, there is a rich variety of experience--visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, social interactional--and we believe this avoids catering to the preferences of some people over others. In line with the "G" of "GPA", the nature of the special-growth-participation activities changes radically over time. Apart from the special-growth times, the nature of the "lifestyle growing participation" also evolves systematically over time. By Phase 6, all growing participation is lifestyle growing participation.

13) If you "believe [you] have something more effective" than the GPA, should you be "using [the GPA approach]".
No. Do what you believe is more effective. Go for it! Do it well. And "wish success for those of us who take advantage of the services of [other] programs." And that is just what you have done! It's great to be on the same team with people like you!