Friday, March 21, 2014

How Languages are Learned by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada [First Edition]

Why I Read This Book
          This book was part of the recommended reading for the Distance DELTA (W) that I’m currently enrolled in.

The Review
          An outstanding little book.
            In contrast to many of the other books I’ve read on second language learning, this book was incredibly easy to read. 
            Much of this is no doubt because this book is written for language teachers, and not academics.  The book is therefore written at a much more basic level than some of the more academic books - I’ve read on the same subject.
            And it must also be said that the authors, Lightbown and Spada, appear to be very talented writers, who are capable of writing very readable prose.  (Both Lightbown and Spada are names which frequently occur in the literature of second language learning.  This is the first book I’ve read by either of them, but based on my pleasant experience with this book, I’ll be looking out for their names in the future.)
            Much of the content was stuff I was already familiar with from my other readings, but it was written in such a clear and straightforward manner that I didn’t mind reading it all again.
            The book was so readable that I ended up finishing it in just two days.  (Which, for a slow reader like me, is something of a feat.  Granted it’s a short book—only 117 pages of main text—but still.)

            The purpose of the book is to make non-academic language teachers aware of some of the academic research that has been carried out in second language learning, and what can be concluded from them.  Given that the field of second language learning is still evolving, the book draws very few firm conclusions, but it does highlight a couple areas of broad agreement. 
            For example, there seems to be a lot of evidence that a good language program must focus on both communicational activities and grammatical forms.  A language class which focuses only on grammatical forms will result in students who understand the rules of grammar, but can’t speak the language.  But a focuses on only communicational activities will result in problems with grammatical forms.
            (By the way, this corresponds very well to my own anecdotal experience in Japan.  The Japanese public schools are a good example of the former, and the private conversation schools in Japan are a good example of the latter.)
            A good language class must therefore include both a communication element, but also some focus on form activities for the grammatical forms which students are not fully acquiring through communication activities alone.

* The version of this book that I read is the 1993 first edition.  (My copy is the 8th impression, republished in 1998, but I believe still containing the same content as the first edition.)
            This version is now out of date, and 2006 edition was technically the version recommended for the DELTA.
            However, in Cambodia, it can be hard to track down books.  (English books are scarce in general in Asia, and an unreliable postal service in Cambodia makes it risky to try and special order anything.)  This was the version of the book floating around our staffroom, so this was the version of the book I read.
            If at some point in the future I manage to track down a newer edition of this book, I will try and read that also.

* This book discussed five approaches for teaching languages:
1. Get it right from the beginning
2. Say what you mean and mean what you say
3. Just listen
4. Teach what is teachable
5. Get it right in the end
            Although this list is not intended to be comprehensive, I noticed it was missing the proposal discussed by Rod Ellis in SLA Research and Language Teaching.  Ellis argues that students can be taught grammar for comprehension even if they are not yet ready to use it productively.  (And, Ellis argues, being familiar with the grammatical form may help the students notice it in the input, which could facilitate intake, and aid acquisition down the road.)
            Since I find Rod Ellis’s ideas attractive, I thought this was a useful proposal that was missing from the discussions, and perhaps an important middle ground between pushing a grammatical form too early and not teaching it at all.
            But then, Rod Ellis’s book was first published in 1997, 4 years after this book, so this probably relates back to the above point about my edition being out-of-date.

* And this last point will be of interest to no-one except me, but:
            …as I read through this book, I came across a passage I realized I had read before.  Over ten years ago now (ohgeezhasitbeenthatlongalready?Wheredoestimego?) I was attending an informal language exchange in Japan.  One of the young Japanese volunteers was a university student who was reading this book for her class on language learning, and she was discussing it with us.  For whatever reason, the passage was one of those few things that stuck in my memory, and I recognized it when I came across it again here.  “Ah, so this is where that passage came from?” I said to myself.  Another one of life’s little mysteries solved.

Also from 10 Things I Will Miss About Cambodia
As with most stuff on Khmer440, I have mixed feelings about linking to this.  It's heavily exaggerated (somewhat deliberately for comic effect, somewhat, I suspect, just to pad out the list).   But, taken with a grain of salt, it can give a glimpse into the expat life here in Cambodia.