Learning Language through Laughter

Learning Language through Laughter

Laughter echoed through the halls of the school as I walked toward the Fluency Fast Advanced Spanish class in Denver, Colorado earlier this month. My excitement for participating in this class grew with each step, as did my concerns that my intermediate Spanish level would not be sufficient. I knew the class was designed to give non-native Spanish teachers more confidence and fluency, as well as experience with the TPRS® language teaching method. Although I am not a Spanish teacher, I trusted the instructor, Jason Fritze, and the method enough to take on the challenge.

I knew how effective comprehensible input methods could be, because I had acquired basic Mandarin Chinese this way in a summer institute in 2005.  I decided to take the Advanced Spanish class this summer to refresh my very rusty language skills, experience how the method worked at more advanced levels, and give my daughter a jump start for her AP Spanish class in the fall.  During class, I watched, listened, and responded as Jason expertly wove key vocabulary and advanced structures into increasingly more complex and often hilarious stories. Providing outrageous answers to his questions, we created ridiculous dramas that seamlessly incorporated the vocabulary and structures.  As the video

demonstrates, even Jason was in stitches at times.  Language acquisition in this kind of environment, with this kind of expert teacher is a truly joyful experience!

According to Stephen Krashen, compelling comprehensible input provided through stories, video clips, and readings is the best way to acquire language. As a participant in the 12-hour course, I can certainly confirm that my listening and reading comprehension improved significantly. I now have a much better feel for the subjunctive mood than I did after 12 days of intense study 16 years ago at a traditional language school in Quito, Ecuador.  I now have the music of the language in my ears.  Jason’s class provided me just what I needed to reboot my Spanish skills: enjoyable and comprehensible listening and reading input; sentence frames for responding with advanced structures; direct feedback and modeling of corrections; exposure to academic language and content; occasional, brief grammatical explanations in English; and partner interaction.

While comprehensible input formed the foundation of the class, the other strategies Jason used to support our language acquisition were equally as important to me as a learner.  The sentence frames posted on the wall gave me the ability to respond to questions with grammatical structures far beyond what I could have said or written without the frame.  By the last day of class, Jason removed the support posters to assess if we had acquired the advanced structures.  I noticed that I still was not fluent with the structure, but I felt more comfortable producing the language than when the class started two days earlier.  Responding with a sentence frame for an advanced structure helped me improve and extend my Spanish quickly.

As one of the lower level students in the class, I often made grammatical errors when responding to Jason’s questions.  He gave me positive feedback for my ideas and acknowledged my contribution while simply restating or rewriting my response accurately, like a parent would with a child.  Through his modeling, I got the immediate, corrective feedback I needed without the negative stigma attached to a direct correction. His modeling and feedback didn’t interrupt the flow of the class or directly point out my error.  As a language teacher, I have used this modeling strategy with my own students. As a student, I experienced how positive and powerful the tactic is for language acquisition.

In addition to using the vocabulary and structures from a simplified novel in different contexts, Jason exposed the class to authentic, academic listening and reading tasks.  We listened to parts of a speech by the king of Spain, read an article about his decline in popularity, and listened to comedians joking about his reign.  Jason pointed out key vocabulary, transition words, and the historical context, which helped make the challenging text and speeches more accessible. Making academic content comprehensible significantly extended our language skills and cultural understanding.

Occasionally, Jason switched to English to give a very brief explanation of a vocabulary word or grammatical structure.  It was during these short interludes that I noticed bursts of insight, as if something vague and foggy suddenly became clear.  I understand the theory that talking about the language can actually detract from language acquisition, but as a student I appreciated those moments of learning about the language.  It gave some coherence and order to the inherently complex and messy process of language acquisition.

When Jason asked us to speak with our partners in class to come up with ideas for the story or write the story from a different perspective, I had the chance to consolidate the input and practice the language on my own. It was during those interactions that I had the sense of what I had acquired and what I still needed to work on.  My partner and I had the chance to check our understanding, practice the language, and clarify misconceptions. In addition to receiving comprehensible input, I’m convinced that interaction with a supportive partner is another critical element for language acquisition.

Laughter and stories made the 4-hour language class fly by each day.  Jason’s masterful integration of a variety of teaching strategies enabled me to participate in a Spanish class at a much higher level than I thought possible.  I experienced what works. I know that English Language Learners can also find success when teachers incorporate these essential elements:  compelling comprehensible input in multiple contexts, feedback, sentence frames, and plenty of opportunities to interact with the language.

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