Comprehensible Input and the Noble Art of Horse-riding

There are a couple of books that I have been reading and rereading and discussing with friends and thinking about for some time now. They deal with how we think and learn and acquire and I’ve been fascinated by the light they throw on Stephen Krashen’s fundamental distinction between learning and acquisition.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his studies of how we make decisions. He summarized his ideas in a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which became a best seller. He explains that the brain has two systems which it uses to make decisions. Fast thinking, also called hot cognition, produces automatic, unconscious, spontaneous, almost instantaneous reactions to a situation. It is efficient and requires no effort. The light turns green and you shift gears and touch the accelerator with just the right pressure while you’re thinking about what you’re going to fix for supper because System One is driving the car. When you confront an unfamiliar problem and have to use all your cognitive powers to find an adequate solution, you call on System Two. Slow thinking, or cold cognition, requires costly energy. As we say, you “pay” attention.

It is easy to see how the two systems apply to language students and Learning vs Acquisition. When students are engaged in an interesting story, focused on content rather than form, when they forget that they are using a foreign language, they are using fast thinking. They are using acquired knowledge to understand what is being said and to formulate their ideas without thinking about grammar. When they start trying to remember the rules they learned about “for and since”, irregular verbs and pronoun placement, they are using slow thinking and will feel exhausted after a five minute conversation.

The other book which I have been reading is “Trying not to Try” by Edward Slingerman. Originally I was intrigued by the title because of a problem I had been having with my mare, Sweetie Pie. She is a lovely French Trotter who earned her name with her gentle disposition, but when I bought her she needed to “acquire” an easier, better balanced canter. You might say that having been born a trotter, cantering was a foreign language for her. My instructor had worked with trotters before and said there would be no problem training her. He trained her with riders who had more skill than me. They were confident and played lots of games with her. She enjoyed the sessions and was soon moving easily from a trot to a slow, rocking-chair canter that she could eventually maintain even with long reins.

But when I asked her to canter she lunged into it, hard and fast, throwing me forward, making my hands fly up and pull on the reins, which told her I didn’t want to canter, so she would go back to trotting, her mother tongue.  I now realize that she picked up on all my doubts and apprehensions and was trying hard to do what I wanted, trying too hard. After several tries she would start getting frustrated with the rider who didn’t know what she wanted and my apprehensions would reach the point where I was seriously considering giving up. My instructor showed me what I was doing wrong, repeating over and over that I must not lean forward or lift my hands, that my request to canter must be gentler. Sweetie and I were both trying too hard. I went to every lesson determined to relax and ended it frustrated and no closer to being able to canter on Sweetie. I could canter on other horses and she could canter with other riders, but together we were getting nowhere. I knew I needed to try not to try, so when I saw the title of Slingerman’s book, I was immediately interested.

The book is fascinating. It begins with a discussion of two rival philosophies in the early history of China. Little is known about Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, other than that he urged us not to try. “The wise soul does without doing.” Confucius on the other hand told his disciples to work at polishing their manners, to study and learn, to discipline their desires in order to reach the perfect ease and unconscious grace of a master, which he claimed to have attained at the age of 70. Slingerman argues that they shared the same ideal but disagreed on how to attain it.

Do not assume that Slingerman is merely studying a long-forgotten quarrel between two ancient Chinese schools of thought. He references modern research and argues that the debate about how to try not to try is still relevant and far from settled. It’s easy to see how relevant the two schools are to the quarrel between Comprehensible Input teachers (definitely close to the Taoists) and those who insist that grammar explanations and/or communicative activities are necessary (Confucians). I could also see that how relevant it was to my predicament with Sweetie.

Trying to solve my difficulties, I had followed my Confucian instincts, taken a lot of lessons, explored a lot of ideas, read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people. Some Taoists thought all I had to do was take her out on the trail, whack her hard and hold on for dear life, trusting System One to keep me in the saddle. My Confucian instructor kept telling my System Two brain to sit up straight and lower my hands. But when Sweetie lunged forward System Two bailed every time and System One took over in panic mode, turning me into a monkey clutching at a branch, shoulders forward and hands up.

Having read the book, I can say that Sweetie Pie and I are doing much better. Instead of worrying about the canter, I’m learning to trust her to take care of doing the cantering and I distract my slow thinking system with my breathing, focusing all my energy on getting into a regular rhythm of deep breaths, in and out, which leaves fast thinking System One free to help my body adapt to the change of pace when Sweetie begins to canter. As long as I can keep System Two busy with breathing, we do quite well. As soon as System Two starts worrying about my position, I lose the rhythm and balance I had while System One was in charge.

What do my horse riding adventures have to do with teaching English? A lot. Kahneman specifically identifies trying to be grammatically correct with System Two’s slow thinking. We all know that while you’re trying to figure out whether to say “le soupe” or “la soupe” any French waiter worth his mustache will have turned on his heel and gone to wait on another table. Slow thinking and grammatical accuracy are fine when you are in a situation which allows you to use “the monitor”, as when you are editing a written text. (On horseback I can look like an Olympic competitor as long as the horse is standing still so that I can use System Two.)

Focusing on content rather than grammatical form leaves fast thinking System One in charge of language. What I have often noted, and many of my colleagues have made the same observation, is that System One’s grammar is actually better than that of System Two. Our intuition says this is impossible, but when students have received enough comprehensible input to fuel their L2 brains and they are engaged in speaking about something that genuinely excites them, their language improves remarkably. I always encouraged students who were passing oral exams to bring the conversation around to something they were passionate about. When students start worrying about verb tenses and pronoun placement, they make all the classic mistakes, just as when I start thinking about my position, my hands tend to go up and my shoulders to go forward.

Fluency writing is an exercise which rather proves my point. The purpose of fluency writing is to eliminate the monitor and let System One take over. To do this, students are asked to write as much as possible in a limited period of time, usually 5-10 minutes, without worrying about grammatical correction. They are explicitly told to favor quantity over quality. I have my students keep a Fluency Writing notebook and congratulate them as their texts become longer and longer. Students who once sweated blood to produce 40 words in an hour are soon doing twice that many in ten minutes and many can write over 100 words. But the real eye-opener is in seeing that as they relax in the freedom of the exercise, (when they stop trying) their writing becomes both more spontaneous more grammatically correct. System One seems to have a direct line to the high quality input they have received; their subconscious models their expression on that input. When System Two takes over it tries to remember the relevant rules, which may or may not be applicable, and very often the form that it decides on turns out to be the one that was frequently underlined by the teacher in red.

I think Lao Tzu would have approved of Fluency Writing and Confucius would not have hesitated to give his students pages and pages of workbook exercises on the use of the Present Perfect. As I worked my way through “Trying Not to Try”, I admired the author’s efforts at impartiality, but I expected him to finish with a conclusion firmly on the side of Lao Tzu, on the side of Krashen and Comprehensible Input and unforced output.

There I’ve said it. Output. No one has ever been able to refute Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, but many teachers quibble about the studies that support him and feel in their bones that he must be wrong about Output. After all, we are language teachers. We want to see our students produce. We want to see the fruit of our efforts. And many of us, at least those in my generation, learned a language by memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary lists. We were drilled like Confucius’ students and as a matter of fact we were pretty good students. Our output was the envy of all our not-so-gifted classmates. So what can be wrong with output? What can be wrong with asking our students to produce language?

We could reply that stutterers and children with other speech pathologies are often the victims of forced output. Yet we all know students who so dread having to speak that they say nothing. How can you ever get them to produce language if you don’t force output just a little? Slingerland tells an ancient story which I found very apt.

“In the State of Song there was a man who, worried because his sprouts of grain were not growing fast enough, decided to go out to his field and pull on them. Without any idea of what he’d done, he returned home and announced to his family, ‘I am really exhausted today. I’ve been out in the fields helping the sprouts to grow!’ Alarmed, his sons rushed out to the fields to take a look and saw that all the sprouts had shriveled and died.”

My demands that Sweetie canter were attempts to force output. No matter how gentle I tried to be with my inner heel, it was always too harsh for such a sensitive horse, so she would leap forward, making it difficult for me to keep my seat. Although she had acquired a lovely canter, my demands pushed her into the rough “trotter’s canter” she had when I first bought her. Now I have completely stopped using my heel. I simply say, “Canter”, letting her know that it’s okay if she wants to. I breathe out while she moves into a gentle canter that I can sit. I’m no longer forcing output and she is cantering.

When teachers require output before the student is ready, the result is pulled sprouts. TPRSers talk about waiting for language “to fall out of their mouths.”  Just as with children learning to speak their first language, some will speak earlier than others, but in time they will all acquire the language and be able to speak spontaneously, effortlessly.

And I have to say that it is not always the teacher who is pulling on the sprouts. Some students, particularly older ones, are so anxious to see results that they are far more demanding and critical than any teacher would be. It takes patience and trust on the part of both teacher and student to wait for the sprout to grow into a healthy, vigorous plant.

Yet, to my surprise, Slingerland did not come down as decidedly on the side of Lao Tzu as I expected him to. He found some justification to Confucian rigor and determined trying, suggesting that they could, eventually, lead to the spontaneous ease of wu-wei, effortless action. And I have to admit that there are diligent, motivated students who do attain high levels of fluency, using conscious cognition and, shudder, grammar rules. They are exceptional, but a lot of them eventually experience enough immersion to acquire the language and some become language teachers. They expect the same rigor, determination, perseverance and discipline from their students and are frequently disappointed.

In their defense, Slingerland cautions that not trying at all is as bad as trying too hard. We shouldn’t pull on the sprouts, but the field does need to be weeded. And I realized that the title he chose for his book is revealing. It is not called “Doing without trying.” It is called “Trying Not to Try,” a paradox he fully admits.

I’m still thinking about what this implies in relation to the way I teach. I don’t do grammar lessons and explanations. I do use pop-ups. I only use the Verb Flower to reassure my baffled French natives that there is a system to English Verbs; it’s just very different from French conjugations. I never force my students to output, but I do give them lots of opportunities to speak. I do a lot of circling (weeding?) with beginners, less with those who have strong roots. I sense that with some students I lean towards Lao Tzu and with others toward Confucius. Since I give private lessons, I have the wonderful luxury of being able to adapt each lesson to the individual student’s needs. Slingerland’s book has helped make me more aware of what I am proposing and of my final goal: wu-wei, effortless action. Or how do you say “effortless speech” in Chinese? In an ideal world a lesson would consist in a pleasant conversation about something both I and the student are passionately interested in. In a less than perfect world?  I may not have many students who want to talk about horse-riding, but we can still find something that we care about and we will both try not to try. I will concentrate on breathing and content, rather than forcing their output. I will weed diligently, but I will not pull on the sprouts. I will let them know that it’s okay to canter, but I will let them decide when they are ready.

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