The Mute Native Speaker

I was asked to work with a group of young girls and I began by explaining to the parents that I would be making up stories with the girls and playing games, doing things that would be different than what they were doing in school. During my brief explanation of the principles of Comprehensible Input, one of the fathers was vigorously nodding his head.

Later he told me his own story. His father was born in Italy, near Venice, came to France as a small child, and grew up bilingual, speaking an Italian dialect at home and French in school and everywhere else. When he wanted to marry, he returned to Italy and brought back a bride who spoke no French. Their first son grew up perfectly bilingual, like his father, speaking Italian at home and French elsewhere.

By the time the second son was born, the mother had begun speaking some French. The family was ambitious and considered their Italian dialect as inferior. They believed that speaking good French was the key to success. When the second son began to speak, his parents and older brother laughed at him, saying he spoke Italian with a French accent. Disliking being laughed at, he started speaking only French, which everyone encouraged.

He returned to Italy on holiday with his parents a few times, but relied on his parents or brother as interpreters. He understood what was said in Italian, having heard his parents and older brother speak Italian all his life, but could not answer. Any efforts he made to speak were laughed at, so he didn’t try.

He was a good student, took English and Spanish as foreign languages in school, where he did well, and finished with a very good degree leading to a good job in management. He married a French girl and decided to take her to Italy for their honeymoon.

Then he found himself in Italy with no interpreters around. At first he found it difficult to make himself understood, then words began to come to him. He told me that, to his own amazement, within three days he was speaking fluent Italian. Today, he said, he has a slight French accent and occasionally makes mistakes in gender, but has no difficulties in communicating and being understood.

Dr. Krashen considered this story as a demonstration of the efficacy of comprehensible input alone, proving that production is not necessary for acquisition. Production is merely a way to show what has been acquired.


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