What is communication?

Lately, a lot of conversation about Bill Van Patten’s ideas about tasks in the language classroom has popped up in different teaching for acquisition groups, specifically on Facebook.  The idea seems to be that we must create reasons for students to communicate in the language in the classroom.  A task offers a student a reason to communicate.

I have recently attempted a few tasks which I hope to write about over Spring break.  But as I reflect, initially, I feel a sense of asking myself to use caution with tasks.  As someone commented on one of the posts; why do students need to complete the task in L2 when it is much easier to do in L1?

Are we actually creating opportunities for natural communication to foster acquisition in our classrooms?  If I am being honest, 95%+ of the time, the answer is no.  It doesn’t matter if I am using a TPRS story, a Van Patten like task or a traditional sentence diagram activity.  Students do not need to communicate in the L2.  I’ve noticed this is the biggest roadblock for some students in the quest to acquire language.  They don’t see the need to communicate in the L2 language.

We create the communicative context in our classrooms.  As I think about this, there are 3 ways to create this communicative context.

  • We create individual desire to communicate through compelling input in the L2
  • We create community around communication in the L2.
  • We create expectations of a classroom with communicative context.

Creating communicative context is easy when #1 and #2 happen.  These are the days we know acquisition is happening.  These are the days we had a loose plan and a student took it somewhere that we never imagined it could go.  These are the classes filled with students who connect and create the compelling input with one another.  These days do not always happen.  These days especially do not happen when a group doesn’t see the value in reason #1 and #2.

We must be careful that we don’t overdo trying to achieve #1 and #2.  Compelling input can be a moving target.  And our classrooms are filled with individual students with all sorts of variables affecting how they interact in community.  If we are honest with ourselves, there is much that we cannot control that affects the community of our language classrooms.  Sometimes, the variables are stacked against our acquisition goals.

So what happens then?  We have to create the expectation of a communicative context.  This is hard.  Some students will fight it, while at the same time bemoaning the annotated vocabulary notes they just took in such and such AP class.  They know that explicit learning might not pay off later, but they fight building a community built around implicit learning.  These groups are fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

But, communication can still take place in the L2 in such a situation.  Sometimes I find myself caught up in the ideal.  I find myself thinking that students must be seeking information in Latin at all times for communication to occur.  But when I reflect, I’m realizing that is a mistake.  Take my own children for an example…

Our 15 month old recently started her journey to output in her L1.  Sometimes, she is clearly communicating.  “Eat, more, up, and even please” are regular ways for her to communicate her needs and wants to us.  Right now, “up” might mean “pick me up” or “put me down.”  But other times, she is simply communicating for entertainment.  Her older sisters play some sort of little game with her where they say “Bye, Bye,” then they look away from Millie and say, “Oh look!  That’s my baby!”  Millie chants “Baby, Baby” while laughing to get them to do it again.  Millie repeats her sisters’ names when mom or dad say them to her, but she won’t say them when we ask her where her sisters are.  Perhaps that means she hasn’t acquired the word “sister” yet.

Connecting with students is the driving force behind creating a communicative context.  But sometimes that connection might only be in expectations.  Those situations are difficult.  The acquisition is much more slow and messy.  But it is still a connection.

So back to tasks.  I’m leaning toward a middle ground with tasks.  Tasks will not open up some magical acquisition box that we haven’t already found.  But tasks do have a purpose.  They offer a varied way to create connection with students.  A task that makes a strong connection will open a golden box of acquisition because a communicative context is created for students in the connection.

Don’t create a task because you think it is better than a TPRS class story or a PQA section or a text that connections to students.  Build a task when you a looking for another way to make a connection to students.  Don’t expect communication because a task worked for another teacher.  Only you know how you are connected to your students.

Come back soon as I will reflect more with some specific tasks as examples.  2 that worked well and another that started out strong but ended by taking up much more instruction time then I wanted.


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