“Un croissant, s’il vous plaît.” – What it takes to take it in

13 05 2012

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I learned French for three years over twenty years ago, thus reaching a low-intermediate level that enables me to fairly understand written texts and conversations on familiar topics. My production, however, is miserable, and my last visit to France enabled me to experience many of the second language acquisition (SLA) and learning theories I have studied in my twenty-odd years as a teacher, teacher trainer and researcher. One of them has to do with input, intake, output, interaction and corrective feedback within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978).

 

Contrary to what Krashen (1982) has posited, input alone does not lead to second-language acquisition (SLA). There must be intake and subsequent uptake – which require some sort of noticing (Schmidt, 1990) or input saliency (Doughty and Williams, 1998). Also, according to Swains’ output hypothesis (1985), the act of producing language constitutes, under certain circumstances, part of the process of second language learning.  It is by speaking and interacting that the learner receives feedback, for example, and can learn from it. According to Lyster and Ranta (1997), more explicit types of feedback are more likely to result in intake.  However, in naturalistic settings, not all interlocutors are actually willing or able to provide the feedback the leaner needs. In other words, the quality of the interaction and what the learner will take from it depends fundamentally on the interlocutor’s disposition and ability to create an ideal Zone of Proximal Development.

 

Here’s my experience that confirms this assertion:

 

I stayed in Paris for seven days and had breakfast every day at the same café, where I always ordered a croissant. An avid language learner eager to put my meager French into practice, I always placed my order in French, despite knowing that the sales clerks spoke English. For five consecutive days I said, “Une croissant, s’il vou plait.” For five consecutive days my interlocutor acknowledged my order, handed me my croissant, and charged me the usual amount of money, in English, by the way.

 

It was only on the sixth day that, after my usual line, I was met with a different reaction: “Oh, UN croissant. C’est UN croissant, n’est pas? UN croissant.”  I immediately said, “Oui, UN croissant. Mercy! UN croissant!”  I couldn’t thank the guy enough for finally showing to me that I was using the wrong gender marking for the determiner.  Why hadn’t anyone told me before? Why did I have to stupidly order “une croissant” for five days before a blessed soul cared enough to show me I was wrong!

 

As I kept thinking about the situation, I wondered whether the other clerks had actually used a recast that I hadn’t picked up, or whether they had perhaps repeated the order correctly to their peer who was to get the croissant and give it to me. Though I ‘m never going to be sure, I probably did hear “un croissant” in the input on the previous days, but I didn’t notice it – maybe because there were other things to attend to, maybe because it just wasn’t salient enough.

 

The fact is that I only learned that it was “un croissant” rather than “une croissant” because that particular sales clerk was willing to become a “meaningful other” (Gonzalez-Rey, 2004) in our interaction, an “other” who didn’t only respond to the meaning of my utterance by giving me my croissant, but who also kindly pointed out how my request was malformed so I could learn the language. But then I wonder if someone else in my shoes would have benefited from this corrective feedback the way I did. Maybe another non-native speaker not so interested in speaking more correctly wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps a third one with a high affective filter would have felt intimidated. Someone else might even have felt offended by the correction. Who knows?  Interactional competence has to do with “how (linguistic and interactional resources) are employed mutually and reciprocally by all participants in a particular discursive practice; (…) it is co-constructed by all the participants in a discursive practice and varies with the practice and the participants” (Young, 2011, p. 428). Thus, the meaning that such interaction had to me would certainly have been different to another participant.

 

Are we teachers, then, always willing and able to be our students’ “meaningful others”, who will give them the feedback they need at the time they need it, so they won’t feel stupid the way I did having repeated the same mistake every day and not being told? How many times should a student make a mistake before the teacher decides it’s time to correct it? Are all our students, in their turn, ready and willing to receive the feedback and turn it into uptake?

 

All I know for sure is this: had it not been for my experience ordering the croissant and receiving negative evidence of my malformed noun phrase, I would have come back to Brazil saying une croissant!

 

References:

Doughty, C. & Williams, J. (Eds.).(1998). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gonzalez-Rey, F. (2004). O sujeito, a subjetividade e o outro na dialética complexa do desenvolvimento. In L. Simão, and  A. Mitjáns Martinez (eds). O outro e o desenvolvimento humano, pp. 1-28. São Paulo: Thomson

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language learning and acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

Lyster, R. & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 37-66.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-58.

Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C. (Eds.), Input in Second Language Acquisition, pp. 235-256. New York: Newbury House.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Young, R. F. (2011). Interactional competence in language learning, teaching, and testing. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (Vol. 2, pp. 426-443). London & New York: Routledge.

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8 responses

13 05 2012
Edmilson M Chagas

Brilliantly written, with great insights, Isabela! Congratulations! My question, though, is: Even by wrongly saying ‘une’ croissant, were you able enjoy your much-deserved croissant, accompanied by a delicious café au laît? 🙂

13 05 2012
isabelavb

Oh, yes, I was, except that I prefer Cafe Americano. Can you believe I had breakfast at Starbucks in Paris? What can I do… I love it there. But I’m sure the croissants didn’t come from the U.S.!

14 05 2012
Marta Diniz de rezende

Language teachers are never 100% on vacation! I loved your story!

14 05 2012
isabelavb

I’m glad you liked it. You’re right. We are always on the lookout for new language learning opportunities. Thanks for taking your time to read it!

15 05 2012
Maria Benedita Santos

Food for Thought, Isabela. My boss thinks that “communication” is the most important thing, but I can’t stand students saying “a gente fomos” . . .

16 05 2012
isabelavb

We teachers tend to think like your boss sometimes, but we forget to ask our students what their learning goals are. I wouldn’t like to keep on saying “une croissant” forever. Thanks for taking your time, Bené!

16 05 2012
Ronaldo

Amazing language learning experience!

As I was reading your story, I kept thinking about how differently other people would have reacted to the sixth clerk’s remark, just as you described when talking about Interactional Competence. I agree that not everyone would have benefitted from (or even liked) his being a meaningful other as you did. However, in the classroom, I suppose most of our students expect to be corrected (just like Lyster and Ranta have showed with one of their surveys). I think we all have had countless moments in the classroom (especially with adult learners) when we teach them something, or correct them on something, and students react with a “how come nobody has told me that before?”

When you are out there in an L2-speaking country speaking the L2, it is very easy (most likely, perhaps) to get positive feedback for some wrong production that is comprehensible, which might lead to eventual fossilization. That’s what we (Brazilians) do with Spanish speakers speaking Portuguese: if they say “vou para minha casa” and pronounce “casa” with the voiceless alveolar fricative (instead of the voiced one), our most likely response is “ok, see you later” and not some corrective feedback, even though we have the minimal pair “casa-caça” in Portuguese. Therefore, in my opinion, the language classroom should be the primary place to get (abundant) corrective feedback and noticing opportunities.

Great blog post with great references. Thanks!

Ronaldo

16 05 2012
isabelavb

Thanks for your feedback and comments, Ronaldo. Yes, the language classroom is the primary source of corrective feedback and noticing opportunities. In other words, it should be a “demanding” environment in terms of quality of production, just as Scrivener proposed. My experience made me remember the many times I’ve heard teachers say, “Oh, but the student is communicating and I don’t want to raise his/her anxiety by correcting him/her.” We forget to ask the student.

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