We teach kids to speak real Spanish. For Life

by Erica Fischer on Oct 6, 2014

Learning Versus Acquisition and What it Means for Our Teaching

Last Thursday, #langchat was a whirl of activity as participants shared their thoughts on language learning and acquisition. As @KrisClimer noted, lots of acquisition fans showed up, and Langchatters reflected on whether or not efforts to support acquisition are always successful. They also suggested strategies to promote acquisition, discussed student language awareness and brainstormed ways to nudge student proficiency ever higher.

Welcome to those #langchat newbies who joined us for the first time last week, and a welcome back to all those who joined us again! As always, we would like to thank our participants for all of their thoughtful contributions! We also extend a thank you to Kris (@KrisClimer), Amy (@alenord) Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell) for moderating a very active conversation.

Learning versus Acquisition

Participants began by distinguishing language learning from acquisition. They provided a variety of points of comparison and images to help us think about this distinction. @dawnrwolfe contrasted learning about a language with acquiring language for communicational purposes. She elaborated on this point, noting, “[Learning deals with] vocabulary and discreet grammar points out of context [while language acquisition occurs] through authentic contexts.” @xBrittany0527x also associated acquisition with communicational aims, writing, “Acquisition [means studying] language with direct focus on pragmatics and how native speakers would have learned that topic.” @alenord used an image to exemplify her view of the difference, highlighting an awareness of pragmatics: “When I think of learning [versus] acquisition: I know what a hammer is [versus] I have a hammer and know how to use it!” @Mr_Fernie echoed @alenord’s association of acquisition with native speakers’ first contact with language, writing, “acquisition [is] what happens when we are children and we ‘get’ language.” Students can also ‘get’ a second language, as @KrisClimer wrote that acquiring a language means “having it be part of you.”

Are efforts to support acquisition always successful?

Langchatters acknowledged that acquisition does not happen overnight. Aware of this, Mr_Fernie said, “I find it hard in the [short-term] to see if [students] acquire what we present. [We] can assess, but it takes time to see what sticks.” @KrisClimer agreed that “[acquisition] requires PATIENCE,” but he remains optimistic, adding, “I do think however that ALL kids acquired a [language], and I believe they ALL can acquire another one.”

Langchatters were aware that to promote acquisition in the classroom by guiding students away from fill-in-the-blank exercises or grammar drills could be met with resistance. @cforchini observed, “Acquisition takes more effort. It is certainly easier to fill in the blanks, not care about the answer, [and/]or copy.” @SenoraWienhold experiences difficulty faced with some students’ desire for exercises that secure an ‘easy A’: “I have this issue too! They say [they] WANT a worksheet for [homework] for an easy grade.” @MCanion pointed out that acquisition is, in fact, more difficult to grade: “Hard to earn a grade for acquisition when showing grammar knowledge is clear.” Efforts to promote acquisition may prove unsuccessful for other reasons. For example, @crwmsteach said that instructors “may choose [the] wrong input, wrong setting [or] miss [opportunities for target language] use,” adding, “[Students] also choose their paths[, but instructors can] try to offer [opportunities for acquisition development].”

What strategies can you use to promote acquisition rather than just learning?

Instructors emphasized use of comprehensible input (CI) to promote acquisition. @KrisClimer championed comprehensible input: “Lots of CI! Lots of CI!,” encouraging instructors to “[expose students] to comprehensible input,” and promising, “Acquisition happens. They think it’s magic.” Other Langchatters offered suggestions of ways to integrate activities featuring comprehensible input in the classroom. @MCamion suggested “[storytelling], lengthy readings that kids can understand [ninety-percent or more of].” @AnnaKay512 also promoted “[adapted] readings,” finding that “[they] worked really well for discussing current events in class.” Alternatively, @heatherbook enjoys using audio-recorded stories: “I love audiobooks to help [students] acquire sounds [and] structure of language.” @frenchteacher11 added to instructor suggestions, highlighting the value of “using [students’] L2 as the method of communication,” and incorporating “[role play and other authentic] uses of the language.”

In terms of feedback on student output, @MmeMurphy favored a focus on successful communication: “I try to emphasize success instead of mistakes [, for example,] highlighting correct parts of essays not picking them apart.” @KHS_French also underscored the importance of encouraging student output in the spoken medium: “I use [oral points] where students are expected to carry on [conversations] in TL as much as possible.”

How might students be affected by language awareness?

Langchatters discussed how students’ developing language awareness might cause them to notice gaps in their understanding. @alenord said, “[Students] recognize a gap in what they know how to say and then ask how to fill that gap.” She added, “My job is to create as many scenarios as I can to expose those gaps so they stay inquisitive.” In this view, heightening student awareness of gaps is seen as a crucial step in increasing proficiency.

@Mr_Fernie pointed out the importance of not only recognizing gaps but making students aware of the process to bridge them: “[Let] students know exactly what we’re doing with CI, what acquisition is, and what outcome to expect in [the] TL.”

What strategies do you use to push for higher levels of proficiency?

Participants offered suggestions of ways to support advancements in student proficiency. @cforchini wrote, “Speaking in the TL all the time really helps speed up acquisition in the classroom.” @alenord recognized how peer-to-peer interactions can contribute to proficiency growth: “[A critical] piece [of] acquisition is for students to interact with students. They have to work to make meaning with each other.” @cforchini favors activities that require students to gather information from one another to fill in their knowledge for this reason: “That’s why I love information gap activities!!! [Partner] practice is so helpful.” Finally, @alenord encouraged use of consistent rubrics with incentives for growth over time: “I also believe that a solid set of rubrics that don’t change but consistently dangle carrots are important!”


#Langchat participants shared their views on how language learning differs from acquisition. Langchatters recognized that acquisition takes a lot of effort on the part of instructors and teachers alike, and they reflected on tools to support student development. This is an on-going process requiring lots of patience, and, as @alenord stated, “We have to keep filling the toolbox!” Participants acknowledged the value of increasing student awareness of gaps in understanding and discussed ways to bridge them.

Thank You!

Thank you again to everyone who tuned in for #langchat last Thursday, and thanks to Kris (@KrisClimer), Amy (@alenord) and Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell) for moderating an energizing #langchat hour.

Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. If you have a topic you’re eager to discuss, send in your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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