The Importance of Conversation in Second Language Acquisition



When I arrived at the primary school in Kenya, they all seemed surprised. I arrived at the school to see the children cleaning up the grounds in anticipation of the adults opening the classrooms and office so that they could clean those as well. I arrived early. I showed up like I said I would.
The teachers engaged in hurried conversation. They decided that the young children would not understand my accent and so therefore, I should not work with them without their interpretations. I asked a very simple question, “what is there to interpret with nursery rhymes”. “Hickory, Dickory Dock what does that mean in English”. Let me assure you that no 5 year old American child knows. Children simply like the sound of sounds that rhyme. It is a Universal language concept.
I conducted my hour lesson with the children which they thoroughly enjoyed to their teachers dismay. The teacher then asked them to draw me one picture. I suggested that the picture reflect one of the vocabulary words on the board for the week. We scaffolded the lesson. by reviewing the vocabulary words and then they drew pictures. The teacher did not see the connection to the art and wanted my swift departure , so she could lecture. What 5 to 8 year old child learns from lecture and copying from the board all day? I thanked the children for the lovely pictures and left the classroom frustrated and puzzled.
I taught all levels that week. The teachers continued to express concern about my accent. The children were eager to listen to me. I knew that the issue was deeper than how I sounded after all, I am a educated native speaker.. The text was there to accompany my speech, so it would be easy for children or anyone to adapt to the sounds of my speech. I spent most of the time teaching math, symbols are universal.
The problem was not my accent, the problem was my knowledge of English grammar. Kenyans used English vocabulary with Kiswahili grammar rules. So essentially they are still speaking Kiswahili just using English vocabulary. This would impede communication with a native speaker with a different set of internalized grammar rules.
Most language programs focus on implicit linguistic competence, grammar. Grammar lessons taught in ESL (English as second language) classes address one component of verbal communication. Verbal communication is multimodal ( involves different sensory modalities) and multimodular ( each modality is comprised of a number of neurofunctional modules). Four neurofunctionally-modular cerebral mechanisms involved in the acquisition and use of language are, implicit linguistic competence, metalinguistic knowledge, pragmatics, and motivation. This discussion focuses on implicit linguistic compentence and motivation which one acquires primarily during conversation.
What is the purpose of learning if you can not communicate with the native speakers? One acquires linguistic competence incidentally, stores it implicitly, uses it automatically, and subserves it by procedural memory. One acquires it incidentally as the acquirer directs their attention on acoustic properties of sounds while internalizing the proprioception that allows them to perform articulatory movements; or on semantic and pragmatic aspects of an utterance while internalizing its morphosyntax. One stores it implicitly. Speakers consciously utilize the computational procedures that generate sentences and the underlying structure of these sentences . In essence, we perform the basic functions of language without thinking about it.

English claims first place as the the world’s lingua franca. Language lives and breathes. It flows like water and shifts with the people and culture who speak the language. It borrows from speakers of other languages. Words express meaning in the context of how they are used. Linguistic competence becomes subserved by procedural memory, as are all implicit skills. Procedural memory is task specific. Procedural memory for language relies on the integrity of the cerebellum, the striatum and other basal ganglia, and on areas of the left perisylvian cortical region.
Proficient ESL students, engage in conversations and recognize the sounds of English . They recognize where to place the accent in words. They reorganize their brains to accommodate the new grammatical system.

The teachers knew that children possess more fluid intelligence (the ability to problem solve in novel situations). In layman’s terms, the students would internalize the grammatical structure of English quicker than the teachers and this would make the teachers uncomfortable and would be viewed as a challenge to their authority as opposed to a wonderful learning opportunity.

Sociolinguistic rules determine the appropriate choice among the structures available in linguistic competence. Paralinguistic competence comprise the comprehension and use of intonation, gestures, facial expressions, and everything that specifies the meaning of the sentence ( a sarcastic remark or a compliment, an indirect request or a factual question, taken with a figurative, metaphoric, idiomatic meaning or at face value) serve a crucial role. We estimate over half of spoken speech is not literally what we mean. We mean more than what we say, not mentioning implication, (something different from that spoken , metaphors, idiomatic expressions, indirect speech acts, or opposite of what we say, ie. irony and sarcasm) (Paradis, 1998).
Linguistic literature and communication pathology, share two domains under the term “pragmatics”, discourse structure and nonliteral meanings. Both domains have reported to be vulnerable to right hemisphere damage while relatively preserved in the context of dysphasia (Pierce & Wagner, 1985). The common denominator seems to be the necessity to rely on context and general knowledge in order to derive an interpretation. This context can be situational (including paralinguistic cues), but also discursive (including structure and contents of discourse, as well as turn-taking and the like, from which inferences and implications must be made).
Conversation is crucial. Language derives meaning from the interaction of humans and not just the mere memorization of utterances. Brain research indicates that higher order brain centers that process complex, abstract information can activate and interact with lower order centers. Real life conversation enhances students language acquisition skills. Conversational exchanges should be encouraged and not feared.

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21 responses to “The Importance of Conversation in Second Language Acquisition

  1. Sylvia Guinan

    This is a wonderful academic look at language acquisition dressed in the attractive flow of anecdote and imagery.

    A nice combination in a world where academic literature is so often expressed in bland scientific terms.

    Keep up these posts Darleana – I see a book in my mind’s eye!!!

  2. Hi Darleana, another fascinating post. As someone who’s learned a bunch of languages, I found this post particularly interesting. Your comment “One acquires linguistic competence incidentally, stores it implicitly, uses it automatically, and subserves it by procedural memory,” is one I find especially insightful. I think it’s tremendous that you’re having this language teaching (and learning) adventure in Africa. The experience you describe in this post does not surprise me too much. Whenever you chart a new course, you always encounter resistance and territorial, protectionist behavior. As you did, when that happens, you just have to plow ahead. Paul

    • Thanks Paul, I am finding that many people can relate to my experiences with resistance. It makes me feel better to know that it wasn’t personal, simply the nature of introducing change.

  3. I did not understand all of the scientific terms. Still, I enjoyed reading the post, I am kind of familiar with the challenge you faced and I’m glad it was not persdonal. I definately agree, learning a language requires conversing. I think that to teach a language without focusing on conversation is to pretend to teach. Moreover, lecturing to young learners deprives them from enjoying learning. I am 25 years old and lecturing bores me, let alone kids!

    • Maybe I can do a better job of defining the scientific terms. I was supporting my experience with scientific research. It did not make sense for them to avoid conversation with a native speaker of English and pretend to teach English.

  4. “I spent most of the time teaching math, symbols are universal.” As a mother to four bilingual kids, I have found that our children were far more advanced in math than their ‘one-language-speaking’ peers as they got to grade school. At our dinner table, we conversed in Dutch and English. Dutch has always been spoken by me, their mother, English by Paul, their father and thus the kids would translate back and forth. With math however, everyone can speak their own, preferred, language and we can all understand each other. Great post and I am looking forward to more.

    • Thanks for the validation Dorien. I knew that the kids would adjust quickly to my speech especially since we had the test. They would learn where we put the accents in words and the grammar rules about two vowels together, most of the time you don’t pronounce the two. I will go back and this time, we will all have our minds expanded.

  5. This is really important, I agree…I took Spanish in high school but found that the language didn’t really start to sink in and resonate with me until just last year when we visited the Dominican Republic and I had the opportunity to speak to Dominicans on a daily basis. It was so fun but really helped me by getting to practice and speak the language every day!! :o)

  6. k hawkey

    While reading this post, one glaring point stood out when reading words such as “I knew that the issue was deeper than how I sounded after all, I am a educated native speaker.”; the fact is that you are an American speaker and not an English one. The linguistic tradition in Kenya is British English. Thus, while the points regarding learning through conversation are salient, the author must take the British vs. American English into account in the argument.

    • The linguistic tradition is British. I don’t think that it was an issue. I used the text and we talked about the words which were Kiswahili and the British word and the American word. Children are much more capable than we give them credit for. They didn’t have a problem with in America we would say “pot”

  7. I love this! Anyone reading this can tell how heartfelt you were when writing. Also, how selfless you are in this. My heart goes out to you!! Thank You for being one of the “good guys” :)

  8. Good review! This is exactly the type of post that should be shared around the internet. Shame on the Bing for not ranking this article higher!

  9. Thank you for your post. Your post resonates so much with what I’ve been working on for so many years and trying to get through the same message that conversation is paramount in language (L1/2/3…) learning. I was involved in teaching EAP (English for Academic Purpose) and was sorry to see that one aspect that was left out was teaching conversation. Now with adults I do believe though that you need to explicitly teach what conversation is about, not simply engage in conversation, but explain how conversation is orderly and has rules, norms of interaction that may (sometime substantially) differ from students’ L1. In my years of teaching (particularly adults or older teenagers), an extremely small proportions of students will pick up those rules naturally but those are the exceptions so I came to the conclusion that, like you teach grammar explicitly, we need to teach the grammar of interactional competence, which incorporates pragmatics and linguistic competences. Very few of our ESL students actually have the opportunities to interact with native speakers or near-native speakers. Their language opportunities outside the classroom are limited to interacting with their own ethnic community (in L1) or with other ESL learners whose overall communicative competence may not be sufficient for these students to learn more conversational English. If you’re interested I’ve published on this topic as I feel strongly about it. Many years ago I put together with a colleague multimedia materials for teaching conversational English, and the methodology encourages discussion but I mean real discussions with students. These resources are freely available. You may care to have a look and I’ll be most happy to get your comments:
    Anne-Marie Barraja-Rohan

    • I have thought about this a lot Anne-Marie and you are correct. I never thought about it in the way that you have shared. I have an English learner in my group who is always sharing grammar lessons. When someone doesn’t agree with him, he becomes very rude. I realize that he has memorized some phrases and it’s due to his language skills. When I point out to him that his response is rude he states “whatever”. He needs a structured conversation lesson. He is learning by trial and error and does not feel the consequences of native speakers withdrawing from him due to his poor conversation skills. Thank You. I will use your comments in another blog discussing this issue if I may?

  10. ESLandCAteaching

    Please do. I’m only happy to share my knowledge and discuss on this topic that is so close to my heart. I feel for your ESL learner because s/he’s feeling a lot of frustration and maybe a sense of alienation.
    Best luck with your teaching.

  11. Pingback: A Quick Guide To Learning A Language Abroad | Travel Videos & Travel Blog - As We Travel Blog

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