TPR Discussion by Dr. James Asher

Future Directions for fast, stress-free learning on the right side of the brain

Our dear SHARER Alicia Monterubio from La Plata has sent us this article by the celebrated creator of Total Physical Response (TPR).

A paper prepared for European educators at the invitation of Alexei A. Leontiev, Secretary General of the International Association for Collaborative Contributions to Language Learning in Moscow , Russia .

Traditional left-brain approaches which we all have experienced in thousands of foreign language classes (including English as a Second Language) simply do not work. Perhaps a more charitable way to express it is to say that production-driven approaches which attempt directly to teach talking in a target language do not work well enough to continue the effort. The evidence: 96% of students who voluntarily enroll in foreign language classes "give up" after three years. Only 4% continue to achieve at least minimal levels of fluency. More damaging: Not only do our students "give up" but they are now convinced that they "cannot learn another language." After all, they tried but the results were high-voltage stress and the humiliating experience of failure.

What happened? The approaches seemed to be sound and rooted in common sense. For example, we know from our high school geometry that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So, let's proceed from A to B directly in a straight line. If you want to acquire another language, then "listen and repeat after me!" "Memorize this dialogue" and "Let me explain the grammar rule for the day." What could be more transparent as an instructional strategy?

But it did not work. The laboratory research and practical experience in thousands of foreign language classrooms indicated that one human being cannot directly teach another human being to talk. Apparently we are not biologically wired up to acquire a language in that fashion. Leslie A. Hart would say that the traditional approach of "teaching" children and adults to speak another language is simply brain antagonistic. The approach does not fit our knowledge of how the brain functions.

It sounds like pedagogical heresy. Of course one person can directly teach another person to talk. It seems obvious, but this belief turns out to be an illusion, a myth that has persisted generation after generation with the fallout being a massive experience of failure not only for students but also for instructors. If teaching students to talk was successful then we would not have this situation in the USA: Of the 500,000 young Americans stationed in the military throughout the world, only 418 were judged to be linguistically competent to communicate in the language of the host country. Japan and other Asian countries, where learning English is a national craze, schools carry children through six years of English as a foreign language. Still, only a few students break the fluency barrier to achieve communication skills in English.

Recently, on a trip to Europe we met a colleague, Dr. Francisco Cabello, who has lived most of his life in Seville , Spain and is a Professor of Spanish at famous Concordia College 's Language Villages in Minnesota . He authored the successful series of books The Total Physical Response in First Year English, Spanish and French*. I asked him, "How successful do you think second language learning is in Spain ?"

Dr. Cabello: "Not very. Parents are frenetic to find a way for their children to acquire English. They spend a fortune on private lessons after school. You see full page ads in the paper and expensive television commercials for private language courses, especially for learning English. This is probably true in the surrounding countries, as well."

Asher: "And the result?"

Dr. Cabello: "Well, you don't hear people speaking English anywhere do you?"

Asher: "How do you explain this?'

Dr. Cabello: "They use traditional instructional strategies such as grammar-translation and listen and repeat after me.

Asher: "All brain antagonistic approaches, especially in the initial and even intermediate stages of language learning."

Dr. Cabello: "Yes. These programs try to ram the skill into the student through the left brain. It doesn't work but they don't know what else to do. A few students can tolerate the stress and eventually acquire enough skill to function in the target language but most do not."

Asher: "Why do you think that grammar-translation has held on so long ?

Dr. Cabello: "I think it is more comfortable for instructors who are not native speakers of the target language. They are off the hook. When they speak in the target language, they are anxious that their pronunciation may not be perfect. So, to escape any criticism, the safe approach is to ask the students to take out pencil and paper and start translating. I don't think it is more complicated than that."

A Brain Compatible Instructional Strategy

...that works for most students who are acquiring second languages, mathematics, and science.

Historically, school has played to the left side of the brain almost exclusively from the third grade through the university. In classrooms, the arrangement of chairs is in a pattern that is comfortable for left brain instruction. Students sitting in rows and columns face one direction to receive information that will be delivered in serial order through verbal media either in speech or in print. Input is to half of the brain-the left side. Students who are "academically gifted" can, on their own, switch the information coming into the left brain over to the right brain for complete processing to achieve meaning.

A classic example is a study by Jacques Hadamard of how eminent mathematicians think. The stereotype is that these professionals think in sharp symbols and equations-in other words, they are processing information exclusively on the left side of the brain. But Hadamard discovered that outstanding mathematicians think in visual and kinetic images. One of the people in the study was Einstein who confided that he visualized events in motion and he added that he felt that imagination was more important in mathematics and physics than intelligence. Of course, visualization and motion is processing information through the right brain. But school is organized, unintentionally to be sure, to shut down the right brain.

For example, notice that as instructors we give ourselves the advantage of using the right brain when we move about the classroom in our delivery of information. Movement of our body makes information flow from left to right and back again at lightning velocity. But we do not accord our students the same privilege. They must sit and "pay attention" to us as we move about the scene. We allow only limited movement from students as when they move their arms to scribble a note or raise their hands occasionally to ask a question. If you think back on all the classes you have attended, can you recall any instructor in any grade from the first through the university who sat with hands folded for 75 minutes and talked?

With the realization that the student's body and the student's body movements are my best allies in helping students internalize information, I always encourage my students in statistics courses to move about the room frequently. "If it helps" I tell them, "please feel free to get up anytime and walk out for a drink of water or to go to the restroom or simply walk around the back of the room or move from one side of the room to the other for a different perspective of the scene." Also, I reverse roles continually to permit students the movement privilege bestowed upon teachers. For instance, at the start of each class meeting, I will invite students to present their work on the board so that everyone is continually moving to the chalkboard to reverse roles with me. Incidentally, I usually invite students to present their work in pairs rather than alone. This strategy neutralizes the fear generated by the critical left brain that, "Oh, no. You have to go up to the front of the room and speak in public!" Remember that the worst fear people have is speaking in public.

The Power of Movement in Acquiring Another Language

By now most language teachers in the United States and Canada have heard about my Total Physical Response (TPR) approach. In 25 years of laboratory research and thousands of classrooms, we have demonstrated that TPR can be applied as the major focus of language instruction or as an effective supplement. However, few language instructors outside North America are aware of the dramatic differences that can be achieved in their instructional program with TPR.

The benefits of TPR are (a) rapid understanding of the target language, (b) long-term retention lasting weeks, months, even years, and (c) zero stress for both students and the instructor. The principle of TPR is deceptively simple-it is simple to understand, but does require skillful application to be effective.

The principle of TPR may be seen in the interaction of adults and infants in intimate caretaking transactions. If you observe carefully, you will witness in the caretaking experience a continual conversation between adults and the infant. It is, of course, not the usual conversation in which talk is uttered back and forth between two or more people. It is a unique conversation in which the adult talks to the infant and the infant answers with a physical response that is meaningful to the adult. For example, the baby can be only days old and an adult will say, "Look at me. Look at me." The baby turns its head in the direction of the voice and the adult exclaims with delight, "She is looking at me!" Another person says, "Now look at Daddy! Look at Daddy!" The infant turns in the direction of the voice and smiles. I call these unique conversations in caretaking, "language-body conversations." The adult speaks and the infant answers with a physical response such as turning the head, smiling, crying, reaching, grasping, walking, etc. Caretaking is a rich networking of language-body conversations that continues 16 hours a day for years.

During the period of birth to about two years of age, there will be continual language-body conversations between caretakers and the neonate, but the infant's talk will be limited to a few single utterances that are distortions of such words as mother, father, water, go, swing, drink, bottle, etc. However, the stunning feature of a language-body conversation is that before even "mommy" or "daddy" becomes clearly articulated, the infant demonstrates perfect understanding by physically responding to complex directions from the adult such as, "Pick up your toys from the sofa, and put them on the bed in your room." The infant demonstrates perfect understanding of complex sentences even though the baby is barely able to utter a single word.

Go to TPR Page 2

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