In a couple of days (as I write this) I will be doing a (brand new) talk for the Director of Studies conference of the International House World Organisation in London. It is called ‘Does Music practice tell us anything about practising language?’ and that’s a title I have submitted too for the 2013 IATEFL conference.
To be a good musician you have to practise because ‘practice makes perfect’. Or does it? Or rather, what kind of music practice is good practice? The video is what violinist, violist and music teacher Christina Everson said when I asked her that question a couple of months ago.
Her answer was typical of the many people I have videoed in preparing the session. Inter alia, they talk of practising often and intensively for only a short time rather than playing for hours. They emphasise that practising = problem solving (e.g. concentrating on the bits that cause you trouble) rather than playing straight through and solidifying bad habits and that (as Christina says) you have to really listen to yourself (= monitor yourself) as you work.
Is learning a language like this? Well yes and no I guess! You are unlikely to become a proficient language user without practice, and you are unlikely to be able to conquer the fear of using a foreign language if you have not tried to use words and phrases before (even if only in your head). If fluency, for example, has a lot to do with deploying lexical chunks ‘automatically’ then just like the musician who practises so that that in performance they can concentrate on how to ‘feel’ the music rather than panicking about the notes, then you have to learn the chunks, practise them, concentrate (in Chrissie’s words) on them. Don’t you?
Which brings me, of course, to Stephen Krashen (see picture above) and his acquisition vs learning duality. In his A-Z of ELT blog Scott Thornbury doubted whether this discussion was (or even should be ) still current – e.g. the discussion about whether ‘concentrated-on’ language could ever become part of the acquired store, and whether or not monitoring one’s output was a good thing, or whether it just interferes with communication.
Yet this IS the big question, it seems to me. The good music practiser solves problems but then goes on to play through a piece, to perform it. Does that whole-piece practice work in the same way as short bursts of problem-solving?
For those who are interested in following up this debate I highly recommend (for the second time on this blog) a book by the linguist and cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus called Guitar Zero about his experience of learning to play guitar.
But for the moment (and that’s what my talk will be about), I am left with the following questions:
1 How should students practise language in class? In short problem-solving bursts or in long communicative flows?
2 Is homework done better in short frequent bursts or in less frequent longer chunks?
3 What kind of ‘concentration’ is appropriate for language learners?
4 What does appropriate correction look like? Is ‘reformulation’ even remotely useful? Or are what Wong and Waring (2009) call ‘pursuit’ questions and ‘problematizing’ student responses the way forward?
5 What does good repetition look like?
Wong, J & Waring, Z (2009) ‘Very good’ as a teacher response. ELT Journal 63/3