Language Spoken at Native Speed (not everything CI is slow)

Language spoken at native speed (is good!)

Question: I understand that CI teachers speak slowly and comprehensibly, but my level 4 students cannot understand when a native speaker speaks at a natural speed. When will my CI-trained students finally understand language spoken quickly by native speakers?

Answer: This teacher has missed a crucial step in the “Basic Skills” module of the CI Master Class. The short answer is that your LEVEL ONE students should understand language spoken at a natural speed. How? Read on!

CI teachers have techniques to make ourselves comprehensible; we also have a set of techniques to improve the processing speed of our students. These techniques go hand in hand together.

The first observation we need to make is that nobody acquires language that they do not understand. Simply exposing students to videos of native speakers often does not help students learn to process native speed speech, and it causes a lot of frustration. Comprehension is everything; otherwise it’s just noise. This is why CI teachers are often told to “speak slowly and comprehensibly”. But there is more to the story.

We speak slowly, and once students comprehend a new phrase we want to get them to be able to process it at the speed of a native speaker. When you first define the new language, write it on the board. You’ll see students’ eyes move towards the board and read the English. Now take five big steps away from the board. Use the new language again in a slightly different context and you’ll see the heads of some students swivel from you towards the board again. They still need a scaffold to process the language, and of course they are doing it slowly.

My advice is that you “park” on new phrases, especially those that contain one of the Sweet 16 verbs, so that students have to process it in multiple contexts. They get quicker the more they process the phrase, always in a slightly different context so that they have to pay attention to meaning. Classic TPRS teachers use a technique called “circling” in order to park on a phrase and lead their students to get so fast that they process without hesitation. In my workshops I teach a less rigorous version of the circling technique that I call “artful questioning”.

In the first week of Spanish 1 when we learn that my student Jarod has (tiene) three dogs, I’ll ask the class in Spanish: “Does he have three dogs or does he have four dogs?” I’ll point and pause as I say the verb, nice and slowly, and follow up with several other questions using my question word posters: “Who has three dogs? Who has more than three dogs? (raise your hand please). I don’t have any dogs, but I have a plant. How many dogs does Jarod have? Does Jarod have plants? Who has plants? (raise your hand please) Look class, Mary and Sara have plants!”

As I ask these questions, the pace of my speaking increases. I am nailing that one verb over and over again so that my students learn to process it at the speed of a native speaker. Their processing speed, as I measure from their hesitance as they respond, improves fairly quickly if I target one verb at a time. Tomorrow it will be slow again and we will repeat the process, but eventually they will not hesitate nor look up at the verb posters.

If you have to teach a curriculum with tremendous breadth of vocabulary your students might not get the repetition they need to develop lightening fast understanding of key, high-frequency words. I urge teachers to seriously restrict the number of words that they consider essential. Start doing this process of artful questioning only with the Sweet 16 verbs in level 1, but do not restrict yourself to only speaking in one verb form, tense or mood.

In one class you might be talking about a student’s dogs, in another it may be snakes, and in yet another class a student might reveal that she has her own home library of a hundred fantasy books. Is this a lot of vocabulary? Not necessarily, because in every class you’ll be nailing the verb has” so that all students in all classes process that verb and the other Sweet 16 verbs at the speed of a native speaker.

As students continue their language journey they’ll get fast at processing the Sweet 16 verbs in many forms, tenses & moods. There will be less language that you have to explicitly slow down and park on. By level 4 (or even before) students will rarely need this technique and your classes will largely become fluid conversations spoken at a natural pace.

Master Class Subscribers: I just added Chilean Mon Laferte’s song “Por qué me fui a enamorar de ti” to the Spanish Music Transition Games page. Look under “Acoustic” for both easy & challenge modes.