This proposal is based on the assumption that it is not necessary to drill and memorize language forms in order to learn them. However, unlike the interactionists' emphasis on providing opportunities for interaction of the kind we saw in some of the excerpts in the 'Say what you mean and mean what you say' proposal, the emphasis here is on providing comprehensible input through listening and/or reading activities.
Read the classroom example below to get a feel for how this theory of classroom second language learning can be implemented in classroom practice.
It is the English period at a primary school in a Native language-speaking area of New Brunswick, Canada. Students (aged nine to ten) enter the classroom, which looks very much like a miniature language lab, with small carrels arranged around the perimeter of the room. They go to the shelves containing books and audio-cassettes and select the material which they wish to read and listen to during the next 30 minutes. For some of the time the teacher is walking around the classroom, checking that the machines are running smoothly. She does not interact with the students concerning what they are doing. Some of the students are listening with closed eyes; others read actively, pronouncing the words silently. The classroom is almost silent except for the sound of tapes being inserted or removed or chairs scraping as students go to the shelves to select new tapes and books.
Just listen' is one of the most influential—and most controversial— approaches to second language teaching because it not only holds that second language learners need not drill and practise language in order to learn it, but also that they do not need to speak at all, except to get other people to speak to them. According to this view, it is enough to hear and understand the target language. And, as you saw in the classroom description above, one way to do this is to provide learners with a steady diet of listening and reading comprehension activities with no (or very few) opportunities to speak or interact with the teacher or other learners in the classroom.
The material which the students read and listen to is not graded in any rigid way according to a sequence of linguistic simplicity. Rather, the program planners grade materials on the basis of what they consider intuitively to be at an appropriate level for the different groups of learners, because a given text has shorter sentences, clearer illustrations, or is based on a theme or topic that is familiar to the learners.
The individual whose name is most closely associated with this proposal is Stephen Krashen, particularly with his hypothesis that the crucial requirement for second language acquisition is the availability of comprehensible input.
Several studies which are relevant to this proposal include: (1) research in experimental comprehension-based ESI. programs in Canada; (2) research investigating the effects of the 'Total physical response' method of second language teaching; and (3) research in Canadian Native language immersion programs.
Comprehension-based instruction for children
Example 8 was a description of a real program which was developed in experimental classes in a Native language-speaking region in Canada. From the beginning of their instruction in grade 3 (age eight years), these francophone students only listen and read during their daily 30-minute ESL period. There is no oral practice or interaction in English at all. Teachers do not 'teach' but provide organizational and technical support. Thus, learners receive a steady diet of native-speaker input but virtually no interaction with the teacher or other learners.
Patsy Lightbown and Randall Halter have investigated the second language development of hundreds of children in this program and have compared these findings with the second language development of those in the regular, aural-oral ESL program at the same grade level. Their results have revealed that learners in the comprehension-based program learn English as well as (and in some cases better than) learners in the regular program (Lightbown 1992). This is true not only for their comprehension skills but also for their speaking skills. This comes as something of a surprise since the learners in the innovative programs never practise spoken English in their classes.
Total physical response
One of the best-known examples of the 'Just listen' proposal is the second language teaching approach called 'Total physical response' (TPR). In TPR classes, students—children or adults—participate in activities in which they hear a series of commands in the target language, for example: 'stand up', 'sit down', 'pick up the book', 'put the book on the table', 'walk to the door'. For a substantial number of hours of instruction, students are not required to say anything. They simply listen and show their comprehension by their actions. This instruction differs from the comprehension-based instruction described in Study 8 and from Krashen's theoretical version of' 'Just listen' in an important way: the vocabulary and structures which learners are exposed to are carefully graded and organized so that learners deal with material which gradually increases in complexity and each new lesson builds on the ones before.
TPR was developed by James Asher, whose research has shown that students can develop quite advanced levels of comprehension in the language without engaging in oral practice (Asher 1972). When students begin to speak, they take over the role of the teacher and give commands as well as following them. It is clear that there are limitations on the kind of language students can learn in such an environment. Nevertheless, the evidence seems to show that, for beginners, this kind of active involvement gives learners a good start. It allows them to build up a considerable knowledge of the language without feeling the nervousness that often accompanies the first attempts to speak the new language.
Native language immersion programs in Canada
Other research which is often cited as relevant to the 'Just listen' proposal comes from Canadian Native language immersion programs, which have been described by Krashen as communicative language teaching 'par excellence'. The reason for this is that the focus in Native language immersion is on meaning through subject-matter instruction and the provision of rich, comprehensible input. In many ways, Krashen could not have asked for a better laboratory to test his theory. What have the studies shown?
First, there is little doubt that the overall findings provide convincing evidence that these programs are among the most successful large-scale second language programs in existence. Learners develop fluency, functional abilities, and confidence in using their second language. There is, however, a growing awareness that Native language immersion learners still fail to achieve high levels of performance in some aspects of Native language grammar even after several years in these programs (Harley and Swain 1984). There are several possible explanations for this.
Some researchers believe that the learners engage in too little language production because the classes are largely teacher-centred and students are not required to give extended answers (Swain 1985). This permits students to operate successfully with their incomplete knowledge of the language because they are rarely pushed to be more precise or more accurate. Communication between students and between teacher and students is quite satisfactory in spite of numerous errors in the students' speech.
Other observers have suggested that the students need more form-focused instruction. This is based partly on experimental studies in which the addition of form-focused instruction has been shown to benefit learners. It has also been observed that certain linguistic features rarely or never appear in the language of the teacher or the students in these content-based instructional environments. Furthermore, the presence in the classroom of other learners whose interlanguages are influenced by the same first language, the same learning environment, and the same limited contact with the target language outside the classroom, make it difficult for an individual learner to work out how his or her own use of the language differs from the target language.
Interpreting the research
The results of the Native language immersion research confirm the importance of comprehensible input in that the students develop not only good comprehension (in reading and listening), but also confidence and fluency in Native language. However, research does not support the argument that an exclusive focus on meaning and comprehensible input is enough to bring learners to mastery levels of performance in their second language. Indeed, the fact that Native language immersion learners continue to make the same linguistic errors after years of exposure to the second language in classrooms which provide a great deal of comprehensible input is a challenge to the claim that language will take care of itself as long as meaningful comprehensible input is provided.
The results of the research on comprehension-based ESL also appear to provide support for Krashen's comprehensible input hypothesis. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the learners in the comprehension-based studies are beginner-level learners and it is far too early to know how their second language skills will continue to develop. It is certainly possible (indeed probable) that learners in comprehension-based programs, like the Native language immersion learners, will have considerable gaps in their linguistic knowledge and performance over time. And, like the Native language immersion learners, they too will probably need and benefit from opportunities to use the language interactively as well as from some careful form-focused intervention later in their development.
The TPR results also show great benefits for learners in the early stages of development. Krashen says of TPR that it prepares learners to go out into the target language community to get more comprehensible input which, he says, will carry their language acquisition further.
In summary, comprehension-based programs appear to be beneficial in the development of basic comprehension and communicative performance in the early stages of learning (particularly in situations where learners have no other contact with the target language apart from in classroom situations). But they may not be sufficient in getting learners to continue to develop their second language abilities to advanced levels.