Listen and Repeat

In the world of second language learning there is quite a debate at the moment about the use of drills for language learning.  For the uninitiated, a drill is basically an exercise in which the learner repeats the target language a number of times.  There can be a number of objectives for using a drill, but the most common are either associated with a behaviourist approach to language learning (repeat something often enough and it will become internalised behaviour), or just giving the student to get the chance to wrap his or her tongue around a new set of words and sounds.

I must admit to using drills with my students occasionally.  It has therefore been interesting to see how T has used the equivalent of drills in his language development.  He has got to the point where he will sometimes hear a word that I have said and repeat it.  If I say it again, he will repeat it again.  This can go on for up to a dozen times before he gets bored of it.

One such example is the word ‘tractor’.  I think I have mentioned before how T seems to have become obsessed with cars.  Well, ages ago a friend bought a book with lots of little cars that are attached to the pages by velcro.  This lets the child pull the cars out, pay with them and try to put them back in the right place.  For months T was not interested in this book, but it has suddenly become of his favourites.

One of the cars is a tractor, so I asked him what it was and he said ‘abuda‘, as he usually does.  I said ‘tractor’ and, to my astonishment, he repeated it perfectly.  I was surprised because I thought the consonant cluster in the middle might be too difficult.  I thought it might just be a one-ff, so I said it again.  Once more T repeated it perfectly.  He did so another 5 or 6 times before turning his attention to other cars in the book.  Unfortunately, he was no longer interested in the names for the digger, ambulance, fire engine and so on.

Later that day I was on Skype with my brother and decided to see if T would show off what he could learn.  After an initial reluctance he did come up with the word, again with perfect pronunciation.  In the evening I showed my wife, but he was of course having none of it by now.

Since then, I have tried to repeat the exercise on a number of occasions.  Sometimes he isn’t interested and sometimes he repeats it.  There has been, though, a subtle change.  The consonant cluster in the middle has changed so that the /t/ sound is often missing and the word sounds more like ‘tracor’.  I am not quite sure why this has happened but my bet is that he is no longer paying much attention to what I am actually saying and instead is just saying what he thinks is the best word.

This tells me a lot about using drills with my adult students.  One of the main criticisms of drills is that they can get very boring very quickly.  If a drill doesn’t grab the student’s attention then they are likely to not say it properly and this defeats the object of the drill completely.

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