Why is the 'Pared-Down Language' So Important?

July 23, 2015

After having taught in an early immersion program for the first few years of my teaching career, I decided to move to a school to teach core French or FSL with 30 minute classes of French per day. After moving from immersion to core I found a significant difference between the language skills that students developed in the two types of classes. After only ten months in an program with about four hours per day of French instruction, my grade one immersion students were reading, writing and speaking in simple sentences. My eleven year old core FSL students, on the other hand, after taking French for 30 or 40 minutes a day since the age of four or five had extremely limited or almost non-existent French language skills. In fact, there was no noticeable difference between the second language skills of these older students and the children who were at the early stages of core French instruction, at age six or seven. I was shocked at this lack of language acquisition and looked for reasons why this might be occurring. I realized that vocabulary used in the program that I was asked to follow did not provide the most essential, high-frequency words for beginning language learners. In fact, some of the most essential verbs such as pouvoir (‘to be able to/can’), devoir (‘must/to have to’), savoir (‘to know’), and vouloir (‘to want’) were not introduced until many years after language instruction began. Yet these are the verbs most commonly used by babies as they begin to speak – I can, I want, you have to, I know. The need for a selected vocabulary based on the most useful words for beginning language learners is why I began to develop what I call the Pared-down language.

The ‘Pared-Down Language’ (PDL) is comprised of approximately 2,000 of the most frequently used words and 1,000 of these words are taught in the first 120 hours of instruction.

Not only are these words taught, but the teacher is provided with strategies for the students to successfully acquire and eventually reproduce in meaningful, spontaneous interactions early in their language development.

The design of this methodology is holarchical, meaning that once we teach something we systematically ensure that each word or concept we teach is repeated with a certain frequency from then on in the program. Words with highest frequency are repeated most often, to ensure that students fully acquire them and use them early in their spontaneous communication. Because high-frequency words are so necessary to basic communication, the students must have access to them in their earliest vocabulary. It is only when this is happens that students can begin to build a foundation of communication skills and it is only once a foundation begins to develop and basic sentences can be expressed that the possibility of proficiency-building exits. This is Krashen’s notion of Comprehensible input + 1, or Vygotsky’s ZPD Zone of Proximal Development. The design of AIM ensures that the teacher is constantly aware of the language level of the students, and we provide strategies to constantly push your students gently toward the next level.

How was the PDL developed?
Initially, I conducted action research in my classroom to see what words the students needed most often when they communicated with me in class. I documented these words over a long period of time. The list continued to develop once the program was implemented at the beginning stages and as students needed to expand upon the initial vocabulary that I introduced. I also researched high-frequency language studies such as Le Français Fondamental and The Threshold Level. The Threshold level emphasizes not only frequency but also the importance of the functionality of words. More recently, I have compared the PDL to the recommended second language vocabulary in the – European Common Framework.

Frequency as a deciding factor in the selection of vocabulary.
There have been numerous researchers who have supported the notion that frequency should play an important role in the selection of vocabulary for beginning language learners. For example, in Nation (2001) stated that students:
“should be learning high-frequency words before low-frequency words, except where personal need and interest give importance to what would be low-frequency words,”
This certainly rings true with the design of the PDL, which contains a limited number of words as fantastique and toilettes. Neither of these words would be considered of very high frequency and they do not appear in Le Français Fondamental, but they are useful for the beginning second language learner in an AIM classroom situation so they are included. The fact that a word is of high-frequency is not the sole criterion for its placement in the PDL. We also We select vocabulary that is functional, as supported by the Threshold Level studies and Krashen’s Natural Approach. The emphasis is on the authentic use of vocabulary in spontaneous interacations.
By combining high-frequency and functional vocabulary we strive to provide vocabulary that both in theory and practice, is most essential for beginning fluency of second language learners.
Another researcher named Hulstijn (1995) stated that the selection of vocabulary in a second language teaching program should be based not only on frequency and functionality but also on scope and reliability.

Words with the widest scope of applicability are presented first in the PDL, so that students have at least one noun referent for any object. A young baby will naturally and by necessity do this. An example of this can be seen when a baby says: “I want that” or “Regarde ça”, Me gusta (me/aime) esto. The noun referent with the widest scope of applicability is this, that, ça esto and eso. ‘Chose’, ‘thing’ or ‘cosa’ are also words with wide scope and introduced early and that allow students to use the second language without reverting to the first when they don’t have the specific word. Of course, there are also some more specific nouns that have a wide scope of applicability that we introduce initially in the AIM program. For example, we teach. – ‘eau in French before ‘lac, fleuve, océan, mer, rivière’ ou ‘étang’, in English we teach water before ‘lake, river, ocean, sea, river’ and so on. This is so that students have at their disposal one word to refer to any body of water as well as the substance that we drink. As the students move through the program, context specific words such as the ones just mentioned are added one by one as needed.

Reliability is another important factor in the selection of vocabulary.
Reliability, or rather the lack of reliability when it comes to verb forms, has always been a difficult issue for second language teachers. We know students should learn certain verbs, but if they are morphologically complex, many Ministry guidelines recommend that we delay the introduction of these verbs and teach only regular verb forms at first. Unfortunately, some of the most essential high-frequency verbs are irregular and if we don’t teach them within the first few hours of instruction, we are depriving students of the ability to develop language skills in a way that a first language acquirer does. In fact, without these essential verbs, we prevent the possibility of fluency development – the very reason why we are teaching a language!

Reliability when it comes to verbs is a notion particular to the AIM’s PDL and is what allowed me to introduce all those important high-frequency yet morphologically complex verbs during the first few hours of instruction. In French, AIM introduces one verb form initially to the students for reliability – the third person singular form which which, orally, is identical in sound for the subjects je/tu/il/elle/on and also often the plural ils and elles and therefore has the widest scope of applicability. as well. In order To avoid the nous and vous forms, use on, tout le monde and la classe, all of which use that same third person singular regularized stem. Of course, the Nous/vous endings are taught formally after 50 to 100 hours of instruction for older students and this is somewhat delayed for younger students to maintain this reliability and simplification of the language over a longer period of time for the young learner. Once students have developed a fluency, we find that they can much more easily slip these different forms correctly and without confusion into their spontaneous. communication

Basing the initial teaching of verbs on the regularized stem allows us to teach across verbs rather than through verbs. so instead of teaching or reviewing nine different written verb forms, all with the same meaning, which typically French teachers tend to do:
Je sais, tu sais, il sait, elle sait, nous savons, vous savez, ils savent, elles savent, in the same time period, I Teach or review nine different words representing nine different word meanings:
peut, doit, veut, va, aime, prend, sait, écoute and met, which, in comparison, opens up possibilities for communication by a factor of nine!
It also allows me to teach any verb regardless of its morphological complexity.
Research shows that the regularization of the stem in this way, although new to second language teaching practices, is common among both young and experienced francophones. In their study conducted in 1991, O’Connor and Di Vito showed that Native French speakers naturally use most often the third person singular form as it simplifies communication.

In ESL, the regularization of the verb stem is not such an issue for the present tense as verbs are naturally much more reliable. Modal verbs such as must, can, might, could and should don’t change at all depending on the subject and for most English verbs The only change to the stem, which is identical to the infinitive is the third person singular form where we add an s. For example I want, you want, she wants he wants we want they want.

Spanish is somewhat more complex than French, even in the simple present form, but the with the support of gestures, I have created an an identical gesture represents both the subject and the ending, thus regularizing somewhat the verb and also providing an inherent which allows for repetition and reinforcement. Since the subject and verb endings are represented by the same gesture, for example yo, hablo, tu comes (little s with R index finger), nosotros (two right fingers down and around at the front) escribimos, once we drop the subjects, all the students have to remember is the stem, for example habla and then the subject and verb-ending gesture remain identical hablo, hablas, hablamos, hablan. Like in French, therefore, we Simply add a sound to the regularized stem. It’s just that it appears at the end of the verb as an ending rather than before the verb as in English and French, as a subject.

Another way that the French language is regularized and made reliable in this program is by using Use qu-fronted interrogative forms and Est-ce que…? as opposed to questions with inversion. This is in order to maintain consistency so that the subject, verb and object always appear in that order in both questions, and in affirmative and negative sentences. Questions with inversion, where the subject and verb are reversed, are introduced a little later.

With the limited time available in a typical second language program we must maximize the possibilities for the richest vocabulary possible at the earliest stages of language acquisition. In order to do this, we introduce Establish one word per meaning, avoiding synonyms until a critical level of fluency has been reached.
This is supported by Waring’s (2001) proposal that We should teach vocabulary
occurring “most frequently in spontaneous communicative situations [containing] the minimum components necessary to create basic fluency.”

Cognates, where possible, are the words of choice. Students have the natural tendency to transfer features of the first language to the second language and as a result Stern: argued that It is helpful to identify structures and vocabulary most closely resembling those of the first language and include them in a second language curriculum.

High frequency opposites are also taught together in AIM. Words and gestures such as – en haut/en bas, open/close, da/toma, met/enlève, and here/over there. It appears that students often remember a word better when the opposite is taught and reviewed in conjunction with it.

Teaching and reviewing words by association with other words is an AIM strategy to ensure that students have at the tip of their tongue words that appear together. Word associations begin with a verb as the base. We teach and review expressions and short phrases that often appear with this verb. For example:
met… met le chapeau, met le manteau, la robe, le chandail etc.
These are thematically related nouns associated with met and then of course its opposite enlève and allow us to review clothing vocabulary in a meaningful way. Although clothing is one category of vocabulary that is naturally associated with the verbs met and enlève, many other words may also be included in this review such as met le crayon dans la boîte, met la feuille de papier dans le pupitre, met le livre sur la table and so on.

It is important to consider the fact that AIM floods the students learning from the beginning and gets them excited about the fact that within a short amount of time, it is possible for them to acquire a large quantity of words. What many beginner second programs tend to do is to restrict target vocabulary especially in the first year, believing this will make things easier for learners. In fact, according to Meara (1995) this is not the case. He proposes that the result of restricting vocabulary is that students are often “unable to cope” outside the confines of the classroom context where the “lexical environment is very limited and predictable.” The PDL is a selected vocabulary, rather than a restricted vocabulary.

In 2008, Mardi Michels conducted a study of AIM and non-AIM students, where she compared the lexical features targeted for presentation in the very first AIM elementary unit with the words contained in what was considered a “communicative” programme published following the NCFS. The first AIM unit is intended for 50 hours of instruction. The comparative, thematic approach is intended for 120 hours of instruction. Comparing the two syllabi, Michels noticed that in less than 1/3 the hours of intended instruction the AIM unit targets a little over 2.5 times more lexical items for presentation in total than the thematic ’communicative’ approach. In our first AIM unit, we teach twice as many nouns as the other program and nearly ten times the amount of verbs, adjectives and adverbials.
In her research report, Michels states :
“The lack of verbs in the thematic approach leads us to wonder just how communicative this programme really is. We can “get by” in a foreign language without nouns by pointing, gesturing etc… but without verbs, it is very difficult to communicate.”

The selection of vocabulary and the way in which it is presented in a second language classroom is essential to ensuring that language develops rapidly. It allows the teacher to maximize the use of every minute of class time for the purposes of language acquisition. No time is wasted on low-frequency vocabulary that students can’t use and the way it is presented allows for easy access to the language so that the ability to apply it in spontaneous interactions is immediate. The initial and ongoing focus of the AIM is on the ability of students to use the language in meaningful interactions.


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