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Volume 9, Number 2: October 30, 2002

The Natural Approach:
Technology in the Second Language Classroom

by Terrence Mannetter, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-River Falls

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In the 20 years that I have taught Spanish language and literature courses at the undergraduate level in the University of Wisconsin System at the Madison, Oshkosh, and River Falls campuses, I have consistently attempted to use the newest technological innovations available to me in the classroom. Early in my career, beginning in the mid-1980's, I employed an eclectic, proficiency-oriented methodology of second language instruction. This included incorporating audio and video samples of the target language and culture with well-intentioned, though not always systematic, classroom planning strategies. I used these materials because I knew, both intuitively and through observation of classroom student performance, that they were in many ways "good" for students and that they substantially enhanced the overall classroom experience, especially at the early stages of second language acquisition.

As I began to reevaluate my teaching methodologies in the early 1990's, I started implementing Natural Approach methodology to second language instruction, as developed by Stephen Krashen, Tracy Terrell and many others. A cornerstone of the Natural Approach classroom is the desirability of a student-centered, low anxiety environment that provides the maximum amount of "comprehensible input." The methodology encourages frequent use of appropriate multimedia sources or materials, presented in a contextualized manner, to maximize the linguistic and cultural input received by the student. I learned that, to use this methodology successfully, I needed to incorporate multimedia elements into the classroom in a more systematic manner, always keeping with the basic tenets of Natural Approach theory, and always with a specific purpose.

Natural Approach theory developed out of the limitations many second language instructors experienced during the 20th century using traditional grammar-based methodologies. Many students studied the grammatical and pronunciation rules of a language for years, and yet were not 'fluent' in that language. Rather than concentrating on consciously 'learning' the grammar and sounds of a language, the Natural Approach insists on 'acquiring' the language through coming into extensive contact with authentic examples of the target language, always at a level of complexity at or slightly above the current level of proficiency of the language learner. The theory suggests that we learn a second language in a manner similar to a first language, and one of the principal tasks of the second language instructor is to provide such an atmosphere in the classroom situation.

In addition, Natural Approach theory claims that second language learners acquire the target language in a specific order, regardless of the order of presentation of material (thereby eliminating the need for extensive direct grammar instruction at the early levels of second language instruction). Another component of the theory suggests that second language learners consciously monitor their own linguistic output to a greater or lesser degree, and that the extent of this conscious language behavior can be directly modified to a suitable level by the instructor. If second language learners fail to monitor their speech adequately, their output will not be understood at a satisfactory level; whereas if they monitor their output excessively, their speech will seem slow and artificial. Finally, second language students can develop an "affective filter" or set of attitudes toward the language and speakers of that language, which may adversely affect their rate of acquisition of that language. Second language instructors must create a classroom environment where students desire to acquire the target language and are curious to learn about the cultures and countries where the language is spoken.

With the advent of technology-enhanced classrooms that include computers with Internet access and DVD and CD-ROM capabilities, I have incorporated a great deal of multimedia materials into my first, second, and third-year Spanish courses, and in my undergraduate courses in culture, civilization, and literature. Students in these classes listen to dialogues and watch video clips and films that show native speakers interacting in social situations in the target language. They are shown a wide variety of cultural and geographic drawings and photographs linked to the vocabulary in the target language. I routinely present interactive CD-ROM programs that accompany the textbooks used in my classes to reinforce and expand upon the main topics of each chapter. Finally, I maintain WebCT Internet-based websites for all my classes that allow students to access course-related materials, use chat programs to communicate with classmates in the target language, and track their progress in the course. As a result, my students are able to see and hear an expanding variety of "comprehensible input" and develop a broadened awareness of the variety of cultural identities of native speakers of the target language. This process of cultural identification is crucial to acquisition of the target language.
The lack of such identification can adversely affect student progress.

While these materials are indeed important components of any Natural Approach second language program, it is clear that their effectiveness in the classroom can vary substantially. The psychological influences of the "Affective Filter," another fundamental component of the Natural Approach theory, influence the degree to which students acquire input presented to them. Many emotive factors serve as filters that either increase or decrease the ease and speed of second-language acquisition and shape students' self-identification as new speakers of that language. These factors include preconceptions or associations with the target language that students bring into the classroom, as well as their attitude or motivation to learn and participate in the language.

I am convinced that the most significant increases in my students' second language proficiency are the combined result of enhanced technological input, presented in an environment where positive associations to the target language are abundant and negative associations are absent. Indeed, when the Affective Filter operates on a positive level, students tend to react in a more engaged manner with the input they perceive, whether delivered via the latest technological aids or not. As a consequence, I have dedicated many class hours to fostering a positive, nurturing classroom atmosphere, and to monitoring and mitigating any negative associations toward the target language. At the same time, I have refrained from increasing the amount of technologically-derived materials that lack a specific purpose in the curriculum.

A crucial element of a low Affective Filter is a strong sense of mutual trust between student and instructor. Indeed, in a Natural Approach classroom, the instructor himself of herself is the central multimedia entity, consistently providing a wealth of comprehensible linguistic, paralinguistic, and cultural input and signals. The instructor can supplement this input with a judicious portion of contextually relevant input from as many additional sources as possible. Clearly, multimedia input from external sources beyond the instructor can dramatically increase the amount and quality of comprehensible input in a Natural Approach second language class; however, any such input creates an additional entity in the classroom, inserted between instructor and students, that can potentially loosen and disrupt the affective bond.

A major challenge for the Natural Approach language program is to incorporate multimedia in ways that foster cohesion and a positive atmosphere rather than distract the students. The instructor must always strive to maintain a high level of positive motivation among second language learners who are receiving, acquiring, and evaluating this input.

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Natural Approach Methodology Resources

Krashen, Stephen and Tracy Terrell. The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom. (New York: Pergamon Press Inc., 1983).

"The Natural Approach." Interlink Language Center, Indiana State University. Internet address: http://indstate.edu/interlink/naturalapp.html.



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