Sunday 9 February 2014

A glimpse of fluency

I just re-discovered the WAYK blog post Beyond the Script, the video on which dates all the way back to July 2012, which counts as vintage in this day and age...

So you've got Evan Gardner and Sky Hopinka having a perfectly fluid conversation about tea and coffee, after only a year and a half of using WAYK to learn Chinuk Wawa, if I have that down right. I've got no idea how "hard" Wawa is grammatically, as a pidgin/creole I'd imagine it should be fairly regular, but at any rate to be that fluent in any non-European language after a year and half is amazing.

The more I mull my own outline of a path to fluency, the more I realise that what I'm trying to do here is something very much removed from the concept of language "hunting" per se. Put all the sign language and the TPR and the "How Fascinating" exuberance to one side, I think I now realise that this is the fundamental difference between WAYK and conventional language teaching: WAYK turns everything on its head by making the student learn the method and not the teacher. WAYK is "bottom-up", students are the prime movers, getting the language out of their teachers by hook or by crook and pulling themselves up to fluency. In contrast, any language teaching method or programme you care to name is "top-down", based on the premise that the student is the blank slate and the teacher is the one who cooks and serves everything up on a plate.

I suppose what I'm trying to do here is make a square peg fit a round hole. I'm trying to use WAYK to serve everything up on a plate, when that's not what WAYK was ever about to start with.

Evan and Sky's video is a wonderful demonstration of what WAYK is capable of, but in the blue blazes how? Will WAYK only work for me if I turn my students into language hunters? Or can I just come up with a string of set-ups, have them play them without any initiative at all from them, and still make it work?

Added to which: How broad a vocabulary does Evan have? What else can he talk about besides what will fit on a kitchen table? What are the full range of set-ups he used to get to the stage he's at now (or, rather, was a year and a half back when the video was made)?

Apart from anything else, I don't speak Wawa and I've got no idea how they were implementing the techniques that were labelled on the video as the conversation whizzed by. But I am too demanding; as Evan says at the beginning, the point is proving what WAYK is capable of, and it certainly proved that.

But in the blue blazes how?

Edit: I think I've calmed down a bit now. At the moment my thinking goes like this: It's all in the set-up. If the "set-up" is "obvious" it simply doesn't matter which way the flow of information is going. Just because it's "limited" doesn't mean you can't introduce a "limited" amount of flexibility in the conversations and have more than one possible answer to any given question. The question that still bugs me though is, is my imagination up to coming up with all the set-ups I'm going to need to cover the vocabulary?...

Edit 2: I just noticed that it says on the WAYK website that Evan has been teaching Wawa since 2002 and Sky is the student! That just goes to show how convincing Sky was in the video. For some reason I had just assumed that it would be the native American teaching the native American language to the European. I don't think I need to be embarrassed about that, do I?

Edit 3: Please see The journey to fluency.

Edit 4: Please see A clearer glimpse of fluency.


  1. Hi Joel,

    I think WAYK is pretty versatile. Yes, ideally you have people who are hunters, and are motivated to learn the technique, rapid achievement of fluency in the target language being merely a by-product (teach a man to fish etc.). But it works perfectly fine if the others are merely "leeches" (no negative connotation intended, forgot the word that was formerly used in this context). It's still very effective, fun and fast, the only downside being that the "students" will keep depending on their "teacher", which is lacking the viral element of WAYK. Willem Larsen over at LH is focussing on more effectively teaching the method now, in the hope that this will improve the "dead-end" problem.

  2. Hi sarefo, and thanks for the encouragement. I just need to bounce ideas off people who are within a thousand miles of other people who have actually played. It's put my mind at rest on the issue of whether or not I need to turn everyone into a language hunter.

    The nagging doubt I still have is the one I mentioned toward the end. I've had a look at Willlem's e-book and as far as I can gather they're still at the "race to get to the party" stage, which is great, don't get me wrong. It's just I get the impression that WAYK/LH was always about giving people the grammar and then letting them pick up the vocabulary as they go. Practically it's a great idea, but as a formal language teacher I can't not give my students vocabulary. This leads me to the conclusion that I need a much, much broader repertoire of set-ups, and this is my nagging doubt: Could it be that either WAYK or my imagination or both are simply not up to it?

  3. The TPRS people talk often about restricting the vocabulary, but not the structure. As I teach Ancient Greek using WAYK (and TPR and TPRS) I have followed this maxim. I think it's reliable. Some linguist (quoted in Funk's Hellenistic Grammar introduction) came up with this nonsense sentence to demonstrate the point: "Uggles woogled Doogles." The vocabulary is entirely emptied of meaning, and yet we know so much about what happened (if it's English) because we understand structure. My practice is to bring in only as much vocabulary as I need to teach structure. I also try my best to draw that vocabulary only from a list of 600 most commonly used words. So, when and how will vocabulary be learned? A decent sized chunk of common vocabulary will be learned through the play. The rest will be picked up organically via reading or communicating. It's remarkably easy to pick up new onomata through reading. You come upon some new onoma and say to yourself, "What would that mean?" It must be some "thing" not a verb. It's not a person. Then you look up the onoma in a dictionary or ask someone "What does this onoma mean?" The onoma fits into the structure that you have learned and, voila! you know that onoma means "name or noun" (in Greek).

    If you're real question is "Where do I go next?" the answer will not be entirely clear from reading the Language Hunter's Guide or other resources. Go with you intuition and what you see the learners need. In teaching Ancient Greek, I needed to spend weeks on the meaning of the noun cases. It was such a foreign way of constructing language, we had to get it down.

    I didn't explicitly teach my students WAYK, but they learned the basics anyway. But the real value of WAYK is not the method per se, but that it leads a person to accept this classroom play as a real communication event. When the brain believes that we are really engaging in communication, it picks up the language far more naturally and easily. When the learner feels that he/she is "in class," learning rules, a decoding part of the brain kicks in and slows language acquisition down to a snail's pace (except for an odd few learners, and they should really just be sitting on their own with a book, anyway).

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for you thoughts.

      It's inspiring to know that people have taken WAYK and successfully applied them even to ancient Greek and Latin. They seem like such academic, soulless, austere languages, it's exciting to think that people are learning to converse and think in them, like living languages.

      It may well be the case that WAYK's scope is limited to achieving grammatical fluency, and this would in now way be a flaw since this is no small feat. Still, from a marketing perspective this would be incomplete as a mainstream language course. I'd like to think that the fundamental "rules of the game" can be expanded upon to guide students as they develop their vocabularies, or at least some sort of supplemental material can be developed. We will have to see...

  4. I see what you are saying. People want to feel like they are progressing and part of that feeling is knowing lots of words. But I'd still maintain that the fastest way to learn lots of words is to learn very few, at first. I've seen the results of the oppoosite, namely, people who learn hundreds of vocabulary words, but don't understand structure at a gut level. They just try to piece the language together purely by trying to recognize words. It's a mess.

    1. I think you're absolutely right. The Turkish of the foreigners around me and the English of the Turks around me are a mess for precisely this reason.

      My concern is not so much that I will lose students as we go because they don't feel as if they're learning enough words. Indeed, the sense of achievement that comes from feeling a piece of grammar "click" is quite exhilarating. My concern is that I won't get them in the door in the first place if all I can tell them is, "I'm just going to give you the grammar and then leave you to fend for yourself with expanding your vocabulary."

      The alternatives, whether they are language courses or "teach yourself" books, promise them both. Me saying "But my method is much better" isn't going to cut it, because prospective students will still see my method as incomplete.

      If the grammar comes first and the vocabulary later, so be it. But even if WAYK is just about grammar, I need some sort of "WAYK + vocabulary" package. They do say that WAYK Techniques can be applied to learning any skill, so maybe all I need to do is apply them to the topic of "vocabulary expansion".

  5. When I was working as an English classroom assistant with little to no TEFL training, I had to learn how to teach through a lot of trial and error. Not everything was successful but I think I came up with a hit when I made up a card game to teach vocabulary for a unit on food.

    I made up a bunch of cards with basic foods on them and then I had them play a game based on Go Fish which I called Go Shopping. I had them seek pairs using a set, repetitive conversation which also worked on modal verbs, making polite requests using the conditional, and subtly introducing count nouns vs non-count nouns (I noted the plural forms on the cards). They would ask for a card by saying, "I would like a/some...please" or "I want to eat a/some" etc and if the other player didn't have the card they would say, "Sorry, I don't have any." I was thrilled because it was the first time I could get them talking to each other exclusively in English for a whole class period and they really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

    I envisioned developing the game even further to work on other areas of vocabulary and to introduce more basic conversations and structures. My idea was to basically have a series of flashcards that belonged to different units that would represent a town (including home, school, and/or work) and to have players go through the "town" taking care of different tasks and errands (similar to the structure of most language textbooks - at school, at home, at the store, at the doctor's, at the airport, at the hotel, at the restaurant, etc). I also wanted to make the card game more sophisticated so as to be more interesting to older kids and adults (maybe base it off a more grownup game than Go Fish) and/or have a sentence building aspect using the cards.

    I'd be interested to see what others think. I'd really like to have something that can be very comprehensive and expandable that works through lots of repetition of tiny chunks. I can see the game I had in mind fitting the spirit of WAYK/Language Hunters.

    1. Aha excellent! Yes, I can see that this could work very well for vocabulary expansion. I had been pondering how to teach vocabulary as it will be realistically required in different day-to-day situations just sat around a table. The Walk is a great idea, and I think we need to recreate real situations as much as we can. But there are practical limitations.

      I had thought of making cardboard cutouts of various things, but I think the idea of "playing cards" of some sort is excellent, because it gives us flexibility. If we make them slightly enlarged, like say, A6 size, then they can be used both for card games where only you, the player, know what you have while others have to work it out or ask you, and for setting up table-top "scenes" that the players talk about. Clip-art (full colour of course) on normal sheets of paper will do fine, so this solution shouldn't be too costly either.

      So there's another tool to add to the box as we design rides going forward. Fantastic!

    2. Great! If you come up with other developments I'd definitely be interested in hearing how you adapt it. I think with any study, even more that's more anchored in the "now", in "reality" like WATY it always helps to step back and put it in an even more real context. So even if you learn vocabulary through a more abstract medium, if you connect it to real media or objects (not even physical objects - you can have them "shop" online for example) then it should be anchored.

  6. This video now has subtitles... See here: