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‘Learn the Right Vocab.’ Year-Long Seminar Examines Second Language Acquisition Archives

Jamie Rankin lectures in Sills Hall 9/29/17

When it comes to acquiring a second language there’s no substitute for learning vocabulary, or to be more accurate, the right vocabulary. That was the message from Princeton senior lecturer Jamie Rankin, whose recent talk launched a year-long seminar at Bowdoin, aimed at adding fresh impetus to the teaching of foreign languages.

George Taylor Files Professor of Modern Languages Birgit Tautz, who teaches German, put together the seminar,—”Research Into Action: 2017-18 Seminar in Second Language Acquisition” (or SLA)—after conversations with colleagues in other departments.

“The aim,” she said, “is to model the value and outcome of research-based instruction by combining guest lectures with workshop-style events where we collaborate with each other and with students, and seek to translate what we learned into teaching situations.”

Rankin’s lecture focused on what he describes as the disconnect between what research says, and what  classroom textbooks are saying. “The authors are well-intentioned,” he said, “but they’re not paying enough attention to the research on vocabulary acquisition. The current emphasis is on cultural comparisons and linguistic structures, which are important – but there’s not nearly enough emphasis on vocabulary.”

He added, the vocabulary that is being taught is often the wrong vocabulary. “The textbooks contain words which I’m sure the authors think will be useful, and many of them are indeed memorable—words like ‘igloo’ and ‘vacuum cleaner’—but they’re not high frequency words.” To help remedy that, Rankin has been working to develop a curriculum that utilizes the top 1200 words in German, words which he said should enable you to understand 70 to 75 percent of almost any text.

Those words need to then be reinforced with a systematic chapter-by-chapter review, in which they’re used in a variety of contexts. “Research shows you need multiple exposures to words in order to deepen your processing of them. Then you begin to understand the many different meanings and usages of the same word. Most textbooks don’t do this.”

Rankin has written an online textbook called der | die | das: An Introduction to German, which combines the latest in SLA research and is based on high frequency vocabulary. Bowdoin is one of a handful of institutions using the resource.

Rankin’s presentation stressed the importance of learning the most freqeuently used words

“We have been using der | die | das since fall 2016 in our elementary German courses, and the results have been great,” said Assistant Professor of German Jens Elias Klenner. “It integrates multiple media and features embedded video and interactive listening exercises.” Klenner also likes the fact that der | die | das is free of charge, because it’s a web-based product. “This is a huge relief for anyone’s wallet, given the steep price of textbooks.”

Katherine Dauge-Roth, who teaches French, agrees. She’s associate professor of romance languages and literatures  “The ridiculous inflation of language textbook prices is becoming an ethical dilemma for all language teachers as they decide what to require students to purchase.”

Of course, it’s not just the cost factor that Dauge-Roth finds attractive. “It would be terrific to see a textbook based on high frequency words created for French, because Rankin’s approach, emphasizing these words and building units around them, makes sense from the standpoint of effective language acquisition and retention.

“I will be interested to learn more about his methodology from my colleagues in German,” she continued. “And to see in the follow-up workshop how, in the absence of such a textbook for French, we might incorporate his ideas into our teaching.”

Organizers of the seminar hope it can help all faculty members interested in researching and teaching SLA. It should also be invaluable for students who wish to become K-12 teachers and those vying for coveted postgraduate opportunities abroad, including Fulright English Teaching Assistant awards.

Associate Professor of Education Doris Santoro said the SLA seminar could also help in teaching English language learners: “This could be useful to the many Bowdoin College students who are involved with Portland’s extremely diverse multilingual population in community-engaged courses and co-curricular activities through the McKeen Center.

The “Research Into Action” seminar continues on Friday, October 13, 2017, at 3 p.m., with a workshop for faculty and students to be held in Sills Hall, room 109. Professor Birgit Tautz will facilitate further discussion of Jamie Rankin’s research, and develop materials for classroom use.


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