Why do our L1-English learners of French/Spanish find it hard to acquire agreement rules? What can teachers do to facilitate the process?

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In a previous post I already dealt with the dichotomy declarative knowledge vs procedural knowledge and control. To put in a nutshell, the former refers to knowing the set of ‘rules’ governing the use of a given target grammar or lexical structure (having its mental representation) whereas the latter refers to its effective application during real operation conditions (e.g. in spontaneous speech or writing under time constraints). As I have often reiterated in many of my posts, language learning ought to aim at bringing about high levels of target language control (as close as possible to automatization), whilst viewing declarative knowledge as the necessary starting point in an L2-learner’s journey towards acquisition.

In my experience, students find it relatively easy to grasp the rules underlying the application of noun (or pronoun)-adjective rules but rarely manage to acquire effective control, and even at A-level and University many mistakes continue slipping into performance (especially in oral output). Why is it? And what can be done about it?

In a previous post I discussed how agreement errors are often due to the fact that, in less expert L2 speakers/writers, whenever Working Memory experiences cognitive overload, the brain tends to focus only on the most semantically salient features of the output (the ones that convey most of the intended meaning) and neglects the features which do not contribute much to meaning. However, this is not the whole truth. The picture is much more complicated than that.

Let us look at the cognitive operations and knowledge involved in the process of applying adjectival agreement rules in the production of L2 French/Italian/Spanish/German output (i.e. speaking or writing) under real operating conditions (henceforth ROC). The L2 speaker/writer must:

  1. Retrieve the required French adjective;
  2. Remember to make it agree with the noun in terms of gender and number – which is not always straightforward as they may be relatively far from each other – separated by a copula and an intensifier, for instance;
  3. Know whether the nouns is masculine or feminine;
  4. Know whether it is irregular or regular;
  5. Apply the rule;
  6. (in speaking) pronounce it correctly / (in writing) spell it correctly.

These are quite a lot of cognitive operations to perform under ROC. To top it off, the cognitive load posed by these operations is exacerbated by the fact that there are often other permutations that the learner will have to execute in the same sentence (e.g. subject-to-verb agreement).

As pointed out in previous posts, if our learners keep making this kind of mistakes day in day out whenever they engage in spontaneous or pseudo-spontaneous communication, the errors end up being fossilized (automatized) and incorporated permanently in their Interlanguage. This explains why a lot of L2 learners keep making those mistakes all the way up to university. So what can be done to fix this problem earlier on? Lots of old-fashioned drills? Or how about, as the ‘Krashenites’ amongst us would suggest, exposing the students to lots of comprehensible input and avoid involving them in any language production until later stages in the instruction process? Neither of these solutions are in my opinion, a bad idea. In fact, any sound approach to this issue, would have to involve a bit of both.

To come up with an effective solution one should, in my opinion, consider first the three main psycholinguistics causes of the issue, which refer to the six operations listed above.

  1. The gender of nouns – the notion that words can be masculine and feminine (or neuter if one is learning German) is completely alien to an L1 English native speaker. Yet, how often and how strongly is this notion firmly placed in the students’ focal awareness and ‘drummed in’ across all four language skills during the early stages of acquisition – and later on, too – by MFL instructors? Enhancing their focus on this notion does not simply involve teaching them the gender of the target nouns; it also involves changing their mindset, the way their cognition works. Hence, teachers must ensure, since the very early days of L2 learning, that students are constantly reminded of this concept, both explicitly (e.g through work on noun morphology) and implicitly (e.g. through colour coding).
  1. Focus on word endings – the anglo-saxon brain is wired to focus on the beginning of words; hence, instinctively, an English native speaker would focus his/her attention on the opposite end to where s/he should indeed be focusing it on. This also entails another disadvantage: students may not learn much from any L2 written input they read since, by focusing mainly on the beginnings of words, may not notice the endings in the texts at all.To get an anglo-saxon brain to invert the ‘instinctive’ focus of its attention is no easy task, especially with adult learners. This process will require extensive day-in-day-out scaffolding and practice.
  1. The saliency of agreement – this issue compounds the problem identified in point 1, in that an L1 English speaker is not only at odds with the notion of gender, but will also find the notion of agreement unfamiliar and redundant. Hence their brain will automatically place the saliency of agreement low down in their list of attentional priorities. The challenge for teachers is to ensure that agreement is constantly in the learners’ focal awareness until it becomes ‘second nature’ – as it is for any French, Spanish, Italian and German native speaker. By making the application of agreement become ‘second nature’, I mean that whenever an adjective is retrieved by Working Memory, a ‘program’(or Production, as it is called by Skill theorists) in the learner’s brain is automatically activated  that operates something like this:

 

        If condition: if I use an adjective in a phrase/sentence…

       Then condition: …then I must make it agree with the noun it modifies

 

The speed at which the brain will activate the above Production (i.e. the extent of its Proceduralisation) will play a big role in determining how efficiently and effectively the agreement rule will be applied.

The implications for teaching are pretty obvious. MFL teachers must focus on developing processing efficiency under ROC (i.e. cognitive control), whilst addressing the three issues just discussed, by moving them into their learners’ focal awareness until, after day-in-day-out scaffolding (in the way of reminders) and practice (only a few minutes a day), they become automatic. I have already discussed fairly extensively how control can be enhanced in a previous post (“Control – the most neglected, yet most important factor in MFL grammar teaching”); as far as the other issues are concerned, here are a few possible teacher tactics. The reader should bear in mind that in my approach one should always start with receptive skills and move on to the productive ones at a later stage.

Focus on gender – here are some suggestions on how to focus students on gender:

  • Present masculine and feminine nouns always with the (indefinite/definite) article or any other determiner (e.g. mon/ma) and using different colour coding (this is common practice in many MFL classrooms);
  • When providing vocabulary lists, make sure that the masculine and feminine nouns are grouped separately (you may use colour-coding as background to enhance the contrast) ;
  • Model and practice extensively ‘rule of thumbs’ which may work as ‘aide-memoire’ in the identification of the gender of nouns (e.g. noun endings in ‘ion’ are usually feminine). Engaging inductive activities can be staged in class whereby the students are given lists of words and with the help of dictionaries need to work out by themselves such rules of thumbs.
  • After involving the students in a reading or listening-based activity, get them to identify (based on their determiners) the gender of a set list of nouns whose gender you want to focus on;
  • Involve the students, on a regular basis – I do one every single day – in quizzes based on gender identification e.g. odd one out’s (given three nouns, spot the feminine one) and gap-fills (where the article must be inserted);
  • Give the students a short passage containing X number of mistakes with (the gender of) articles or other determiners and challenge them to find them under time conditions with the help of the dictionary. This can be done as a way to practise the modelling of ‘rule of thumbs’. Students usually enjoy this activity;
  • The classroom environment can be used as a way to remind the students of the issue and to display any rule of thumbs modelled or worked out by the students.

              Focus on adjectival endings

  • Colour-code feminine endings – as well masculine endings when dealing with irregular adjectives (e.g. travailleur vs travailleuse);
  • When providing vocabulary lists include both the feminine and masculine endings of the target adjectives(it is tedious and time consuming but it pays off);
  • Listening activities involving focus on endings should be carried out regularly (e.g. minimal pairs, where the feminine and masculine forms of the same adjective are contrasted);
  • ‘Error hunt’ tasks where students need to identify a set number of agreement errors in a text – students usually enjoy this kind of activities;
  • Old-fashioned drills (e.g. multiple choice gap-fills; ending manipulation tasks; translations, etc.)
  • Give the students a checklist with the following guiding questions, for example, as a way to scaffold the focus on adjectival endings and agreement when they are producing written output, e.g.: (1) Which noun does the adjective refer to? (2) Is the noun feminine or masculine, singular or plural? How do you know? Have you double-checked, if in doubt? (3) Is the adjective regular or irregular? Have you double-checked, if in doubt?

Placing ‘agreement’ in the students’ focal awareness – As far as this issue is concerned, the above activities, if practised regularly, ‘should do the trick’. The above mentioned activity involving work on ‘authentic’ essays written by previous cohorts of students containing numerous mistakes with adjectival agreement could be used as a reminder of how common this type of error is. Also, in setting targets as part of feedback on writing or speaking, one of the three or four targets identified should include adjectival agreement if it is a recurrent source of error in the output. A narrow-focus corrective approach, whereby the feedback and feed-forward on a student’s written output centers mainly on one or two issues only (see my article on this approach, could be implemented, too. In this approach, the students could be focused solely on agreement issues for a few weeks so as to channel all of his/her attentional resources in the editing process only on this aspect of grammar accuracy.

In conclusion, the cognitive challenges posed by the acquisition and application of agreement rules are manifold. In this article I have endeavoured to outline a few. Most teachers do address such challenges, in my experiences, but not consistently and extensively enough to prevent them from causing these errors to recur and become fossilized in their learners’ interlanguage. Some practitioners adopting strong CLT approaches may not feel that agreement errors are important enough to deserve the allocation of dedicated teaching time in each lesson. I can relate to this argument, as I agree that fluency should come before accuracy as a priority.

However, agreement mistakes, when they are recurrent, can be stigmatizing and irritating to native speaker readers or listeners and may be interpreted by them as signs of poor linguistic competence. Hence, I advocate that a few minutes’ work on the above issues should feature regularly at the early stages of L2 instruction until one feels that the learners have finally acquired a sufficiently high level of focal awareness of and control over this structure.

7 thoughts on “Why do our L1-English learners of French/Spanish find it hard to acquire agreement rules? What can teachers do to facilitate the process?

  1. What great suggestions! Just this year, I was REALLY struggling to get my French 1 students to understand and apply adjective agreement. I’ve been teaching for 19 years and it just seems that they are getting worse and worse at “getting” this point. I tried to group similar adjectives on the practice sheets, but it only barely helped. I will definitely apply some of your ideas this upcoming year! Thank you!

  2. I found your blog via a group on Facebook today, and now I’m working my way through your posts. I’m enjoying it so much! I appreciate the suggestions here. I LOVE color coding. My old high school Spanish professor used to have us do the worksheets, but he usually asked us to 1. Underline the noun, 2. circle the ending 3. draw an arrow from the adjective back to the noun. 4. circle the ending of the adjective.
    It was tedious, but I really believe it helped turn the pathway in my brain from a dirt road into a highway. I do the same thing now with my students, but with colors.

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