Why Our Arabic Program Is Not a GPA Program
Executive Director, Kelsey Arabic Program, Amman, Jordan
MA TESOL and Intercultural Studies, Wheaton Graduate School
Since shortly before I took over direction of the Kelsey Arabic Program in 2007, a large number of new Arabic teaching programs have arisen here in Amman. At least five of these programs use a learning approach developed by Greg Thomson and known as the Growing Participator Approach (GPA). A relatively large number of learners are now enrolled in these programs. I often find myself with prospective students who ask me why they should study with us and not a GPA program, and what sets our program apart from them. It is my intent to provide some of those answers in writing and to explain why we have not chosen to adopt the GPA as our primary approach to Arabic learning. These points are a summary of my views based upon my observations of many Arabic language learners and my graduate-level studies in language learning.
1. GPA advocates often promote their programs as “learning language like a child.” This mentality is mistaken and unhelpful. My response to those who want to learn like a child is often the following: “If you have eighteen years with nothing else to do, and at least one native speaker who is willing to spend nearly all of his/her time with you without being paid for it, give it a try.” Additionally, it is often declared that such methods will be more fun. It is true that children often have a lot of fun, but those of us who are parents know they also have many times when they are not having fun, become upset and throw incredible tantrums. Oftentimes, such tantrums are the result of a child’s frustration at his/her inability to communicate. Learning a language is hard. I want to learn it like an adult, with all of the tools at my disposal that I have acquired over the years (making lists, learning rules from others, motivating myself, etc.).
From a research standpoint, many theorists now refer to a “fundamental difference hypothesis,” which claims that “first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition are fundamentally different in a number of ways” (VanPatten and Benati, 2010, quoted in Ryding, 2013 1). We desire to use the methods that have proven effective base on our experience and try new methods that show promise based on sound research.
2. The theoretical basis for naturalistic language acquisition methods (such as GPA, among others) is unproven by research and the experience of many experts. The theoretical “father” of many of the ideas that can be summed up as “learning like a child” is Stephen Krashen, who published most of his ideas in the 1980’s. Although Krashen certainly made a valuable contribution to the field of language acquisition, his ideas cannot be wholeheartedly accepted. Particularly, he espoused that exposure to the new language, “comprehensible input,” will often be enough to provide a foundation for speaking. Tracy Terrell was Krashen’s colleague in developing the “natural approach” to language learning in the 1980’s. Terrell’s own experience later in an Arabic-speaking setting casts much doubt on the effectiveness of their ideas:
Consider my own attempts at learning Arabic during a five-week stay in Morocco. I knew no Arabic on arrival and soon found that even the simplest input was incomprehensible. I soon switched to an output strategy… [where] I would ask (in French) how you say X in Arabic and then repeat the response several times, trying to memorize it… Indeed, I was rarely able to identify any individual words in the input and mostly determined the meaning of utterances directed at me through contextual guessing.
In summary, some informal evidence exists that adults do not automatically use input to develop competence in the way Krashen has suggested… If some adults do not process input as Krashen suggests then it may also be the case that a conscious knowledge of grammar may play a greater… role in language acquisition and processing than Krashen posits. 2
In summary, one of the primary developers of the “natural approach,” from which GPA derives much of its theory and techniques, tried this approach for learning Arabic and he found that it was not effective.
3. The techniques used in GPA are helpful for learning some language skills, but other language skills require other techniques for effective learning. Specifically, the techniques used in the early stages of GPA can assist one with vocabulary acquisition, especially recognition and comprehension. We use similar techniques at Kelsey Arabic Program. However, these techniques are limited and not useful for other aspects of language use. Formation of complete, formally accurate sentences is an area of weakness we have seen in most GPA learners that we have encountered. Because GPA techniques de-emphasize the explicit instruction of the structural “rules” of the new language, this continues to be an area of weakness. In our program, we emphasize the importance of explicit instruction on the structure of Arabic.
4. The programs using GPA are not comprehensive in their approach. Although GPA learners tend to perform adequately in comprehension and vocabulary knowledge, there are other weaknesses we have observed. As previously stated, one is production of sentences with formal accuracy. Second is the level of general mistakes. Third is the delay in literacy skills. The general GPA learner that we have met has not begun to learn Arabic reading and writing; it is usually delayed to a much later stage. We believe that, although it is a mistake to devote the majority of instruction to reading and writing in beginning stages, it is also a mistake to delay them to such a large degree. One reason is that Arabs find it strange when someone introduces himself as an Arabic learner and cannot read. Another is that, although there are many differences between colloquial and formal Arabic, there is also a common core that is best learned in conjunction with learning reading and writing.
5. The most effective learning is accomplished with the help of a professional, trained teacher. GPA practitioners avoid the use of the term “teacher” and prefer that of “nurturer.” That is, they prefer to use any benevolent native speaker of the language to use as a model for learning. We believe such people are valuable resources and conversation partners, and we always encourage our students to find such people, and they often are able to meet with them without paying anything. At the same time, we have observed that it is also important to have a teacher, i.e., someone who knows enough about the language to explain it to others. I have completed a number of TESOL courses, culminating in a Master’s degree in the subject, and the continual refrain has been “it is not enough to be a native speaker of English; you need to be able to explain how the language works to learners and plan and implement effective learning activities.” This wise principle applies to Arabic just as much as it does to English. Although the GPA may be the best approach in a linguistic setting in which there are no resources or trained teachers, the Arabic-speaking world is not one of those settings. We have developed highly effective resources and skilled teachers. To us, it is a mistake not to utilize them.
6. The results in our setting show that a hybrid model of classroom instruction in language forms, structured practice in use of language, and interaction in the Arabic-speaking community is the most effective approach to learning Arabic. Although one is always welcome to try new things, when one is faced with a number of options and does not have unlimited time or financial resources, it is wise to choose a “tried and true” method. We have found that our method consistently produces strong results for nearly all learners who implement it (i.e., consistently study the materials, follow the program, and initiate interaction with native speakers). We appreciate that GPA advocates have introduced new ideas to the language learning discussion, and we wish success for those who take advantage of the services of GPA programs, but we are not using their approach because we believe we have something more effective.