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What is TPR

From a lecture at Cambridge University, England
by James J. Asher, Ph.D.

Babies don't learn by memorizing lists;
why should children and adults?

Dear Colleague:

During World War II, millions of Americans served their country all over the world, and suddenly Americans realized the disadvantage in not being fluent in the language of the host country. We realized that it is insulting when we visit foreign countries and expect people to communicate with us English.

This episodic event motivated a national movement in America to graduate every boy and girl from high school fluent in a foreign language. The mystery was; How can we accomplish this noble goal? America was a "melting pot," where every immigrant mastered English to integrate into the American Way of Life. The result was a nation that spoke only English and was proud of it

    The nation mobilized.

The nation mobilized resources to discover how every boy and girl can graduate from high school speaking another language. All we knew was the traditional format did not work: "Listen and repeat after me," "translate this paragraph," "memorize this list of vocabulary items," and "let's analyze the grammar point of the day." That classic foreign language classroom did not work for most students, but we did not know why.

As I said, the classic foreign language classroom as usual simply did not work for Americans and no one knew why. All we knew was: A huge amount of work for both teacher and students resulted in a very small gain. For example, after a year of High School Spanish , I was comfortable saying, "Vamos a tomar un refresco." Instead of fluency, students often left school feeling, " I tried my best to learn Spanish (or French or German). I guess I am no good at foreign languages. Incidentally, we observed the same damaging conclusion for most students learning mathematics, because math is another foreign language.

    After fifty years, here is what I discovered:

First, the small percentage of students who excel in the traditional foreign language classroom are able, for reasons still unknown, to listen to an utterance in a foreign language and not only repeat with some accuracy but retain it. These are the all "A" students in languages who are inspired to become teachers of the foreign language, and tell their students: "Listen, I mastered the language the way I am presenting it to you, so you can achieve what I have achieved, Just work a little harder."

Second, as a result of the Nobel-prize winning experiments with cats in the 1960s by Roger Sperry, I conclude that the traditional foreign language classroom did not work for a surprising simple reason. Teachers were playing to half the brain, usually the wrong half. More about this in a moment.

    The solution is quite simple:

Do not start the journey to fluency with a direct attempt to get students to speak, read and write.
Except in rare cases, I do not believe one person can directly teach another person to talk. Human beings are not wired to acquire languages with a "frontal assault." They do not respond to launching immediately into the foreign language. The explanation is in brain organization, which is obvious when you observe infants.

    Here is what I learned by observing children:

In the entire history of the human race, there is no instance of an infant being born talking. "Hi, mom and dad. I almost got sea sick revolving round and round." For about a year, infants are silent, but they carry on a unique conversation with caregivers.

For example, the parent says,
"Smile for Grandpa and the child smiles."
"Don't spit up on your blouse."
"Take my hand crossing the street."
"Don't make a fist when I am trying to put on your coat."
"Pick up your toys and put them on your bed."

    The unique conversation:

The parent utters a direction and the child is silent but responds with a physical action. The child acknowledges understanding by smiling, standing, walking running, and other basic physical actions, each of which I call, a Total Physical Response or TPR. The conclusion: Human beings are wired to acquire a language by listening and acting. After a year or so of what I identify as "language-body conversations," ---that run into the thousands, the young child is read to talk. And when speech appears, it will not be perfect. There will be many, many distortions, but gradually the child's speech shapes itself in the direction of a fluent native speaker.

Notice some interesting things happening in this process. First speech cannot be forced by caretakers. The child will speak when the child is ready. Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four or five. Second, the parent does not correct imperfect utterances. We are so charmed by the child's attempts, we mimic the infant. "Does darling want a pee punch?" This is counter to professional advice for shaping any skill. Feedback from the instructor is suppose to model a correct response that we expect from the student. Instead, parents model "baby talk," which are distortions. But, speech we thought was charming at age two is not charming when the child is five. Through all this "fog," the child emerges a fluent speaker of the native language,

    Now, into the classroom with my Total Physical Response, known worldwide as TPR:

Teachers are surprised when they bring "language-body conversations," which is the essence of TPR, into the classroom and witness magic. Suddenly, students who appeared to be "brain dead" come to life. They get excited because instantly they understand everything the instructor is saying in a strange language. You will overhear a student confine to another student, "I understand everything she is saying in German. I actually think I can learn this language."

    Are you ready to enjoy going to work everyday?

It is thrilling to discover that TPR works in any language including mathematics. And you will discover there is no such thing as "a difficult language." Even a so- called "dead language" such as Latin becomes transparent with TPR. Students who experience Latin with TPR report they even dream in Latin.

    Now in closing,

Teachers ask me, "Now what? Where do I go from there?"
Some caveats: TPR looks simple and indeed it is when you develop some skill. I like Count Leo Tolstoy's observation:" It is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to apply one principle."

The greatest contribution professors of education could make in the preparation of student teachers is one or more workshop- type courses dedicated to the skillful application of TPR in the classroom. It is reassuring that scientific experiments in multiple languages strongly supports the validity of TPR, which cannot be said of any other "method" in foreign language learning.

    How to develop TPR skill on your own

Step One: Read my book, Learning another language through Actions (now in the 7th edition). You may like to follow Wioletta Lesniak in Poland and Jim Martinez in Brazil who said to me," I read your book six times and each time I discovered something new..."

Step two: Before you go into your classroom, try a few TPR lessons with your family, friends and neighbors. In doing this, (a) you become convinced that TPR really works, (b) you develop more confidence in yourself and (c) you smooth out your delivery.

Good luck! You are on the right track!

James J. Asher, Ph.D