New interview with Dr. Bill VanPatten

We’ve spoken a bit about Dr. Bill VanPatten here recently. Lois does a nice job interviewing him in this long form video. They touch on many often discussed topics here that I thought may be of interest. Enjoy.


I’m halfway through. VanPatten comes down hard on the side of input as the key to language acquisition. He makes a strong case that language teachers are poorly educated for teaching language. Furthermore, the academic style of teaching is poorly suited for teaching languages.

Language teachers see themselves as teachers… Get rid of that mindset you are teachers, because you can’t really teach language. You can only help it grow in the minds of learners.

–Bill VanPatten



VanPatten also makes an interesting analogy: grammar is to language acquistion as baby teeth are to adult chewing.

Which is to say that grammar sort of gets you by at the beginning of learning language, but will fall away as you really reach competency.

After three months of French I decided to create a set of flashcards for French verb conjugations. I reviewed them often for several months, but gradually I stopped looking at them. Now I don’t even carry them around.

I don’t have them memorized, but I basically know what’s there and where to look it up if I want the exact form. I’m content to let the rest soak in gradually by input.

But I don’t regret my flashcard phase – my baby teeth. That was useful when I felt overwhelmed and I couldn’t tell a verb from everything else.

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I actually thought of it the other way, that input comes first, you get yourself familiarized with language, get used to some patterns, and then learn grammar behind it. I’ve done a lot of comprehensible input in French with almost zero grammar. Now I consider myself ready for grammar ( in a sense that I’m familliar with the written form of language to some degree), and want to focus a little on underlying rules.
My “baby teeth” was translation of phrases and sentenses, that lead to “adult chewing” i.e understanding without translating.
Anyways, now that I’ve read your comments, I’m really interested know more about this person’s perspective on language learning, especially since it looks like that it differs from mine.

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The two Steves, Krashen and Kaufmann, are on your side. Grammar makes more sense when one has already had some input. I imagine VanPatten would agree.

VanPatten comes from academia so he is often dealing with teachers and students who got grammar first. His point is that grammar first isn’t necessarily a waste of time – it can be useful in the early days, especially for output – but won’t be how one really functions in the language later.

His main argument is that one doesn’t learn language like learning algebra or chemistry, a block of learning at a time. I come from that style of learning myself and I’ve been somewhat horrified how much language learning is a gradual, largely unconscious, process of assimilation.