19 November 2010

Expository vs Naturalistic Language Examples

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing authentic materials.  The main problem I identified was the lack of mutual reinforcement between individual texts (I hate that word, but I just can't find a suitable alternative...) meaning that very little language presented is retained.

So where did our modern love of "authentics" come from?

Authentic materials is actually one of the oldest tools in the language learner's toolbox.  Classical education has long focused on the reading of genuine Latin and Greek texts.  If you have a look at the Open University's course catalogue, you'll see that their classical language courses are called Reading Classical Greek and Reading Classical Latin, which is a pretty clear statement of the course goals.  The Greek course looks at a lot of literature in translation, but the Latin course is a perfect example of learning by authentic materials, as it looks at excerpts from Roman dramas and Cicero's speeches.

The use of authentic materials would even appear to go at the very least as far back as the heyday of the Roman Empire, where Greek was the fashionable language du jour.  Greek slaves were sold into rich Roman households where they would teach the children of the house to read and understand the works of writers such as Homer.

But despite two millenia as one of the most widely used tools in language learning, there are those who present the idea of using "real" language as a new and revolutionary idea.  In fact, many proponents of "real language" actively attack old ways of learning as ineffective and outdated.

But if we don't go straight for authentic material, what is there?

The very extreme opposite of authentic material is the stereotypical idea of trite sentences designed purely to demonstrate grammar points -- what I call expository language.

There are several classic examples of the absurdities that a purely expository approach leaves us with.

To the French person, the archetype is "My tailor is rich", which I'm told was the opening sentence of the original Assimil course.
In English, our traditional archetype is "La plume de ma tante" ("my aunt's pen", literally "the pen of my aunt") in such contrivances as "la plume de ma tante est sur le table".

Over a hundred years ago, people were already spending a lot of time attacking this approach.  The Danish language teacher Otto Jespersen wrote a book entitled How to Teach a Foreign Language (translated to English by Sophia Yhlen-Olsen Bertelsen) in which he put forth an argument for the so-called "direct" or "natural" method - ie that of teaching the language monolingually, by only speaking the target language.
"Disconnected words are but stones for bread;" he said, "one cannot say anything sensible with mere lists of words," and this is certainly true. "Indeed not even disconnected sentences ought to be used," he continued, "at all events, not in such a manner and to such an extent as in most books according to the old method," and while I wouldn't argue with this, we can see a little hint of what Decoo classes under the heading of "denigration of others" in his lecture On The Mortality of Language Learning Methods.

I'll reproduce some of Jespersen's examples, all taken from genuine courses of the time, for your benefit.
"My aunt is my mother's friend. My dear friend, you are speaking too rapidly. That is a good book. We are too old. This gentleman is quite sad. The boy has drowned many dogs."
Clearly there is no consistency or logic behind these, and it is hard to build up any sort of a bigger picture.

He then picks an example from a French book:
" Nous sommes a Paris, vous etes a Londres. Louise et Amelie, ou etes-vous? Nous avons trouvé la lettre sur la table. Avez-vous pris le livre ? Avons-nous eté a Berlin ? Amélie, vous etes triste. Louis, avez-vous vu Philippe? Sommes-nous a Londres ?"

And this is Jespersen's criticism of it:
"The speakers seem to have a strange sense of locality. First, they say that they themselves are in Paris, but the one (the ones?) that they are speaking with are in London (conversation by telephone?) ; then they cannot remember if they themselves have been in Berlin ; and at last they ask if they themselves are in London."

There is nothing in his criticism that really applies to any method, "old" or otherwise.  We are in fact looking at a criticism of choice of material.

I'd like to give a few examples that I think underline this point.

An Comunn Gaidhealach's Elementary Course of Gaelic was first published almost 100 years ago.  I picked up a reprint of the 1921 edition in a charity shop a couple of years back.  The first edition was written at the just after the high point of the "natural methods", and the revised edition was put together about 30 years after Jespersen's book, so it's quite likely that natural/direct thinking had an effect on both the original author and the author of the revised edition.  So let's have a look at some of the exercises in the book.

The first lesson has the following as a reading exercise (this is my translation of the original Gaelic)
The dog is at the door. The cat is on the floor. The swan is on the lake. The seal is on the rock. The man has a head. The cow and the bull are in the meadow.
There is a fort on the hill and there is a man in the fort. What is this? This is a hole. What is in the hole? There is a mouse in the hole. Where is the foal? The foal is in the stable. The boy is at the door with the cow....[etc]

This makes the mistake that Jespersen highlights of being disjointed and "jumping around" between subjects, but is certainly not as bad as his examples.  Jespersen's focus on the disjointedness misses the problems of the individual sentences. The author of the Gaelic book is trying to paint a picture, but he is writing expository text here -- his main goal is still to show the grammar, not to be natural.  Because of this, he ignores the problem of introducing new subjects with a definite article.  "The dog" and "the cat" are fine, because we are all acustomed to talking this way about family pets.  But "the swan" and "the seal" are more troublesome, as I'm likely to ask "which swan?"  The definite article assumes that we have a shared idea of a particular swan or seal.  We're more likely to say things like "there is a swan on the loch", as this doesn't assume any prior knowledge of the swan (I can now use the definite article, because I introduced the swan with "there is...").

The second paragraph is where this really starts to get troublesome, because we hit that old schoolboy motivation-killer: answer in sentences. "What is this? This is a hole." "Where is the foal? The foal is in the stable."  Point out to any teacher that natives don't answer in sentences and you'll get a simple and very logical answer: the reason for answering in sentences is to learn the grammar.  This is the very definition of expository language -- examples that exist purely to demonstrate a language point.

And here's where the "natural" and "direct" methods' justification starts to unravel.  When you're in a monolingual classroom, the simplest way to prompt a student to say something is by asking a question and demanding a fully formed response.  This means that your "natural" method is pretty much guaranteed to produce expository language and not naturalistic or authentic language.

"Answer in sentences" has pervaded language learning, and we see it not only in monolingual methods, but often the bilingual classroom will present new language with a native language explanation followed by monolingual practice.  Even methods using pure translation will often fall into this trap.  The original courses by Michel Thomas did not, but many of the courses written by others under the brand after his death do.  The Japanese course is a perfect example of expository language gone wrong.  The learner is asked to translate "do you want this?" and then "no, I want that."  Now there may not seem to be anything terribly wrong with this at first glance, but think about this: when I am talking to you, what is "this" to me is "that" to you.  This is even more problematic in Japanese, as it has a 3-way distinction equivalent to the Shakespearean "this" (near me), "that" (near you) and "yonder" (near neither of us).  The author is so fixated on the grammatical and lexical contrast between the two sentences that the physical logic of the dialogue is lost.  Again, the expository displaces the naturalistic, and the problem of meaningless and nonsensical language reappears.  Similar problems with here/there/yonder occur in almost all of the Pimsleur courses.  If you listen carefully, you'll often find yourself asking where the hotel is, only to be told it's "there", meaning where you are.

OK, so I have mostly given examples from bilingual courses or courses with explicit instruction.

One of the most vocal opponents of explicit instruction among the internet set is Stephen Kaufmann, Lingosteve on YouTube.  He is adamant that the only way to learn is by understanding bits of language.  He's put together a fairly sophisticated website dedicated to this idea, LingQ.  Kaufmann really hits that "denigration of others" that Decoo points out.  His whole argument is based on the same idea as Jespersen: he associates unnatural language with conscious methods.

But if we have a look at LingQ, will we find evidence of naturalistic or expository material?  Hmm....

Here's the first few lines of the first lesson in Portuguese (my translation):
"Welcome to LingQ.  My name is Mairo. What is your name? I live in Brazil. Where do you live? Do you want to learn Portuguese?..."

The conscious contrast between Mairo's personal information and his request for information from the learner is clearly expository.

And now an early Spanish lesson (again, my translation):
" Listen and repeat: What is your name? My name is Ana. What is his name? His name is Juan. What is her name? Her name is Maria. What age are you? I am 25 years old. What age is Juan? He is 22 years old. How old is Maria? She is 19 years old."
Here again we have clear expository goals: 1) question form vs statement form; 2) contrasting 1st, 2nd and 3rd person conjugations; 3) contrasting masculine and feminine pronouns in the 3rd person.

So even though we aren't going through any native-language instruction, we still get the problems that Jespersen was railing against.  The problem was not the medium of instruction, it was the material.

One form that is very widely used in both monolingual and translating courses is the dialogue.  Some of LingQ's texts are two-man podcasts.  Teach Yourself and Colloquial start each section with a dialog.  Assimil is based almost entirely on dialogues.  Dialogues often include the "answer in sentences" problem as described above, but not always.

The dialogue is said to give a natural context to the language, but sometimes this is assumed and the author ends up ignoring the naturalness of speech and produces a dialogue that is absurd almost to the point of meaninglessness, and becomes once more purely expository language.  This post was inspired by once such book: Beginner's Basque by Wim Jensen.  I can't say I was that hopeful when I picked it up -- it's by Hippocrene Books, who seem to specialise in cheap reprints -- but the first dialogue was worse than anything I have ever seen.  It comes with an English translation on the facing page, so I'll just use that (my comments are in italics.

Bernard: Good morning! I am Bernard. I am a boy. (Would anyone say this?  Certainly, the other person should be able to see that Bernard is a boy, so the effect is of someone with a learning disability.  Except that Bernard is not a boy.  The voice you here is of a man who would appear to be in his late twenties or early thirties.)
Johanna: Hello! I am Johanna. I am a girl. (Classic expository language -- using almost exactly the same structures with a word or two changed.  Again, the effect of learning difficulties comes through, and again, the voice actor is clearly an adult.)
Bernard: My name is Bernard. (Expository -- it restates known information needlessly, simply to demonstrate a different structure) I am Johanna's brother. (Woah there.  Who exactly is Bernard supposed to be talking to? I thought he was talking to Johanna, but there's no way he'd say this to her.)

Johanna: My name is Johanna. I am Bernard's sister. (Again we have an expository near-exact repetition, and again it really doesn't feel like Johanna's talking to Bernard.  Maybe they're introducing themselves to us?  Like a "piece to camera" in a video course?  It's not a particularly natural context though - it's what they call "breaking the fourth wall".)
Bernard: Johanna is a nice name. Your name is nice. (Nope, Bernard is clearly talking to Johanna.  But here again we have repeated information for contrast of structures, in this case attributive vs predicative adjectives.  Naturalisticness has been sacrificed again in favour of exposition.)
Johanna: Yes, it is nice, but Bernard is a nice name too. (And here we have a partial "answer in sentences" and more redundant echoing to demonstrate a particular form.)

Bernard: I am very glad. (??)
Johanna: See you!

This odd dynamic continues throughout the book.  The final dialogue in the book sees Johanna and Bernard discussing a family trip to the mountains.  From the dialogue, they clearly both know the plan, and take it in turns to say parts of it.  Who exactly are they presenting information to?  They are either saying things to each other they already know, or they're talking to you,

So really, dialogues are no kind of magic bullet.  Simply shifting your expository language into a dialogue does not automatically make it natural or meaningful.  Often it forces the author to be more consistent and coherent, but on the other hand, it can actually amplify the absurdity of some sentences by creating a clash between the expected behaviour in the context and the actual words of the participants.

But then we come to one of the most inexplicably popular figures in foreign language learning: Stephen Krashen.  Krashen was one of the big figures in the latest reincarnation of the direct/natural methods (and as Decoo says, in language, every method comes back again and again) and he was big on avoiding rules.  One of his justifications was getting people into "real" language "as soon as possible".  But as I said previously, supporters of authentic material allow it to be doctored and still call it authentic.  Krashen takes this self-deceit a fair bit further by that weaselly phrase "as soon as possible".  "As soon as possible" accepts that it's not possible right from the word go.  Have a quick look at a video of him in action, in a lecture he gave on his theories:

If you think about it, what did he start with?

He took a naturalistic piece of German and demonstrated that it wasn't an effective teaching strategy.  Then he presented a piece of very contrived expository language and called it "comprehensible input".  But it was not comprehensible.  Certain words and phrases were made very obvious, but you did not understand "what he said", but rather fragments of it.

So we go back to Jespersen's original argument -- that bilingual courses result in unnatural examples of the target language.  But monolingual courses are worse -- Krashen demonstrates quite aptly the opposite of his argument: that it is impossible to teach monolingually with natural language.  The one thing in favour of monolingual learning is that it does restrict the artificiality of the language -- the language must be unnatural to be understood, but it cannot be nonsensical or it will not be understood at all.

In that case, monolingual teaching is a bit of a crutch -- it gives us better results without having to fully address the problem.  But without these restrictions, and with a bit of brainpower, a bilingual course can do so much better.  It is extremely hard to elicit sentences like "do you know where it is?" and "I'm sorry, I didn't see you" in a monolingual classroom because of the non-specific function words, but these are extremely natural precisely because of those words; meanwhile they are actually very easy to prompt for by translation.  And once we're into function words, we move onto modality -- needs, desires etc.  These are very difficult to pick up from input, but in the Michel Thomas courses (the originals, not the potboilers produced posthumously), "wanting" appears 15 minutes into the course.  In Italian you'll be saying "I don't want to know", in German "What do you want to eat?" and in French "I would like to speak French". In the Spanish course it's actually held back until a full half hour into the course. *gasp*

Compare Krashen's demonstration with Thomas -- Krashen necessarily gives us easy words, because he relies on physical demonstration.  Thomas gives us words and structures that have vast conceptual meaning, but a very abstract, non-physical concept.  Krashen and his supporters would argue that because we are learning through translation, we are learning to translate.  Yet Krashen has never given any good demonstration of a reliable way to learn this very important functional language.  When it comes to grading authentics, it's the functional language that we generally need to remove to make it what he calls "comprehensible input", because it's inherently non-obvious.  If you want to get into native materials "as soon as possible", it's the non-obvious stuff that you need to teach/learn "as soon as possible".

So Jespersen is mostly wrong.  Yes, the worst examples of meaningless expository language could only occur in a bilingual course, but the cure is not to go monolingual, because only a bilingual translating course can employ genuinely natural language.


Fasulye said...

What you define as expositary language are the negative examples of unnatural language usage in textbooks. Especially in beginner texts of old textbooks you can find such language usage. But it's possbile to create "natural" texts also on a beginner's level. For example my textbooks of the "Einstieg Dänisch", "Einstieg Türkisch" series present dialogues which seem to be taken from real situations. Just to quote the very simple dialogue of the first Danish unit:

B: Hello Sandra!
S: Hello Bo!
B: Welcome to Copenhagen!
S: Thank you. How are you?
B: Thanks, I'm fine. An how are you?
S. I am also fine. What a pleasure to see you again!
B. Yes, that's what I also think.

To me such a dialogue sounds "natural", even if only a very limited vocabulary and grammar is used in this first unit.


Nìall Beag said...

Yes, they are negative examples. Nowhere did I say that dialogues were bad -- my point was that there is a tendency to talk about dialogues as a whole and to fail to examine the principles used to write genuinely useful dialogues.

To me, your example is actually quite unnatural, and it's not uncommon to see dialogues like that in many courses -- often a Colloquial or TY course will do the same thing.

I note several clear expository features in you dialogue -- contrasting of thanks and thank you, repetition of how are you, repetition of I am fine with addition of also. These all seem a little forced to me.

Personally, I don't think dialogues are suitable for the first lesson of any course, but there's a whole other post that I could write about that (and will)....