31 December 2010

Stone Soup (a folk tale)

A long time ago, there was a war between two kingdoms.  When the war was over, the surviving soldiers were all sent home.

Now, the soldiers had been given meagre rations, and many ran out of food on their way home and had to resort to hunting in the woods or begging, and many died of hunger before making it home.

There was a group of three soldiers heading home to the same town, and they had run out of food, when they came upon a village.  They knocked at every door in the village, but at every one they were told that there was no food.

With no other option, they went to the inn.

"Innkeeper," said the first soldier, "we have no food and have been walking for days."

"If you have money," said the innkeeper, "then I have plenty of food for you."

"Good sir," said the second soldier, "our army was defeated, and our wages taken as spoils of war, so we have no money."

"In that case," replied the innkeeper, "I can be of no help to you."

"But perhaps you still can," said the third soldier, "If you cannot offer us food, perhaps you would be so kind as to let us use one of your cauldrons today."

The innkeeper was perplexed.  If they had no food, why would they want a cauldron?  But he had a cauldron that he would not need that day, so he so no reason to object.   "Alright," he said, and led them to the store where his spare cauldron was.

The three soldiers carried the cauldron out into the village square and began building a fire underneath it.  The innkeeper, still perplexed, looked on as the soldiers drew water from the well to fill the cauldron.  "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Ah," said the first soldier, "we are making stone soup."

"Stone soup!" cried the innkeeper, "why I have never heard such nonsense.  You cannot make soup from a stone!"

The soldier smiled, but said nothing. He took a small bag from his backpack, and opened it.  Inside were several stones.  He took each one in turn, examined it closely, and sniffed it.  Eventually he chose three and dropped them in the pot.  "Ah," he said, "these will make a good soup."

The innkeeper was stunned, and went back to his inn.

Shortly afterwards, another villager appeared. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"Ah," said the second soldier, "we are making stone soup."

"Stone soup!" cried the villager, "why I have never heard such nonsense.  You cannot make soup from a stone!"

"Ah no," said the soldier, "that is where you are wrong." He took a spoonful of the soup and tasted it.  "Yes, it's coming along quite nicely now."

The villager was intrigued, and wanted to try the soup, but he didn't say anything.

"But there's something missing," the soldier continued, "maybe a little salt and pepper."

The villager jumped in at this point.  "I have some salt and pepper at home.  I'll give you some in exchange for a bowl of your soup."

The soldiers looked at each other for a while, then eventually agreed.  The villager ran off to fetch the salt and pepper, and the soldiers added it to the pot.

Another villager arrived. "What are they doing?" he asked the first villager.

"Ah," said the other, "they are making stone soup."

"Stone soup!  Why I have never heard such nonsense.  You cannot make soup from a stone!"

"Ah, well," said the first, "I'll tell you when I've tried it.  I swapped a little bit of salt and pepper for a whole bowl!"

One of the soldiers took a spoonful of the soup and tasted it.  "It's coming along quite nicely now.  But there's something missing," the soldier said, "maybe a bit of carrot."

The second villager jumped in at this point.  "I have some carrots at home.  I'll give you some in exchange for a bowl of your soup."

The soldiers looked at each other for a while, then eventually agreed.  The villager ran off to fetch the carrots, and the soldiers added them to the pot.

One by one more villagers arrived, and one by one they swapped something in exchange for a bowl of the miraculous stone soup: potatoes, barley, cabbage, celery, turnips, beans....  As the ingredients were added, the smell of the soup got better and better, until all the villagers wanted to try it, and swapped something for a bowl.  But eventually the cauldron was full, but only half of the villagers had given anything.

"Ah," said the first soldier, "it is ready.  But you know what?  I always like a bit of cheese in my stone soup."

"You're right," said the second soldier, "it is ready.  But you know what?  I always like a bit of salami in my stone soup."

"You're both right," said the third soldier, "it is ready.  But you know what?  I always like a bit of bread to soak up every last little bit of my stone soup."

Hearing this, the remaining villagers ran home, each returning with a lump of cheese, a salami or a loaf of bread to exchange for his own bowl of this incredible stone soup.

In the end, everyone in the village -- including the soldiers -- got a bowl of stone soup, with a lump of cheese and a slice of salami in it, and with a hunk of bread to soak up every last bit, and no-one was hungry.


It's an old story that one, and it comes in various forms. Some are about beggars rather than soldiers.  Some have one instead of three.  Some have only one victim of the con, others say that this happened in every village.  Some paint the story as a lesson in cooperation, others just leave it as a pure and simple confidence trick.

But the moral of the story for the language learner is a little different. To go back to one of my favourite pieces on language learning, Wilfried Decoo's On the mortality of language learning methods, Decoo points out that:

A new method draws its originality and its force from a concept that is stressed above all others. Usually it is an easy to understand concept that speaks to the imagination.
 Typical is that such a single idea, which only represents a component, becomes the focal point as if being the total method. This publicity-rhetoric gives the impression of total reform, while often all that happens is a shift in accentuation, or the viewing from a different angle, because many common components remain included in each method.

In essence, Decoo's point is that a soup can be named after any of its ingredients, and many methods use the same ingredients, but simply name the method after a different ingredient.  A soup made of chicken, bacon, sweetcorn and potato can be called "chicken soup", "chicken and sweetcorn soup", "chicken and bacon soup", "potato and bacon" or any other combination.  It could even be something not directly related to any of the ingredients -- "townsville soup" or "Lord Such-and-such broth".

It is immediately obvious when you discuss language-learning with anyone that they start out with a single "most important" ingredient for their language soup.  But as the conversation continues, you will slowly find the other ingredients added to the pot.

The justifications for all these (essential) ingredients as "unimportant" don't tend to vary too much. The two killers are:
  • "I do this, but everybody's different."  It's hard to declare that your method works without it if you've only tried it with it.  How can you know it's nonessential?
  • "Its importance is overemphasised by everyone else."  This is no excuse.  You cannot assume that someone reading your advice has read all the material that overemphasises whatever point you're discussing.  Advice needs to be balanced in and of itself - you can't rely on external sources that the other party may or may not have read to provide the balance for you.
Now, I think Decoo has been a little too generous.  He assumes that the key idea in a method is a genuine ingredient in the language soup.

Me, I think that it's all too often the case that the core idea pushed is little more than the stone in your stone soup. Learning like a child is the biggest such stone.

What is "learning like a child"?

So let's cook a pot of "learning like a child" soup.

Recipe 1:
First step, a teacher walks into the room and greets you (good morning, good afternoon, good evening).
Teacher greets you again and cups his hand to his ear to indicate he's waiting for you to say something. 
Class repeats the greeting.
Teacher congratulates the class (very good)
Teacher introduces himself.
He asks someone what his/her is name, then prompts the student with the needed answer structure, and congratulates the student afterwards.
This is repeated through the class.  If anyone gets it wrong, the teacher talks them through saying it right.

Recipe 2:
You shove the CDROM in the drive.
A picture comes up on-screen and a voice says "a boy". This is reinforced by the written word onscreen.
Another picture comes up and a voice says "a girl". This is also reinforced by the written word onscreen.
"Man" and "woman" are added in.
Then four pictures come up and one of "man", "woman", "boy", "girl" is said.  You click the corresponding picture.

But none of this matches the natural learning path of an infant.

How does a child really learn?

Infants sits listening for ages (from before birth) in order to work out what sounds have any meaning.  They know the whole phonetic makeup of a language before they even say their first words.
So now we're learning "like a child, but..." in a different order.  After all, you can't ask an adult to spend 2 years listening to the language for every waking hour before starting to learn.

Infants cannot repeat.  They can only say something if they have learned the elements that the sentence is made up of.  Yet adults can repeat complex foreign phrases like "¿como te llamas?" (literally "what do you call yourself?") within minutes of starting.
So now we're learning "like a child, but..." taking advantage of the differences in the adult brain and the child brain.

Infants produce utterances that they believe are grammatical, based on an incomplete knowledge of grammar.  It is only over the course of several years that the knowledge is filled in. In adult classes, we start off with the perfect grammar of those repeated sentences, and hopefully never say "me want choklit!"  So kids start with a fuzzy version of the full picture and slowly fill in the detail, whereas adults start with a detailed fragment of the full picture and add in further detailed fragments without a view of the whole picture.
So now we're learning "like a child, but..." avoiding the entire process of developing an internal model of grammar.

When the teacher comes in and says "good morning", we know what he means from our experience of social language in our mother tongue.  The same goes for "what is your name", "how do you do" and all those other social pleasantries.  And after being greeted with "good morning" and praised with "very good!", speakers of most languages are going to be able to tell you what "good" means in their language.  Kids simply don't learn that way!

When a teacher cups his hand to his ear, he gives us a known linguistic signal that he is waiting to hear something.  An infant wouldn't understand that!

And even if the infant did understand that, he or she would still not be able to repeat the full sentence.  Their brains just don't work that way.

The only thing that immersive techniques generally have in common with children's learning is the oral medium, which is a pretty flimsy link.

"Learning like a child" is nothing more than a stone in your language learning soup.

As it's almost the New Year, there's only one more thing to say:
Lang may yer lum reek.

29 December 2010

The annual Gaelic short film competition, FilmG, has just put all entries online for public viewing and voting.

As in previous years, there's a mixture of very amateur and highly polished pieces, but the thing that stands out is the role of language in the competition.  I've watched half a dozen so far, and two of them have actively incorporated the problems of bilingualism in Scotland to some extent, whereas the others have decided to treat Gaelic as an everyday language, to the point where in one a man is given a leaflet in Gaelic on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow -- that just isn't going to happen.  This is one of the big dilemmas facing anyone working in a minority language.

To the minority language speaker, there are parts of life that just happen in another language.  Any attempt to treat the minority language as normal in the media risks feeling unnatural, but anything that feels natural puts the minority language on the back foot.  So what can you do?  Tough one.

The other thing that jumps out is that (like in previous years) there is a mixture of films with and without subtitles.  This makes voting hard for me personally.  The activist in me wants to reward those who eschew English entirely, but then I enjoy the shorts with subtitles more, because I understand them better.  And what about the sci-fi starting with a screen-crawler entirely in English?  Should that even have been allowed?

All in all, I would hope that for next year they make an official policy on on-screen writing, because right now I feel that there's a lack of clarity for the filmmakers.

24 December 2010

Dialogues from Day One.

I discussed dialogues briefly in an earlier post on expository and naturalistic language.  Fasulye suggested in the comment section that dialogues didn't necessarily lead to the use on unnaturalistic language.  OK, so I didn't say that it did -- the point I raised was that dialogues aren't a "magic bullet" that makes all language seem naturalistic.

However, that said, I'm not a big fan on dialogues anyway, so today I'm going to talk about how starting a course with dialogues from the very first lesson actually slows down progress for the learner.

My contention:
The need for a coherent dialogue forces the author to use language that the student isn't yet ready to understand.
The dialogue format forces the learner to move between such a variety of different language, that it forces the student to attempt to learn too many things at once.

I'll use as my example one of the ever-popular Teach Yourself books.

Lesson 1 TY Welsh opens with the following dialogue (my translation)
Matthew: Good morning.
Elen: Good morning. Who are you?
Matthew: I'm Matthew.
Elen: How's things? I'm Elen, the Welsh course tutor.
Matthew: I'm a learner, a very nervous learner!
Elen: Welcome to Lampeter, Matthew. Don't be nervous, everything will be fine.

What do we start off with?  It's those old favourites -- hello, what's your name etc.

But what does this teach us?

Let's have a look at the Welsh for "who are you" and "I'm Matthew":  "Pwy dych chi?" and "Matthew ydw i".

These two phrases are completely alien to the English speaker.  There is only one clue that the English speaker can use to try to make sense of this -- the name "Matthew".  A learner might assume that "pwy" and "ydw" are linked, but they're not -- "dych" goes with "ydw", even though the two are not visibly related.

This is the verb "to be", and this problem isn't unique to Welsh -- consider the English "are", "am" and "is".  So even when we look at dialogues from an entirely expository point of view, we have a problem that means we have too many unknowns for the new learner.

Consider the following (not a real example) as though it was in lesson one:
John: Are you tired?
Sally: Yes, I am tired.

You as a learner are asked to contrast the question with the answer, but we have a massive amount of variation in a very simple sentence.  First of all, we have the matter of the irregular verb forms, as above.  Secondly, the pronouns are radically different (as in most languages).  Finally, we have a change of word order.  Learners could confuse their verbs and pronouns, and miss the word order entirely.

OK, that's not a real lesson 1 example, but I've already given a worse example from the Welsh course - Pwy dych chi?.  In the Welsh, the word order doesn't change for the answer Matthew ydw i, but that's arguably as difficult for an English speaker as English word order is for speakers of a language that doesn't change order.  We also have no repeated recognisable word form to highlight any the word order in Welsh.  There is an awful lot of rules in play here, each interacting to make the full meaning of the sentence.  Without seeing these in isolation, the role of individual elements is obscured.

And it's even more complicated in French.  Many courses will introduce Comment t'appelles tu? and the response Je m'appelle Jean-Pierre (or whatever name).  This introduces the complication of the reflexive pronoun, which is a version of the object pronoun.  Well, actually, the reflexive pronoun is identical to the normal object pronoun for "me" and "you", which actually makes this more confusing.  While the change of word order for the question is theoretically the same as English, the lack of auxiliary do (eg Do you know?) in French questions makes it completely different to the untrained eye.  The fact that this places the object before the subject is particularly alien to the English speaker.  This is massively difficult, and so the learner is only expected to memorise or learn to recognise the phrase.  The assumption here is that by exposure to later examples, the learner will induce the underlying patterns, but this is something that dialogues are actually very bad at.

Dialogues by their nature attempt to model naturalistic conversations, and this leads them to include a very wide variety of language.  Unfortunately, variety means very little repetition, so there is very little material to induce the rules from.  It gets worse when the writer is trying particularly hard to be naturalistic, because many of the expository cues are lost.  Remember this from earlier?  I'm a learner, a very nervous learner!  Notice that this uses elision (the ommission of repeated words) for increase naturalisticness, but missing the opportunity to reinforce the structure "I am".

French courses rarely follow up the je m'appelle with any other reflexive constructions -- the only thing it is contrasted with is usually il/elle s'appelle (he/she/it is called).  The student is left knowing the phrase for a long time without being given the input to learn why it means what it means.  In fact, this risks interfering with normal (non-reflexive) object pronouns, because the learner is overexposed to the reflexive form, and unexposed to the base form for a long time.

The root cause of the problem

The language in a naturalistic dialogue is linked by context, and elision is a major feature of natural language.
In short, we actively avoid repeating language in a conversation.

This leaves us teaching language that is only bound by context, so is semantically reinforcing, but not syntactically reinforcing.

If we progress in a language by learning a new word, it opens up a few extra possibilities, but learning new grammatical structures can double our knowledge of the language.

So imagine you know "I like...", "I have..." and "cars", "trees" and "dogs" -- you can say 6 combinations.  If you next learn to say "cats", that's an additional two sentences -- "I like cats" and "I have cats" -- so 8 in total.

But if instead you learn the negation "don't", that doubles the number of sentences to 12.

Massive growth in beginner language is only possible if you focus on teaching language points that can be combined within a sentence to make bigger and more complicated sentences.  The dialogue format militates against this, and after one dialogue-based lesson, a learner is not likely to be able to produce even as much as is in the dialogues themselves.  Compare with the Michel Thomas courses where (even excluding the -ible/-able words) the learner has a range of expression that while limited still covers dozens of different possible sentences.  By building on this, the student experiences almost exponential growth.  That's cool.

21 December 2010

Good news for Gaels - BBC Alba coming to Freeview!

The BBC Trust has just announced their approval of the plan to make space for BBC Alba on Freeview by giving them the bandwidth used by the BBC digital radio stations of Freeview.  Unsurprisingly, MG Alba are pleased as punch.

Now this will be a right bugger for all those Scots who supported the "save 6music" campaign, because I know that some of them relied on their Freeview boxes.  Expect to see 1001 vitriolic rants on the comments sections of the news websites in the morning.

The big question mark hanging over this is how it will affect plans for FM switchoff.  Current figures used to support the introduction of all-DAB radio use the figures for all digital listening as justification for DAB, while most listeners prefer Freeview for digital radio because it's of a higher quality, even if it does offer less choice.  Does this move help or hinder the campaign to keep FM broadcasts on the air?

18 December 2010

Word Lens

You'll no doubt have seen this demonstration on the internet by now:

Only uploaded a day ago, it's set the world buzzing with talk of Star Trek technology and a future with no language lessons.  The video has already been viewed over a million times.

This is a massively impressive piece of technology, but it's not the technology people think it is.

This is a demonstration of real-time image manipulation, not of language technology.

The fact that they can extract text from an image, manipulate it and put it back in with virtually no lag is phenomenally impressive from the point of view of the image processing involved, but the "translation" really is nothing of the sort.

In their sales blurb, the makers are careful to say that it only translates individual words, and it's only designed to give you the "gist" of what is written.  I wouldn't class this as "translation", but I could forgive them for doing so.  The problem is that their target market is really people who don't know anything about language, and these people aren't likely to realise how little use "translation" of individual words is.

But it gets worse.  The video purports to be a demonstration of the software in action.  The casual viewer sees a piece of software translating such complicated Spanish sentences as:
It translates the text instantly
You need only the phone and Word Lens, without connection to internet or costs of network.

Unfortunately, the casual observer isn't likely to know any Spanish.  In fact, their target market is people who don't speak Spanish (with Spanish-speakers who don't speak English as a sideline).  This makes it seem very sharp practice when you look at the original "Spanish" and see that it is not natural Spanish -- it appears to have been doctored to provide the results given.

The text translated as It translates the text instantly actually means the text translates it literally.  The second example isn't an incorrect translation in the same way, but the original just strikes me as a very odd way of phrasing the sentence.

Word-for-word translation is inherently limited and the demonstration specifically avoids demonstrating any of the problem cases (eg "not" and "no" in English both translate to "no" in Spanish, the gender system means that it's impossible to decide between "he" and "it" or "she" and "it" when translating from Spanish, and translating the other way, "it" could actually be any of 6 different words in Spanish.

As I say, it's a massively impressive piece of software -- it's just a shame they couldn't be more honest about what it is and what it isn't.

I hope the tech gets bought by one of the big translation companies, because with an appropriate translation engine behind it, it will be truly awesome.  Right now, it's just a shiny little tech demo.

17 December 2010

I was for a very long time confused by the acronym "TPRS".

They told me it was TPR Storytelling, where TPR was Total Physical Response.  But then they told me that it had nothing to do with TPR.  Yeah.  That's clear.

So anyway, when I was searching YouTube for language a definition of comprehensible input (see last week's post) a couple of suggestions popped up with the keyword TPRS, so I figured it was time to dive in and see what it really was about.  I personally love the idea of teaching using stories, but I have to admit I was always skeptical about the practicalities of it.

The first video I came across was this one, which is an edited video of a TPRS demonstration, so explains quite a bit about what's going on (in French with English subtitles):

(There's another few good examples that show the process by user mrtejeda, but he has switched off embedding, so I can't include any of them directly in this article.)

The basic gist of it seems to be to tell them something and ask them what you've told them, then tell them something more and ask them what you've told them, ad nauseum.

The very odd thing here is how he starts by asking them what the fish (the subject of the story is called) but rejects all supplied names in favour of one of his own choosing.  This isn't the first time I've seen this -- Pierre Capretz's video-based course French in Action does the same thing.  In the case of French in Action, this is because he has the videos prerecorded, so can't change the names on the fly, but why does the teacher in this video, where the story could easily be changed (as the only resource here is himself as storyteller), not simply accept a name from the floor?  When we talk about student engagement, we want the students to make a personal investment in the story, and getting them involved in building the story is a great way to do that.  On the other hand, asking their opinions on something then completely ignoring it is a great way to alienate your students - it shows them you don't care what they think.

The problem here isn't with the idea of storytelling as a teaching method - rather the problem is the received wisdom that asking people's names is a core beginner skill.  From this starting point, you're forced into practising asking names, and asking your students the name of the main character ends up as a staple of your early stories.  But asking names is not an intrinsically basic skill, particularly in the Romance languages where it involves use of reflexive verbs.  I actually think it could be detrimental to introduce it early, but that's a matter for another post.  Really, there are other language points that would be far better suited to TPRS than introductions and pleasantries.

But anyway, once he asked students for a name, he should have gone with it, no matter how stupid.  After all, he does appear to go on to allow one of the students to determine that the fish isn't very intelligent, and surely that's more fundamental to the story than the fish's name... (I say "appear to", because if there was a right answer, then the first respondent had a 50:50 chance of getting it right.)

Anyway, once the teacher has stopped the pointless guessing game and told them the fish's name, the class indicate their comprehension with a big clear "aaaaaaaaaaahhh", with is repeated every time the teacher provides a piece of new information.  But does it really indicate comprehension?  Note how the teacher is prompting for it - I'm sure many people in that class (or at least in my old high school) would make that noise on cue regardless of whether they understand or not.

When he asks questions about whether Fabio is a fish or a car, I'm left wondering why.  It's slowing down the story, and surely by now all the sign-language has guaranteed some level of understanding...? If the sign-language makes the input into "comprehensible input", then comprehension is achieved despite not being familiar with the word, and you are at best testing the students' ability to understand the mime, not the word. This hardly seems an appropriate goal for a language class.

In fact, there are multiple cues that tell the student they can ignore this word.
The style of questioning during comprehension check is a bit different from that in the new information section, so students will learn to distinguish between when they're being asked their opinion and when they're being asked to confirm old information.
"Voiture" is a new word in this session, and we're in a comprehension check.  "Poisson" is a word that has been said lots during that session.  "Voiture" obviously can be ignored.
And if you still haven't twigged that it's a new word, just look at the teacher.  He's miming, and he only does that with new words.  If it's a new word, you can ignore it.
It arguably takes a bad learner to go beyond this point still caring that the mime is a car, but knowing that he's miming a car just tells you that whatever he's saying isn't relevant to the story of a fish.
Very few people will be paying attention to the word at this point, so no-one's learning it.

Another problem the teacher introduces is by presenting sentences and seeking affirmation of understanding from them, blurring the boundaries between question and statement.

He does seem to get through a few different language points, but it does seem odd to me that he's talking about laughing and crying, but still needs to point out "pourquoi" on the board.  The whole thing seems just a little bit baffling, and by accepting one-word answers, we may know that they've understood the message, but we can't know that they've understood the language.  But then again, as this technique emerges from the theoretical standpoints of a "Silent Period" and of "Comprehensible Input", we already know that the teacher assumes that understanding of content comes before understanding of grammar and/or vocabulary.

The problem I have with this assumption is quite straightforward: if you can understand the message without understanding the language, why would you ever need to learn the language?  The brain generally only goes to the minimum of effort required to obtain an adequate result (which is why I assume most good learners will ignore "voiture"), and a great deal can be understood with a flawed model of the language.

Now, here's another demonstration, and notice how quiet the class is here.

The description of this video says:
"Me using my principal and his admin assistant as guinea pigs to give a demonstration of using 95% target language with high comprehension to teach Spanish. The demonstration was for the other 2 teachers in my department. The targets (off the top of my head with not much forethought) were quién, rojo & azul, masc/fem, come and canta."
So this is a class of theoretically "good" students, but they're pretty silent all the way through.  In fact, the teacher looks increasingly frantic as she keeps asking "¿Quién?" but nobody answers (presumably because they haven't worked out that this means "who?" yet).
Several times over, she asks questions by saying "quién" and then a name, which is about as good as saying in English something like "Who, Mickey Mouse?"  It's language, but it's not the common form, and in my opinion it is simplified to the point where it ceases to provide a good foundation for future learning.  It suggests that TPRS, like so many techniques, doesn't really work until you've got a basic grounding to build on.

Now think about some of the statements and questions.
"Mickey Mouse es guapo."
Really?  Mickey Mouse is good-looking?  It seems a very odd way to demonstrate a new word.  First of all, "guapo" or otherwise is a matter of subjective judgement, so is difficult to teach by example at the best of times.  Secondly, how do you make that judgement about a cartoon mouse? Mickey Mouse doesn't demonstrate the concept of "good-looking", so the students can just fumble about and say yes or no without genuinely comprehending the question.

But then she goes on to ask which of two women is better looking.  We're working in very new language and she's asking her class to make subjective judgements before they're clear on the meaning.  In subjective judgements like this, there's no right or wrong answer, so it you simply cannot check comprehension.  Yet the teacher feels the need to check comprehension and challenges the student.  Unfortunately the student does not and cannot know what's going on and there's an awkward immobile moment of silence.  Putting myself in the student's place (and while I've not been in a TPRS classroom, I have been in several target-language-only classrooms), I imagine my brain churning over, looking for whatever "mistake" I made that prompted this barrage of questions.  If I was a schoolkid, I'd maybe even start blushing, wondering if I'd picked the socially unacceptable option, and the embarassment would snowball.

At 3'45" one of the student asks for confirmation of -a vs -o in adjectival endings, and the teacher tells him that's not how the class works.  This is the usual insistence that in an immersive environment, grammar is not "taught", students just "acquire" it; but if we look at it, the teacher is explicitly highlighting the change of vowel.  She is, whether she likes it or not, presenting the rule, and anyone who actually learns from her laboured routine of pointing and saying will be able to explain the rule.  So if the student works it out, what's wrong with confirming? In fact, at 4'35", the student in background explains the rule, and the teacher says not to talk about it.  It's difficult for me to accept that conscious knowledge of the rules could be so caustic that it has to be avoided at all costs when she is going to such lengths to give the rule in a roundabout way.

The other thing that this lesson demonstrates is the difficulty of relying on memory.  At one point she asks the colour of someone's shoes.  Does this test comprehension or does it test memory?  It will never be clear whether a student's inability to respond comes from not remembering the fact under test or from not remembering the correct term.  If you're asking someone to remember something, it needs to be something memorable, and colours (the first video used colours too) are minor aesthetic details - they are not usually what you pay attention to in stories, and making them more important than they naturally are will interfere with the learner's ability to process the language in a natural manner.

Now note this curiosity from the same demonstration:

We're getting back into classroomese again -- teaching an unusual mini-sign-language for students to use as a way of avoiding native language in the classroom.  No matter how simple the code, introducing a sign language means the classroom is not monolingual, yet they insist that this is monolingual teaching.

Now the following example story, stripped back to just the "story" itself, struck me as rather surreal.

Is this really a "story"...?
Anyway, while it's obvious what language it's supposed to demonstrate (liking, wanting), it's not really clear whether it's going to be teaching anything more than the words "llama" and "elefante".

It's quite striking that of all the videos I've watched on TPRS, none demonstrates how to introduce new abstract language or structures.  As with most target-language-only learning, in TPRS there seems to be a massive emphasis on concrete vocabulary.

And sadly, as I've said before, vocabulary is the easy bit.  I don't have a great deal of time for any language teacher who does the easy stuff and avoids the hard stuff.  The easy stuff we can do without their help.  What I want from a teacher is for them to take the hard stuff and make it easy for me.

TPRS has it's place - I can see a well-constructed story offering a great change from the usual lesson format, but trying to build an entire course out of it just seems like madness, because for all its strengths, you still need something else to address the weaknesses I identified above.

10 December 2010

Whither comprehensible input?

In an earlier post discussing expository and naturalistic language, I linked to this video from a talk given by Stephen Krashen, discussing comprehensible input (CI):

So what exactly is comprehensible input?  A very clever man once said that "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."  That man was Albert Einstein, and never has a truer word been spoken.

I have never, ever had a simple explanation of what comprehensible input is.  I have had trivial explanations, but while these are simple, they explain nothing.  So I decided to go to my friendly neighbourhood search engine and look for that elusive definition, and ended up back in YouTubeLand.

First up, here's a teacher's explanation of CI, from a resource pack for teachers of modern languages:

The first thing of note is when she says "Sometimes easier to say what it's not" -- this is an immediate warning that we're in the field of not understanding in Einstein's terms.  She then follows this up with a list of quite trivially obvious things that aren't good teaching practice (just like Krashen's first demonstration with German).  Anyone watching the video should already be familiar with the idea that talking at full speed to a beginner is a no-no in the language classroom, so why is this of such note when discussing CI in particular?

As she continues, she gives an example of what she has developed as CI and says that "most sentences are about 4, maybe 5 words long."  This is a very impoverished model of language, as she is therefore reduced to generating a series of independent declarative statements.  The real meat of any language comes in the textual metafunction -- how words change each other's meaning.  All those little connectors that compare, contrast and relate individual phrases by demonstrating cause and effect, simultaneity, sequence of events and all that stuff that allows simple facts to add meaning to each other (my recent post against rote learning demonstrated how I used various facts and consequences to learn the order of 4 of the US presidents).

Textual metafunctions are notoriously difficult to learn by induction from context and do appear to need genuine conscious teaching -- the TEFL methodology normally gets round this by defining them as inherently "advanced" and teaching them through target language several years down the line.  However, doing this actually makes it harder to engage with authentic native materials, and the process of "grading" texts becomes ever more important.  CI would appear to keep students away from native language, not get them closer.

Ok, so just before the one minute mark, she recommends that material is 80% comprehensible.  This sounds very scientific, but at no point has she described how to measure percentage comprehensibility.  I'm not sure where this 80% comes from, but I've heard it bandied about quite often, and I suspect it's just another generalisation from the Pareto Principle.  (80% has become something of a superstition for our times -- the Pareto Principle has gone from being an observation of general behaviour in systems, to being considered an immutable law for success...)  But in this case specifically, what does she mean?  Well the general claim is that the reader will be able to infer no more than 20% of the meaning from the context provided by the other 80%.  This is all well and good, but this is not a simple game of numbers -- certainly language features will provide useful context for working out others, but other features won't.  If CI is to work, you need to look at which features interact in this way to reveal useful information about unknown language.  Again, how to do this is never really explained in a discussion of CI.  (It is discussed at some length by academic linguists, who develop some very sophisticated maps of how certain language features reveal others, but this remains in the journals, and never makes it into language teacher training materials.)

Now, at just after 3:30, the presenter goes quite far off the rails, telling us that texts that are "dry and uninteresting" are not CI. The whole video was announced as being on the topic of comprehensible input, but now she starts talking about something entirely different -- student engagement.  This is a recurring problem in teaching methodologies -- a fairly simple idea covering a small part of the methodology is used to describe the whole methodology.  Student engagement is very important, but engagement doesn't increase the "comprehensibility" of a text, it just increases the chances that the student will put in the effort required in order to understand it.   Both of these two variables must be considered at all times, so it is not helpful to try to present them as a single item.

So, on we go, and here's another great example of Einstein's definition of not understanding.

The definition revealed on the slides between 0:50 and 1:00 is anything but clear.  In fact, it isn't even a "definition" at all in the most common usage of the term -- the second and third bullet points, presented as part of the definition, are sidenotes on particular issues.

As she expands, the definition becomes rather circular.  The first "characteristic of comprehensible input" that she defines is "understandable" (2:14), which is the Germanic synonym of the Latinate "comprehensible".  The fact that she doesn't stop there means that she is, like the woman in the previous video, expanding the term "comprehensible input" in directions it wasn't intended to go in.  But like the previous in the previous video, we quickly get a "what it's not", and again it's a trivially obviously bad way of teaching that she throws in.  It does not help define CI.

As she expands on "understandable", she hits a particular danger zone, asking that you teach "using as many cognates as possible."  In the TEFL world, that means using "arrive" when you really mean "get to" or "depart" when you mean "leave".  Target-language-only teaching justifies itself by saying that we need to learn how words are used -- grading language by the introduction of cognates actively teaches language that is not natural, and the natural tendency for Romance language speakers to overuse terms such as "arrive" is something that has to be actively combatted in class, not reinforced.

Yes, using cognates is good when they can be used naturally.  The example she gives is a good one -- English "important" vs Spanish "importante" -- but she presents no guidelines or advice on how and when to use cognates.

Like in the previous video, an unrelated variable is thrown into the mix -- the "affective filter".  Again, this is not part of comprehensible input and only serves to distract from the discussion on what CI is/isn't.  She then starts talking about repetition.  Again, I'm confused as to how this fits into CI.  Surely the point isn't about "repetition" in the rote sense, but the sense of having it come up in 7 different texts before production.  But if she means that, she should say so.

Then she moves on to "visuals".  This is quite insidious, because now that we've establish the notion that texts must be "comprehensible" as a sort of divine law, we can address the fact that it is impossible to make texts comprehensible.  So step by step we redefine what is and isn't the text.  We introduce the notion that including "visuals" makes the text understandable, when in reality we are using visuals because the text is not comprehensible.  Why is it that visuals make a text "comprehensible", but a native-language equivalent word doesn't?  The video gives us the normal line (3:33): connecting a "new vocabulary word" [sic] to a picture "they will remember it quicker rather than having to connect the word in their target language to the word in their native language and then [exasperated tone] finally to the image produced in their mind."  The idea is thus presented that an image is more closely tied to the mental model of a concept than a word, but any look at the nature of abstraction and iconicity will show that this idea is built on very shaky ground (I'll explore this in greater depth in a later blog post).

The visuals is then supported by something else that all CI advocates propose: body language.  Unfortunately body language is linguistic, meaning there is native body language, there is target body language, and there is something that is neither.  Classroom body language is normally a constructed language, and it is not the target language.  Suddenly the target-language-only classroom has grown a third language.  And the student must learn that as well as the intended target language.  At least if the native language was used there'd be no need to learn a third code.

I was particulary intrigued by the rather odd claim that unspecified "brain research" has somehow proven that we can only learn 7 new words per day.  It's patently absurd -- you cannot "learn" any words in 1 day -- learning only takes place over the longer term, and I have never seen any language course that doesn't use less than 7 words in lesson one -- it would be a boring lesson indeed!

The demonstration given a 5:45 was something I did not expect; to me, this is nothing more than an audiolingual drill, which demonstrates something quite important:  language teachers don't normally change their techniques to match what research proves is effective (or claims to, at least), but instead find ways to justify what they already do in terms of the new idea.  Recasting the idea of audiolingual substitution as comprehensible input is dead easy -- if you want "N+1 comprehensibility (a woolly favourite of the CI crowd) then what could be more natural than taking a known structure and simply adding a new word?

The next video is an extreme example of the same phenomenon.  It is an excerpt from a relatively old book-and-tape English course.

This is a really heavily behaviorist course, but someone has recently decided it's CI and relabled it as such for the purposes of the video. I don't believe it's what Krashen intended the term to mean, but it certainly fits the definition he and others provide.  There's a lot of repetition, there are visuals supporting the text, the text uses context to support the comprehension of new structures and vocabulary...

...so we must conclude that "comprehensible input" is an overbroad term that doesn't really define anything specific.

Finally, here's a video presented as an example of "comprehensible input".

The language used in general is highly expository and not particularly naturalistic. The visuals she uses do not support the learning of grammar, they only assist in the learning of very concrete terms, particularly proper nouns.  Does the Mexican flag assist us in understanding that she's talking about her family? No.  It only helps us understand "Mexico", which is probably where most of the class are from.

Now, note at 0:58 she gets the students to say something -- a single word: south. She then proceeds to go through a string of questions with very simple one-word answers.  The goal here isn't to get the students talking, it's merely to verify that they've understood.

And this is where CI theory falls flat: it is based on Krashen's idea that "language acquisition" is a matter of simply absorbing and absorbing a language until you know the full language, but the streets of any major city are full of immigrants who learn to understand the language of their new homes, but never learn to speak it with any particular degree of accuracy.

CI fails because it necessarily focuses on concrete vocabulary and on learning to understand.  But these are far, far easier to learn than functional vocabulary (modal verbs, linkers etc) and learning to produce.  More than that, these are the things that students can learn outside of the classroom.  Surely it's the teacher's job to teach the hard stuff, the stuff that the student can't learn independently, and then let them do the rest on their own?

03 December 2010

The 3 sources of confusion in vocabulary.

There are various pieces of advice on the internet regarding how to learn vocabulary, but most writers set out to write their advice with the goal of convincing you that their way is best.  This means that they skip the weaknesses in their chosen method, and they attack other methods on rather simplistic, superficial grounds.  I would be happy to do the same thing, as it would really stoke my ego to know that people were doing stuff because I said so.  But that wouldn't be particularly useful, so I'm going to try to avoid telling you how to learn vocabulary.

Instead, what I want to do is arm you to make an informed decision on techniques yourself.  It's a topic I may revisit later, but for now I want to focus on the reasons vocabulary items become confused.  As per the title, I break confusion down into three main categories: confusion by form; confusion by function and confusion by co-occurrence.

Confusion by form
Confusion by form is the simplest.  If two words sound and/or look alike, they are very easy to confuse.  English is full of great examples -- classic spelling mistakes between homophones such as "bough" and "[take a] bow", "aloud" and "allowed" etc.  Most languages aren't quite as bad as English for having homophones that are written differently, so the confusion is normally between similar words, not identical ones.

But there's more to it than that.  Have you ever been trying to think of a word and you've got a sort of shadow of the word in your head?  The features of words that are easiest to remember are the first syllable and the number of syllables, as well as which syllable is stressed.  So similarity doesn't rely on just having similar letters all the way through -- it can occur on just the first syllable, or the words may both share a particular rhythm.

We can consider so-called "false friends" as simply a special case of confusion by form, as the only difference is that the confusion occurs across languages, rather than within a language.

Confusion by function
Confusion by function can be split into two subcategories: function of grammar and function of concept.

Confusion by function of grammar is fairly simple but has extremely absurd results.  Some people can't believe it exists, but keep your ears open and you will hear it at some point.  A word gets dropped in that fits the grammatical category of the place it is in the sentence, but it makes no sense.  Anecdotally, I'd say that I've seen it occur mostly with verbs.  So for example someone might say "I like drinking books".  It's rare, but it happens.

Confusion by function of concept is where two words mean something similar.  The obvious example would have to be that high school language class favourites: pets.  I could never remember whether un cobaye was French for a gerbil or a hamster, and still don't.  I don't suppose I would have recognised the difference between the two animals anyway, so the concepts in my brain were very similar: little fluffy critter.

But the two types of confusion by function can combine to create even bigger confusion.  While we do occassionally see completely nonsensical statements like the "drinking books" example, learners will quite often substitute a verb with a similar meaning.  So instead of saying "I didn't say anything" they might say "I didn't speak anything", of instead of saying "open the door" they might say "close the door", or even "close the window" (I had massive problems getting my open and close and door and window right in Welsh).

Confusion by co-occurrence
Finally we come to the one that is the most complicated and troublesome: confusion by co-occurrence.  Basically, the brain likes to associate things with each other.  We have salt and pepper and we have bread and butter, but we never have pepper and salt or butter and bread.  When things appear with each other a lot, they start to stick.  So when we're learning vocabulary, we can accidentally trick our brains into linking particular words more strongly than it should simply by having them appear next to each other a lot.  This is one of the biggest risks with word lists -- in a list, each word is forced to co-occur with the rest of the words on the list, particularly those directly before and after.  Reading the same list multiple times is almost guaranteed to create confusion by co-occurrence.

Multidimensional confusion
I've already demostrated how the two types of confusion by function combine to make a bigger problem, and of course all different forms of confusion can combine in this way.

I used to confuse my oats and my hazelnuts in Spanish.  Both are food and go together in my breakfast bowl for a sort of home-made muesli (confusion by function of concept).  They were stocked less than a metre apart in the local supermarket and I kept them next to each other in my kitchen cupboard (confusion by co-occurrence).  Oats is "avena" and hazelnuts are "avellanas" (confusion by form). Even when I came back to Scotland, I still couldn't get the word right.  Ironically, it is only when I started using this example that I became able to make the distinction correctly.

Lessons to be learnt
A learning technique cannot eliminate the confusions completely, but it must try to minimise them.
When evaluating a vocabulary learning strategy, or devising your own, look out for the 3 types of confusion.  When you're learning, be mindful of your mistakes and what they tell you about how you're learning.  If you can't think of a word, or keep getting it wrong, the chances are it's down to one of these types of confusion, and you should be able to refine or alter your technique to help you remember that word correctly, which over time should help you avoid making the confusion with new vocabulary in the future.