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.


Thrissel said...

I agree the Welsh conversation you give is hardly a good thing for Lesson 1. But I think the authors of my Gaelic TYG didn't do bad with theirs:

Mairead: Hallo, a Thormoid.
Tormod: Hallo, a Mhairead. Ciamar a tha thu?
Mairead: Tha gu math, tapadh leat. Ciamar a tha thu fhèin?
Tormod: Tha gu math, tapadh leat. Tha i brèagha an-diugh.
Mairead: Tha gu dearbh.
(Iseabail joins them)
Mairead: A Thormoid, seo Iseabail.
Tormod: Hallo, Iseabail. `S mise Tormod MacIomhair.
Iseabail: Hallo, a Thormoid. `S mise Iseabail NicLeòid. Ciamar a tha sibh?
Tormod: Tha gu math, tapadh leibh. Ciamar a tha sibh fhèin?
Iseabail: Meadhanach math, tapadh leibh. Cò às a tha sibh, a Thormoid?
Tormod: Tha mi à Leòdhas. Cò às a tha sibh fhèin, Iseabail?
Iseabail: Tha mi às an Eilean Sgitheanach.

I'd say there's repetition enough and the bulk of the lesson is the Gràmar (and Exercises) section that are then based on the things which had appeared in the dialogue, as you can see
(p 15 of the book ff).

So I guess there's nothing wrong per se with starting a lesson with a dialogue - as often, the problem isn't in the idea but in the execution.

Fasulye said...

Oh, you have missspelled my name in your article, but on Blogger you can easily correct that afterwards.

Kind regards,


Nìall Beag said...

Fasulye -- sorry about the name thing. I've changed it now.

The example you give has its own problems. There's an awful lot of unconnected language points covered in the dialogue:

Vocative case:
Vocative partical.
Particle elided before vowels.
Initial lenition.
Slenderisation of final consonant in masculine names. (But the use of Iseabail with a final slender consonant obscures this.)

We've got both tha and 's, which leads to asymmetry in the personal pronouns -- thu (you, sing. informal) and sibh (you, plural/formal) only occur in their base form, while the 1st person singular only occurs in the emphatic form mise. Those personal pronouns have been further complicated by including the reflexive fhèin (roughly equivalent to the English suffix "-self" -- myself, yourself etc).

"'S" has been further complicated by the inclusion of "seo Iseabail" (This is Iseabail), where the initial "'s" has been elided into "seo" (this).

Questions have been introduced in a potentially confusing way, because the question words mean that the verb stays in the independent form. Furthermore, question words are intrinsically tied to fronting with "'s", but here they've been introduced before such fronting, and the logic is hidden from the learner.

Also, the contrast between "tha gu math" and "tha gu dearbh" is underplayed -- they look almost identical, but they are vastly different in function.
Meanwhile "meadhanach math" looks radically different from "tha gu math", but is very closely linked.

Then finally we've got the "where from" questions (Cò às a tha sibh) which result in two radically different answers - the first using the plain preposition, the second a different preposition followed by the definite article. This is a pretty complicated situation to use the definite article in for the first time!

That's just far too much new information to cover at once. There's too many uncontrolled variables in there and the language points are too distantly related to support or reinforce each other.

And this happens as a consequence of the dialogue format -- natural dialogues, as I said, employ very little closely related language.

I don't have my copy of TY Gaelic to hand, but looking at other TY books, I don't think there can be more than 10 pages in the lesson. But to learn all those things properly means learning all the connections, and that's more than 10 pages.

Thrissel said...

I've been writing you a long response on how they manage in no more than 5 pages and then it occurred to me we have a different starting point. I prefer, at the very first stages, several bits of partial information, gradually expanded, until I have enough foundation to go into the matter properly, to learning a particular feature properly at once before continuing to the next.

For example, my other, older (1971) and more traditional TYG only gets to 's in the 5th lesson but treats it on 4 pages. The one from which comes the dialogue only mentions that it's used instead of tha when you're linking two nouns or a noun and a pronoun and until 7 lessons later is concerned with other things. It sticks in my memory better like that.

Nìall Beag said...

The problem I have with starting with a vague, fuzzy notion, is that no matter how much you've explained, the brain's going to try to make its own sense of the word soup.

Have you ever heard a intermediate learner answer a completely different question from the one that was asked - a question that they shouldn't have had any problems understanding?

If you use widely differing language in the early stages of learning, the brain won't be forced to pay attention to the details. If you don't need to hear the whole question, why bother listening to it all?

As I see it, language is a sum of lots of individual choices, and if you start with such a wide variety of language, the contribution of each element to the full sentence might never become clear.

But looking again at the dialogue you quote... do you realise that over 15% of the words are names of people or places?

If feels like filler to me.

Thrissel said...

The reason I don't have a problem with starting with a vague, fuzzy notion, is that no matter how much you've explained, I'm never sure I got it all, L1 included.

Have you ever heard a native speaker answer a completely different question from the one that was asked? Happens all the time.

If they use (up to a point, of course) widely differing language in the early stages of learning, my brain is all the more forced to pay attention to the details. Indeed, if you don't need to hear the whole question, why bother listening to it all?

I suppose that what I'm trying to say is that too wide variety of language in the beginning is surely counterproductive, but what constitutes one is individual.

As regards the names - yes, it does feel like filler, until you know that forenames' vocatives and à/às were among the grammar points covered in the lesson.

Nìall Beag said...

"no matter how much you've explained, I'm never sure I got it all,"

That's not all that far from my starting point.

The problem with most courses isn't how they teach, but the fact that they don't "teach" at all -- they just "tell".

Explanations are never enough -- learning is an active process. Unfortunately too many courses are willing to stop trying to teach when you can regurgitate the rule consciously, rather than apply it automatically. Even most that do aim to teach automaticity fail, and end up teaching the conscious rule in a roundabout way.

If your course follows minimal variations, it can cover a wide variety of material in a very short time. Michel Thomas did this (with French, Spanish, Italian and German), and while there are quite a few holes and flaws in his courses, it's just so much easier to remember everything because everything builds on what came before. Learning closely related things is a lot easier than memorising lots of different long phrases, so you quite quickly find it's a tortoise and hare situation.

Thrissel said...

Oh, I see now I misunderstood you about the 'vague notion'. I thought you were arguing in favour of something along the line of (I'll exaggerate a bit) 'if you come to the past tense before the future tense, you should also cover the perfect, the pluperfect and whatever the given language offers for past happenings, and only after you mastered all that should you move to simple future'. Yes, automacity is of course the desired aim, yes, it can only be achieved through practice and yes, practising two things at once is ultimately slower that going one step at a time, I agree with you on that. The misunderstanding probably arose because you have primarily in mind teacher-student courses and I a lonely learner who only goes by his TY book - so it's up to him to find ways of drilling a feature till it becomes automatic, a TY book would have to be a real tome to give him enough exercises for that.

Mo leisgeul. I always forget that my case (having 'learnt' two TYGs before getting access to anything else in the language, let alone anybody knowing it) was probably rather singular.

Nìall Beag said...

Oh yes, exactly.

That's one thing that bugs me about a lot of courses -- they overcompartmentalise things. When they present amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant as "one thing", they're missing the point. It's "1 tense" but it's "1 tense in 6 persons", and as we all know, 6x1=6, not "1"!

And then they go on to teach the other 3 conjugations each as "1 thing" and the fact that all regular Latin verbs take the "o" ending for the first person present is made to look incidental rather than systematic. Teach it, exploit it, and it becomes genuinely one thing.

Of course, this problem doesn't affect Gaelic verbs, but it does affect the inflected "prepositional pronouns".

The best course I've ever followed was Michel Thomas (French, Italian, Spanish and German -- the others aren't the same at all) and he didn't "tick the boxes" that way. He was happy to move through the tenses without completing the whole paradigm for all persons before moving on.

In this way, he could exploit patterns across tenses.

Nìall Beag said...

I'll demonstrate his type of patterns with Gaelic prepositional pronouns.

Traditionally, you'd get given a table of a particular preposition or two, and memorise all the forms.
agam, agad, aige, aice, againn, agaibh, aca
There's a common root, but there's no real "pattern" there, is there?

Have you ever noticed that the "iad" and "i" versions of most prepositional pronouns differ only by slenderisation of the final consonant or consonant cluster? Yes, the vowels are different, but then they would have to be for the spelling rule to be adhered to.
aice - aca
oirre - orra
innte - annta
aiste - asta
thairte - tharta
thuice - thuca
rithe - riutha
uimpe - umpa
foidhpe - fodhpa
roimhpe - romhpa
troimhpe - tromhpa

OK, it's not a perfect rule, but there's a clear pattern there and it helps tie the language together.

And yes, there are 5 exceptions. But even while the first two differ by more than slenderisation, the feminine is still slender and the plural broad:
bhuaipe - bhuat
dhith - dhiubh

Then we've got one with a broad feminine...
leatha - leotha

..and one with a slender plural.
dhi - dhaibh

The final exception is eadarra, simply because "between her" is impossible. But if it did exist, it would have to be eadairre, wouldn't it?

You've got a similar like between "mi" and "thu" forms:
agam - agad
orm - ort

There's a minor niggle in the form of a seemingly random selection from D and T, and some -OM/-OMH become -UT, but the pattern is there and even if a clear rule can't be formulated, the learner has to be encouraged to internalise the rule.

This is the sort of thing that dialogues militate against. You can't crank through enough close variations in close enough proximity to learn the pattern, and the dialogue-based books always fall back on explaining the rule -- telling rather than teaching.

And I don't think a paper-based course will ever be optimal for gaining automaticity. My big complaint about courses like Colloquial and TY is that they seem to expect you to flick back to look things up, and even if they don't expect you to, you probably will do it without a second thought, as that's just the way books work. It's harder to flick back on a CD, so you've got to work from memory.

I've just been relistening to parts of the Michel Thomas French course over the last few days, and I hadn't noticed before how often he re-explained things.

I don't suppose most books can be used without flipping back, because it's inevitable you will forget the rule, and you need actively reminded until you've gained automaticity.

But even if you were to attempt it in a book, it wouldn't have to be much bigger than a TY book.

1) Ditching the dialogues would free up a lot of space.
2) If you've explained a feature, why give several examples, then another couple of features with examples before practising it? Why not get the learner to practice right away? It'll definitely stick better that way. Books tend to fall between two stools by trying to be both an exercise book and an enduring grammar reference.
3) If you've ditched the dialogues, then you no longer need to introduce dozens of new words in one chapter only to be forgotten in the next chapter. How much of the book is taken up by those bitty little lists of words and phrases?

Nìall Beag said...

Oh yes, and
4) If you combine old information and new information cleverly, revision comes for free, and you gain the ability to produce much more complicated sentences.

Thrissel said...

Interesting about the personal pronouns - I noticed the agam - agad and againn* - agaibh patterns, but not the aice - aca one. However, this explains to me why it was exactly the 3rd person feminine and plural forms that I sometimes got mixed up - and why this occurred especially with leatha and leotha...

I suppose TYs are best avoided if possible, but not so bad for what they are, that is giving basic insight to somebody unable to attend a course or regularly meet native speakers. Don't forget not the whole world has Internet access as yet. What I see as their biggest problem is that even if they are accompanied by a cassette (as mine was), you only hear most of the words once => within a specific audial context and even the rest comes always from the same set of a few people. I knew the cassette almost by heart, yet when I heard Radio nan Gaidheal for the very first few minutes the only word I could pick up now and then was 'agus' - I mean this literally.

But I don't understand your note No 3 - I guess you can do without these lists in some courses, but provided you go by a book, what difference does starting or not starting with a dialogue make in regard to such lists? I never saw a book without them, whether it had dialogues or not.

* BTW 'againn & Co' gave me one hell of a headache when I later had to get used to words like 'bhithinn' or 'chanainn' referring to the singular ;-)

Nìall Beag said...

I still have problems separating chanainn etc from sinn, and I'd never have noticed the slenderisation thing if I wasn't always getting them confused myself. People keep telling me that everyone learns differently, but if that's the case, why do we all make the same mistakes? ;-)

One of the main points of my blog post was that dialogues use a wide variety of language, with very little repetition.

The consequence of this is that you keep introducing new words that you don't have time to teach properly, and the effort of trying to remember them distracts the reader from the grammar.

I've found my copy of Robertson & Taylor's TYG, and at the start the list of translations of phrases takes up the same amount of paper as the dialogue itself. By the end it's only reduced to half. But the typeface in the notes is a lot smaller than in the dialogue. There is an awful lot of rewriting of full phrases with a full explanation. That is because, as I said, dialogues force you to use too many unrelated language structures. You chop and change so much that the learner can't see the individual components, and everything needs to be written out explicitly, rather than understood.

Thrissel said...

I see. Yes, the difference is again that I only had those two TYGs - but time immesurable, because back then I had no idea 'what next' anyway. So that distraction wasn't an issue because time wasn't. (Each time I finished eight new lessons I read everything from the very beginning once more and did all the exercises again. It took maybe five years before I finished the books; on the other hand, I still remember quite a few particular example sentences, often including where in the book they appear.)

The specialities of solitary learning...