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.


Viktor D. Huliganov said...

To be frank, I think this whole stone soup thing is a great parable of what the state sector does to the private sector!

Nìall Beag said...

Sorry, I don't follow.

Philip said...

Nice post, I just recently wrote a short post on language methods myself and somebody mentioned this post in his comment: http://www.learnclick.com/blog/?p=15

Anonymous said...

The knowledge of the phonetic system is what the silent period is trying to solve. But otherwise these aproaches, especially the second one is EXACTLY how children learn the language. When children are taught things like colors, animals or anything new they at the same time taught the vocabulary for it. Most people don't realize it because they consider it teaching what a cat is, but miss that the word "cat" is taught with it.

Nìall Beag said...

Yes, the knowledge of the phonetic system is what the silent period is trying to solve. But does it solve it? I'm not convinced it does, although I accept that it might. (In fact, I'm personally pretty convinced it doesn't work in the general case, but my personal and intellectual stances remain distinct.)

Does it solve it in an optimal way? Certainly not. You can pick up a sound system with conscious instruction much quicker than without it.

Now, neither of the approaches detailed above models children's learning for a very simple reason: both build on linguistic concepts and categories that the adult has and the child doesn't.