31 March 2011

Can we trust quotes on language products?

I've said before that you can't really trust anyone when it comes to language learning.  In the last couple of days I've had my nose in a few books that have nice little quotes on the back saying how invaluable to the learner.

There are two problems in general, depending on whether the quote is from a learner or a subject matter expert.

With learners, the problem is quite simply that we often overestimate our own abilities.  So is it really effective, or is it just a flawed perception on the user's side?

With experts, the problem is slightly different.  On the simplest level, the expert can see when all the information is there, but can't honestly say whether it explains it well enough.  Any reviewing expert has the same problem as the author: being an expert, he is blind to the difficulties in certain concepts.  A book can make fairly large leaps in logic, but because the expert knows what's in the "gap", he understands what the author means, and doesn't notice the hole in the information.

A particular problem here is the use of jargon. I have one Gaelic grammar book that is widely praised as suitable for learners, yet is riddled with imperfect passive dependent forms, based on a very brief outline of grammatical terminology at the start of the book.  I don't have a linguistics degree, but I'm better informed than most Gaelic learners, and I still find the book very heavy going indeed.

But at a deeper level, this is a very dangerous situation.  An expert knows the information he's looking for, and a book that lets the expert find the information quickly and unambiguously looks the most "correct" to the expert.  But the learner needs a more subtly structured, integrative approach.  A great teacher will tie all the concepts together as they appear, and to an expert this looks messy -- the information is spread out throughout the book.  So an expert isn't just blind to the gaps in an overly technical resource, in a learner-friendly work he is blinded to the presence of the information by the very things the learner needs.

This is why my favourite resources take a lot of flak from "educated" quarters -- the teaching hides the information it's teaching from casual view, but reveals it to the learner as and when appropriate.


Thrissel said...

Neither is it only grammar books. Know this one? The back cover claims:

The book has been written accessibly with a non-specialist audience in mind.

Inside there's no lack of sentences like the following one from the chapter "Hebridean and Mainland Dialects":

In clusters which show a vibrant this is not subject to palatalisation, but a following element may or may not be and, with SGDS reporting palatalised stops at Harris points as against retroflex in Lewis, the isogloss boundary there reported by Borgstrøm (1940:236) is validated in this case.

Nìall Beag said...

Haha, yes. I was stunned at how opaque some of the most basic stuff was rendered in the essay "Gaelic morphology".

It was quite funny how they threw about terms like orthographic word and asides like Connected to this is the issue of register and style without explanation, but saw fit to put quotemarks in something as mundane as saying that there are many ways of saying the "same thing".

Thrissel said...

Oh yeah, Adger... And Gaelic syntax was even crazier - I have to admit that after reading...

Why can we cleft prepositional phrases using the relative proclitic a, but in a relative clause we find the dependent marking proclitic an? Why can we cleft aspectual phrases or finite clauses at all, since we don’t appear to be able to construct corresponding relative clauses?

... I couldn't help remembering Joseph Heller's "I don't know what this means and don't want to have to find out."