30 April 2011

Real and unreal

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  You could paraphrase this and say that the road to bad teaching is paved with good intentions.

A couple of my students have a bee in their bonnet about something they refer to as "real listening".  I'd never heard the term before they said it, but I was familiar with the concept: the use of genuine telephone recordings, street noise etc to make listening exercises harder and more lifelike.

The goal is admirable and easy to understand.  It certainly appeals to the conscientious teacher, even if the students hate it.

But if you look below the surface, it maybe isn't that good an idea.  First of all, in real conversation, any noise or telephone-line interference may be natural, but you will always have recourse to those magic words: "sorry, I didn't quite catch that".

But looking at street noise, we've got to start considering how the human brain and ears work.

In a real-life situation, we can filter out street noise quite effectively.  This is not a linguistic skill, it's a much more basic neurological thing.  We have two ears.  Behind those ears is a sophisticated audio-processing mechanism that compares the input from each, and by comparing differences in timing and volume in the perceived sound, it can take the two one-dimensional signals received by the ear and produce a remarkably accurate three-dimensional image.

It is in producing that image that we naturally (and effortlessly) identify individual sounds.  Listening to a recording does not give us the cues that we need to split out the relevant sounds, so it's a much, much harder thing than most of us will need to in our day-to-day lives.

Before anyone says it: yes, a native can listen to a tape with background noise and make out the speech.  It may seem only slightly more difficult than doing it face-to-face, but anything that is slightly more difficult for a native is exponentially more difficult for the learner.  And it's not something that you can or should force a learner to do -- the native speaker achieves it based on a firm, broad knowledge of the language.  This allows the native speaker to fill in the gaps.  But it is not a specific skill -- it's an enhancement to the general ability to listen and to infer missing information from the rest of the utterance.

If so-called "real listening" was something we expected people to start on only after they had the phonology and grammar down pat, that would be fine, but I see it as degrading the quality of input for anyone before that.

16 April 2011

The Myth of the Quick Learner

It is often claimed that some people are quick learners, and some people are slow learners, and that's that.  In many ways this is just a euphemistic way of saying that some people are "clever" and some people are "stupid".

Well, as someone accused of being a "quick learner" or a "good learner" or being "good at" whatever subject we are discussing, I'd like to refute that.

I am not a quick learner.
Learning is about incorporating new information with existing knowledge.
It follows, then, that learning is easier the more knowledge you have to build on.

Here's my learner-life-story in a condensed form.

My parents were both teachers.  My mother chose to be a stay-at-home mum.

  1. As a child, my mum had me playing games that involved counting before I went to school.
  2. She taught me to play simple tunes on the piano.
  3. She taught me to read a little.
  4. She taught me to read the clock.
  5. On top of this, she spoke a very "standard" English, whereas the local way of speaking was a mixture of Scots and English.
So when I went to school, I looked "clever", I looked like a "quick learner", I was "good at":
  1. Arithmetic
  2. The recorder (a horrible little instrument, but cheap and accessible for a learner of music)
  3. Reading
  4. Telling the time
  5. English
I was not a quick learner, I just had a huge headstart.  My headstart meant I had less to learn at each step.  Even when I reached high school, I was still ahead of the pack.

Think about that for a moment: I had less to learn.

How can I be a "quick learner" if I'm doing less than the people around me?

Logically, it's absurd to say that.

In reality, all that happened was that I was given adequate time to learn the material given to me, based on my previous experience.  Many of my classmates weren't given that chance -- they were presented with ever more new information without giving the previous information time or opportunity to be integrated with the old information.

The result is a spiral of passing tests without ever really mastering any information, and it is not the pupil's fault.

It's not really the teacher's fault either, because the teacher doesn't have any control over the students' knowledge before they come into the room, but any good teacher will tell you that it's the student's knowledge that counts, not intelligence.

Even a good teacher will still struggle with this in practice, because it is very different to account for deficiencies in prior learning for the low attainers without boring the high attainers.

So there's no easy answers, but until the myth of the "slow learner" is well and truly scotched, the debate will always be dragged backwards and true progress won't be achieved.

11 April 2011

The importance and unimportance of accent

Accent is essentially unimportant.  It's the final coat of paint that makes our language pretty or ugly, shiny or dull.  It is something that the beginning learner really doesn't need to think about.

Unfortunately, this is something that is frequently overinterpreted, because many people don't appreciate the fact that accent is only one part of pronunciation.

Every language has it's own phonology -- it has a set of possible sounds and possible combinations of sounds, and it has a set of distinctions between sounds.  Though we do not need to learn a good accent from day one, we certainly need to learn the sound system of a language.

The most common consequence of conflating the sound system with accent is the idea that the "closest sound" from your native language is "good enough".  Open up almost any beginner's book and it'll start with a list of sounds described along the lines of "like the a in cat", "like t in English".  But this is rarely true.

Still, some languages will let you get away with this to some extent, but when you hit a more complicated language, it all crumbles.

Any book on Hindi will tell you that "closest sounds" just won't cut it, and that with that approach you will never be understood.  This is because Hindi has more sounds than most other languages.  In fact, there are 8 sounds that are approximately similar to T and D, so using an English T and D, or a French one, or a German one, would leave you completely unable to distinguish certain words, and unable to make yourself understood.

Worse, because you treat 4 different sounds as one, you will never learn to hear the difference either -- your brain only distinguishes sounds that mean something.  The later you attempt to fix it, the harder it will be, because you will have to relearn all the vocabulary in order to learn the difference.

I've experienced this personally with Spanish.  In Spanish C is pronounced like Z, when the C is followed by I or E.  In some areas, these in turn sound like S, but in other areas, they don't.  I started learning Spanish from a course that didn't make a distinction between S and Z, but as I progressed I spent more of my time with people who make the distinction than those who don't.

As a result, I started trying to speak like them.  However, my brain was trained to see the two things as one, so I was prone to making mistakes such as pronouncing the word "especial" as "ezpesial".  My errors were arbitrary, but not random -- they were consistent and there was a clear pattern.  My brain was still seeing the two as equivalent, but was trying to explain it in terms of the other sounds in the word.   Thankfully this was still pretty early, so I caught it and fixed it.

Other people are not so lucky.  A local French teacher (from France) can pronounce all the sounds of English.  But he couldn't before he came here.  The result is that he has already learned all the words with the wrong sounds.  The classic example is TH -- it's always T or D when he speaks.  He's learnt the words now, so there's no going back.

Now, that's something that we call "falling together" (ah, a nice, self-descriptive term for once), but phonemes can also split apart.

Consider that Japanese doesn't make a distinction between liquids L and R.  As an English speaker learning Japanese, I would likely hear these as different phonemes (meaningful units of sounds) instead of simply different ways of pronouncing the same phoneme ("allophones").

This splitting apart on its own isn't a big problem -- it doesn't lose information the same way falling together does.  However, the two can very easily co-occur,  and at that point they make a bad situation worse.

Take for example "CH" in German.  It has two allophones -- a hard one (ach) similar to the sound in Scottish "loch", and a softer palatised one (ich) that takes on a quality similar to the English SH.  But there's another phoneme that sounds even more like the English SH, one that's usually written SCH.  And it gets worse, because in certain combinations of consonants, S starts to sound the same.
If we're not careful, the learner may end up splitting their Ss and their CHs, and putting half of each in the same box as SCH.  The result is a map of the sound system which looks nothing like the native speakers view of things.

Accent is what we put on top of the sound system to give it colour and personality.  You cannot develop a good accent based on an incorrect map of the sound system.  Pronunciation has to be taught from the start in such a way as to encourage a consistent and correct sound system.

Accent can wait until later, but pronunciation must taught in some form right from the start.

08 April 2011

Speed reading's great - unless you want to learn a language.

Every now and then, I read someone on the internet quoting the remarkable reading speed of trained speed readers, and then asking whether this would help a language learner.

In principle, it sounds like a good idea.  After all, if you can read four times faster, you can read four times as much, right?  It seems like you can therefore expose yourself to more foreign language in a shorter time.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of speed reading -- and indeed reading in general -- do not allow this.

When we read, we take advantage of known, familiar patterns in the input.  This means that we don't actually need to process everything that is printed in order to understand it.  Tak# th{s sent#nce, f*r ex*m*pl*.  As a reader, your knowledge of English is probably enough to fill in the gaps.  We do this all the time.  If we didn't, reading speeds wouldn't improve so dramatically just through frequent reading, but they do.  Basically, our brains get in the habit of knowing the bits they need to read.  "The book is ## the table": the eye knows those two ## shapes are "on" as there's nothing else they could be.  "The book is ##### the table": well, that's just got to be under.  So the brain recognises the rough shape and/or size and matches it with the known patterns -- it knows what it must be without actually reading it.

Speed-reading training isn't anything special.  Although some speed-reading schools will tell you to do this, that or the other, in the end, all speed-reading classes do is encourage you to take this natural process to its logical conclusion.

So where does this leave the language learner?

When we're learning a new language, we do not have deep knowledge of the language we are studying, so our brain cannot take the shortcuts required for speed-reading.  Any assumptions it makes will come from outside the target language, and therefore will result in errors.

So, nice thought, but no.