31 July 2011

Common Errors: further evidence for the prosecution

I argued in two previous posts (here and here)that the so-called "common error" of should of, could of etc is actually a change in the grammar of English and today I came upon some very good supporting evidence.
And yet companies are constantly being sued over patents which are so broad or trivial they should've never been granted in the first place. [ Slashdot ]
There we have verb verb adverb(time) past-participle.  The adverb is after two verbs... that can't be right.  I mean, I will never do, I would never do, etc.

And if you have a look at Jane Austen's Emma on Project Gutenberg, you'll find that "have never" only occurs in the present perfect, and that when using other compound tenses, "never" goes between the first auxiliary and have.

If we can say I would've never known, then surely would've is now a single word in the internal model of a great many native speakers...?

29 July 2011

The importance of phonology

OK, so I promised this a while ago, and I've let myself get distracted by a few other points in the interim, but I'll try to draw them in and show how they are related to the teaching of phonology in general.

In my posts 4 skills safe and 3 skills safe, I argued that the division of language teaching into the traditional 4 skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening was trivial, superficial and of very little pedagogic value.  Instead, I suggested that we should look at individual skills of syntax, morphology and phonology, and that we could add orthography as an additional, more abstract skill (Lev Vygotsky described reading and writing as "second-order abstractions").
Phonology often gets very little attention in the classroom, as it is seen as a sub-skill of speaking, and speaking's "difficult".  But phonology is fundamental to many languages.

If you haven't already, you might want to take a look at my posts In language, there's no such thing as a common error, and Common errors: My mistake!  In the first post I described a particular common error in written English (might of instead of might have, could of instead of could have etc) and in the second I expanded on the mechanisms that cause this "error", with the aim of showing that this wasn't an "error", but in fact a change in grammar, analogous to changes that have occurred in other languages.  What I didn't focus on there, but which is extremely relevant here, is that this change in grammar is pronunciation-led -- ie the phonology of English has caused this change in grammar.  The prosody of English has led to 've being always weak, and it has lost the link to the related strong form have.

And of course the change in the Romance languages that I mentioned in the second post is also led by phonological patterns.  If you look at any language whatsoever, many grammatical rules have arisen from mere matters of pronunciation.

The archetypal example is the English indefinite article -- a/an.  You may well be aware that like most other Indo-European languages in western Europe, this evolved out of the same root as the number one.  But the modern number one is a strong form and has a diphthong.  A/an is a clitic and always weak, so split off (completely analogous to 've and have).  This weak word /ən/ then lost its [n] before consonants, simply because it's easier to say that way, and retained it before vowels again because it's easier to say like that.  (And if you'll indulge a slight digression, that brings us back to would've etc, because you'll often hear woulda before a consonant and would've before a vowel.)

If you look at the Celtic languages, one of the trickiest parts of the grammar is the idea of initial consonant mutations.  Lenition in Modern Irish is a bit inconsistent (probably due to the relatively large number of school-taught speakers against native speakers), but the three mutations in Welsh are fairly systematic, with mutated forms usually only differing from the radical in one "dimension" of pronunciation.

These sorts of rules become very arbitrary and complex when described purely in terms of grammar, whereas when considered physically, they make a lot more sense.

Let's go back to a/an and take a closer look.  We all know the rule: a before a consonant, an before a vowel, right? Wrong! It's actually: a before a consonant phoneme, an before a vowel phoneme.  To see the difference between the two, fill in the following blanks with a or an:
I want __ biscuit.
I need __ explanation.
He is __ honest man.
I have __ university degree.
Now it's not a difficult task for a native speaker, because you wouldn't normally have to think about it: honest may start with the letter H, but you know intuitively that you don't pronounce it, so you write an without thinking.  Similary, university may start with the letter U, but you know intuitively that it starts with a y-glide sound (like "yoo", not "oo"), so you write a.

I have seen quite a few English learners write "an university" or "a honest man" because they are either trying to work from a grammatical rule in isolation from pronunciation, or because they simply pronounce these words wrong.  In the case of honest, the problem is compounded if the student can't pronounce H, because if he follows the rule correctly on paper, he undermines the phonological basis for the true rule.

It follows, then, that we cannot teach grammar without considering phonology.  (And anyone who has succeeded in understanding the French liaison rules can tell you categorically that this is true.)

But how does phonology affect us in other ways?

Phonology and the ease of vocabulary learning

It may seem trivial, but for his PhD thesis, an Australian teacher of Russian demonstrated that it is easier to learn foreign words that are possible in your native language than ones that aren't.  EG the word brobling with first-syllable stress is easy, brobling with second-syllable stress is a bit harder, grtarstlbing with lots of consonant clusters that can't occur in English is very difficult.  He then took a massive leap of logic that I'll examine later in greater depth.

This corresponds with what a lot of teachers believe, but few teachers have the time or patience to implement: that it's easier to teach phonemes one at a time and reuse them in different words.  Again I'll come back to that when I start discussing techniques.

For now, though, I'll simply suggest that it's easier to learn words that are made out of familiar "blocks" than ones that aren't.  It follows from this that good teaching of phonetics (whatever that means) is a prerequisite to vocabulary learning.

Phonotactics: the "crisps" problem

My high school had an exchange programme running with a school in France.  Teenagers are naturally curious beasts, and when my big brother and sister first went on one of these exchanges, the class discovered how funny it was to get the French people to say crisps (UK English for what the French and Americans call chips).  Very few of the French kids could actually pronounce it, because they were using French phonemes with a northern accent (the school was near Lille).  The French P is unaspirated (unlike English) and the French S is quite slender and hissy.  As a combination of sounds, French SPS is difficult, nearly impossible -- the P either gets lost in the hiss or one of the Ses gets cut short.  The English combination is physically much easier.

Similar problems occur in other places.  Spanish people find wants quite difficult to say, because Spanish T is not compatible with Spanish N or S due to the method of articulation.  NTS in Spanish needs the tip of the tongue to be in two different places at once -- the alveolar ridge for N and S and the gumline for T.

The problem is that many books will tell us that T, D, B, P etc are sufficiently similar in English and Spanish, French or whatever that we can use them equivalently, but this is only true for each phoneme in isolation.  Once we start trying to combine them, the differences start to accumulate.

Which brings us back to:

Grammar again - and how writing suffers for it

If you cannot pronounce the inflectional affixes in a language, your grammar suffers.  Many, many Spanish learners of English drop their -s and -ed suffixes because of the problems of incompatible sounds.  They replace it's with is.  These mistakes filter through from their pronunciation into their internal model of grammar and eventually into their writing.  But it's easy to ignore this, because most of the time they correct their own writing mistakes with their declarative knowledge, and on the few occassions where they don't correct it, the teacher simply tells them the rule again, but never attacks the root cause of the problem: if they learned to pronounce English [t] and [d] phonemes, most of the difficult sound combinations would become much, much easier, their internal model of the grammar would be built up to incorporate these non-syllabic morphemes (and there are no non-syllabic morphemes in Spanish as far as I know, so it's a totally new concept to them edit (2-feb-2014): Spanish has at least one non-syllabic morpheme: plural S after a vowel.) and they would write natural based on their procedural knowledge of the grammar..

And finally...
Allophones and comprehension

Apparently there are certain accents that are considered "hard" in some languages. Now I'm not implying that there is no such thing as a hard accent, but I do believe that most of the difficulties stem from the teaching, not from the language.

In Spain, the accent of Madrid is considered quite difficult to understand.  The reason for this is that the madrileño accent tends to lenite (weaken or soften) its non-intervocalic consonants.  The classic is the weaking of D to /ð/ (roughly equivalent to TH of then).  There is little physical similarity between the English D and ð as is clear from their technical descriptions: /d/ - voiced alveolar plosive; /ð/ - voiced dental fricative.  But the Spanish /d/ is a voiced dental plosive, which the description shows is quite similar to /ð/.  Basically, the soft D in Madrid is basically an incomplete hard D -- the tongue doesn't quite go far enough to touch the teeth and stop the sound, but instead it hisses slightly.

Now, if understanding language is a reflective act (as I claim here and here) then we understand sounds by considering what shape our mouths would be in if we were to make the sound we hear (something suggested by the concept of mirror neurons).  The soft and hard Ds in Spanish are not "soundalike" allophones at all, but they have a similar shape, which is different from the English D.  To me it seems clear that physically learning the Spanish hard D shape would result in better comprehension of the similarly shaped soft D in a way that simple hearing it won't accomplish.


All in all, it seems to me that phonology is an intrinsic component of language, and that the system of a language falls apart when phonology is not given the proper support throughout the learning process.

As for how to teach phonology, I have my own views, but I'm currently reading up on some alternative opinions so as to give a more balanced write-up of the options available.

26 July 2011

Common Errors: my mistake!

Hmmm... I should maybe reread my posts more before publishing, because in another article I said "we should be paying close attention to the thought processes behind this change and trying to make the way we right English match the way we speak it" and then forgot to describe the process in any detail.

Because even though the solution I proposed was to legitimise the writing of contractions, this is not the internal process causing the change. If the average speaker's internal model saw 've as a contraction of have, then no-one would make the 'mistake' of using of instead.

Put it this way: the "error" only occurs when have is used as a second auxiliary -- no-one would say *I of done it in place of I've done it/I have done it, for example.

So it would appear that here we have ceased to think of 've as an verb at all, let alone an infinitive.  At best it is a clitic that modifies the first auxiliary to make it part of the perfect construction, but in fact it would appear to me to be in reality a new suffix, because I cannot see any situation where you could syntactically separate 've from the first auxiliary.

What we see here is English gaining a new fusional feature, and while English has displayed a tendency to become more isolating over the centuries, it isn't unknown for a language to pick up new fusional elements even when the general tendencies is towards isolation.

Consider, Latin vs the Western Romance language family.

Latin was a highly fusional language, and relied on very few periphrastic constructions.  However, the future was a periphrastic form, consisting of the verb in the infinitive followed by the present indicative of to have -- so I will do was literally formed as to-do I-have.

Most members of the Western Romance family has lost a lot of the fusional features of Latin, but at the same time, the future has mutated into an inflected tense, with suffixes derived from (and in some cases identical to) the present tense of to have added to a future root that is almost identical to the infinitive.

Note that the creation of these new suffixes didn't alter the present tense of to have in any other constructions, even though in the early stages of this change, grammarians would most likely have declared that it was "obvious" that they were the same thing, and lamented the "common error" of people saying nous le ferons instead of the previous nous le faire avons.  But today, the latter looks so unnatural that it would not be understood except by a scholar.

This is analogous to what I believe is happening in English.  One particular usage of the verb to have is becoming replaced with a suffix derived from, but not identical to, a form of the verb.  However much the status quo appears more logical, the frequency of occurrence of the "of" error (Google "would of", "could of" etc, and you get millions upon millions of hits) tells us that people's brains just don't work that way.

You cannot rewrite how people pick up their native language.   People seem to pick up 've as a suffix, not an infinitive, so it's time to stop resisting.  While it would be natural for a suffix to be incorporated into the word without the apostrophe, that would be a step too far for most pedants, and even besides that would be a fairly radical change that would take a bit of getting used to.

So I advocate using the contraction notation for now, but recognising that it has now ceased to be a contraction in the mind of the native speaker.

24 July 2011

Another example of language as a reflective act

On Thursday I was maybe even more unfocused than usual, thanks to a very sore hand, but I hope I made a clear enough point.

I tried to show that when we recieve language, our perception is affected by what we expect to hear.  Unfortunately I only had examples from the written mode, because it's impossible to see into someone else's head and hear their perception of spoken language.

Well, chance has smiled upon me and given me a spoken example just in the nick of time.  I've often regretted not getting good at Italian -- it's a language I feel like I should know already, but it's so difficult for me to use it at full speed.  I decided recently that I should dedicate a bit more time to it.

And so it happened that this morning I was listening to an Italian radio station on-line, and not understanding hellish much of it, but catching the odd word.  One word I heard was obviamente... but there's no such word in Italian!  The guy on the radio had actually said ovviamente, and on a pure physical sound level that is what I heard, but my immediate subconscious reaction was to here the more familiar BV consonant cluster -- ovviamente is Italian for obviously, after all.

This presumably worked so smoothly because of Italian's consonant gemination -- consonants written double are lengthened.  This doesn't happen in English, so it makes no automatic sense to my brain. It also meant that there was time in the word for the B that my brain felt was missing.

My brain altered the received input to give perceived input that matched my internal model, so I have to work on improving the internal model rather then simply receiving more input.

23 July 2011

In language, there's no such thing as a common error

This is a statement mired in controversy.  It wasn't me that first said it, but I agree with it... with one caveat: we're talking about native language.

For many, many years, grammarians and school teachers would hound us for saying things wrong.  As a child, I was constantly "corrected" by my mother for asking for permission with Can I...? instead of Please may I...? or for saying if I was you... in place of if I were you....

So when I studied English at university it was very heartening to find that modern linguistics considers everything that is said by a sizable chunk of the population as acceptable language.  And of course this includes both Can I...? and if I was you....

What triggered this post was seeing an article on the Register about a grammatical error in a BBC headline: Phone-hacking: the other news you might of missed.

This is one of those "errors" that's now common enough and consistent enough that we may have to stop calling it an error.

When I suggest this, people often recoil in horror.  "But it's the perfect tense," they cry, "logically it must be have."  (And yes - I know that perfect is an aspect, not a tense, but pointing that out at this point would seem like cheap point-scoring so I generally let it lie.)  But since when was language logical?  You must and You have to are logically equivalent in some usage, but when you negate them you get two very different things: you mustn't and you don't have to.

The thing is, logic aside, we have empirical evidence that shows people's brains don't see it as have -- the errors themselves stand as proof of an emerging norm.  Rather than fretting about the logic of have=perfect, we should be paying close attention to the thought processes behind this change and trying to make the way we right English match the way we speak it.

This does not mean that we have to accept might of, could of etc.  No, because there is an existing mechanism that rids us of this problem: contractions.

Contractions are mostly hated by our schoolroom English teachers, but they are gaining growing acceptance.  We're allowed can't now, where my primary school teacher insisted on cannot, and even I'm where my teacher insisted on I am.  Yet we're still told off by teachers and editors if we try to use could've or coulda, should've or shoulda, might've or mighta.  But these are what we say.  Our habits of speaking have gradually reduced the auxiliary have to something more of a fusional element, a suffix, than a word.  It is only when a writer is expected to write "in full words" that might've becomes might of, so why not simply accept might've?  It would eliminate both the error and the controversy, and would say several pedants a few more grey hairs....

21 July 2011

Receptive skills as a reflective act

I'm not feeling my usual self this week.  I've got an infection under a fingernail, so it's a bit sore to type, which makes it hard to concentrate.  It's leading to silly mistakes in everything I do, so I'm going to avoid the complex topic I'd planned to write about this week (phonology) and stick to something a bit less involved.

A couple of weeks ago, in my post 4 skills safe, I suggested that the comprehension of language is a reflective act, that is to say that we understand by considering what would cause us to say the sentence we've just heard or read.

Now, I mentioned mirror neuron theory, and my Dad said to me at the weekend "you'd better have a better explanation than that."  My Dad taught in a high school up until retiring, and one constant throughout his career was that new teaching fashions would always be justified by the latest idea from psychology, but that it was all theory, no practice.

Now I can't offer anything in the way of empirical research, only anecdote.  Hopefully, though, the anecdotes that I offer will be universal enough that other teachers will see the same phenomena occurring in their own students.

Let's just briefly revisit what I said last time (minus the bit about mirror neurons):
  • People often finish each other's sentences. To do so they must be actively constructing the utterance as they go.
  • People often mistakenly say that they've said something, when actually it was someone else who said it, and they only heard it. So we identify very closely with sentences we hear (and agree with), suggesting a very close link between the mental process behind listening and that of speaking.
  • There exists a (fairly harmless) neurological disorder which causes someone's lip to tremble when they're being spoken to, and they often echo the last word of your sentences (often suffixed with "uh-huh" for assent). For these people merely listening activates the physical speech organs.

 OK, so now let's move to anecdote.

Last night, I was at a language exchange (Spanish and English).  I was talking to a young woman called Cristina who I've spoken to on several occasions.  At one point she was concentrating so hard on what I was saying (in English) that she actually started mouthing the words.  Not the trembling lip of the neurological condition I mentioned before, she was literally mouthing the words.  It was a conscious act.

Now let's contrast this with reading, because I think reading aloud offers the best indication of language as reflection.

The first time I really noticed this was with a student in San Sebastian back in 2007.  Most of his peers read robotically when asked to read aloud -- What - I - Mean - Is - That -They - Would - Pronounce - Each - Word - Dist - inc - tly - And - Careful - ly.  This guy was different.  He spoke with natural flow and good intonation... but he didn't read what was on the page.  Specifically, he got his prepositions wrong.  Not wrong in a random way, though -- he simply substituted the preposition he would use for the word on the page.

Now this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone -- studies of native language reading have established that most prepositions (and in fact many function words) aren't actually "read" by fluent readers.  Instead, the brain simply notices a "small word" and works it out from the context.

I've since seen multiple variations on this theme -- I had one student who kept reading "attitude" as the Spanish "actitud" with the English stress pattern imposed on it ("áctitud" or "acteetood", more or less), and one who adds an S to "sort of thing", to match the pluralisation of the Spanish phrase "tipo de cosas".

But this is reading, and as I said last week, that's not a core language skill (incidentally, since then I've found that Lev Vygotsky described speaking and reading as "second-order abstractions" -- I wish I'd had that quote when I wrote the post).  However, it does demonstrate how much preconceptions can affect our perceptions.

So will this hold in the spoken mode?

First, consider that language generally has a high degree of redundancy.  Even if a noise obscures part of a sentence, you often still manage to understand the sentence.  If you compare "attitude" with "áctitud", in my accent there are three perceptible differences: English has the C, the schwa in the middle syllable (possibly i-schwa), and the Y-glide in the final syllable.  In many accents (mostly American), there isn't even a Y-glide, so there's only two differences.  There is no other word that similar, so the "filter of perception" will probably let it through without really caring about the differences.

The same goes for the "sort of things".  If a Spanish person understands me when I say "sort of thing", I cannot take it as granted that he perceived it without an erroneous final S.  His brain may simply have assumed it is missing.  This is a particular issue for Spanish, as in some dialects, a final -S may be dropped completely*, so it would be very easy for a Spanish speaker to percieve the word "thing" as "things" if context suggested this.

What are the consequences for the teacher or learner?

Assuming this is true (and I accept that many readers will believe otherwise), the consequences are pretty profound.  If our perception of received input is altered to match our existing internal model of language, then no amount of input alone will lead to perfection in a language.  The internal model can only be rebuilt by some directed process.

The success of some students in "silent period"-style environments doesn't disprove this - such a student may well have succeeded through an active analysis of the input, rather than simply through the sheer volume of input.

* This is less common than many Spanish speakers think.  Most "dropped Ses" are in fact [s] phonemes realised by an aspirant allophone (/h/) or a hiatus.  And here again the filter of perception comes into play -- there is no [h] phoneme in Spanish, so even some native speakers don't seem to notice the /h/ sound in something like "rastos" (=rahhtohh) and appear unable to distinguish it from "rato"

15 July 2011

False Etymologies and Prescriptivism

Q: When is an error not an error?

A: When it's a fixed phrase.

My mother has a bit of a tendency towards linguistic prescriptivism: in her mind, some things are wrong and some things are right.  Like most of us, she can find sufficient justication.

One of her pet hates is the phrase "moment in time".  To her, this is very wrong, because it's tautologous.  What other type of moment can there be, after all?

Well, I just happened to read Prisoner of Zenda this year, as I thought it was on the reading list for the Cambridge exam First Certificate of English which several of my current students were intending to take.  (Special thanks to About.com for having an out-of-date and undated list of books....)

The first chapter ends as follows:
"Colour in a man," said I, "is a matter of no more moment than that!"—and I gave her something of no value.
"God send the kitchen door be shut!" said she.
"Amen!" said I, and left her.
In fact, however, as I now know, colour is sometimes of considerable moment to a man.
Clearly, "moment" here is nothing to do with time.  I figure that this sense of "moment" must be the root of the word "momentous", meaning very important.  Even though this sense of the word is now dead in common speech, "moment in time" has survived as a fixed phrase, so it is difficult to justify it as "wrong".  (See also "moment of inertia" in physics.)

Another thing my mother objects to quite strongly is the word "bloody", and the history of this one is quite fascinating.  Somebody somewhere along the line basically decided that the word was offensive (well, it has to be, doesn't it?  Common people use it!) and then looked for why it was offensive.  From there came the bizarre myth that it was swearing in the name of Mary, Jesus's mother in the High Christian traditions, and anyone who subscribes to a high church religion would consider that a very bad thing indeed, because Mary typifies virtue and purity.  The trouble is, there is no attested process by which "by Our Lady" would mutuate into "bloody".  And even more damning -- I'm told that other Germanic languages use (or used to, at the very least) cognates exactly like we use "bloody": both as a descriptive adjective (that shirt is very bloody) and as an intensifier (that bloody shirt is bloody awful).

Quite often, these days you'll hear UK English speakers decrying "Americanisms" creeping into the language on this side of the Atlantic, but very often when you look at the historical records and listen to old recordings you'll discover that these so-called Americanisms have been alive and well in the UK for centuries.  Many of them are actually Scotticisms, borrowed into English in the US by Scots-speaking immigrant communities.  Many others are simply dialectal variation within England.  And a surprising number of them are in fact the most common form in use in the UK.

Denouncing another native speaker's language as "wrong" is very dangerous, because if you're the one who is wrong, you leave yourself looking like a prat.  And no-one wants to look like a prat.

14 July 2011

3 Skills Safe

Last week, I discussed the traditional "4 skills" of language teaching: speaking, listening, reading and writing.  I presented a different set of four skills: syntax, morphology, phonology and orthography.  I then set about showing why the skill of syntax demonstrates the problems caused by the traditional model, and then went into a quite extreme theory expanding on this.  This time, I'm going to focus on orthography and phonology.

Actually, I lied first time round. I said:
two of the skills are common to both the spoken and the written mode.
In fact, as far as I'm aware, three of the skills are common to both the spoken and written mode.

Centuries ago, people couldn't read quietly.  According to QI and my good friend the internet, there is a historical record of the first man known to be able to read without moving his lips: Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (338-397AD).  Nowadays, it's not a particularly notable skill -- in fact, we use the idea of not being able to read without moving your lips as a way of insulting someone's intelligence.  Most people today would swear that when they read, their brains are silent.  Neurolinguists suggest otherwise.

Modern brain scanners are incredibly sensitive machines that can detect activity in any part of the brain, and last I'd heard, no-one had been found whose auditory functions weren't activated by reading -- ie. all reading seems to be translated into sound in order to be understood, whether we're aware of it or not.

And that is why this post is called 3 Skills Safe: because language is composed of 3 core skills: syntax, morphology and phonology.  Orthography is something we're all born with the ability to learn, but in some weird way it appears to be an adjunct to language, something we add on top.

But what about sign language? I hear you cry.  Very few people consider sign language as a form of writing, but rather as a form of speaking.  Many respected language scientists now believe that the first human language was a gestural (sign) language, not a spoken language.  In fact, the work of V S Ramachandran suggests that even spoken language is gestural in nature, and sound is merely the medium of transmission for that gesture.  As a theory, it's pretty mind-blowing stuff.  It all revolves around the so-called "mirror neuron" -- a mechanism in the brain that takes observations and turns them into experience.  So we hear a sound and our brain understands it by recreating mentally how and why we ourselves would have produced that sound.  This would explain the crossover between speaking and listening that I highlighted last week and it has some very profound consequences for the teaching of phonology, which I'll spend more time on soon.

But if phonology is about shape, why use a term derived from the Greek for sound?  Well, simply put, it's the established term.  Perhaps someone will make a new name for it in the future, but right now we're stuck with the words people use.  But phonology is not restricted to the spoken medium, and interestingly enough, "orthography" is similarly not restricted to its usual visual medium.  There is Braille, of course, but more interesting than that is the audio channel.

Though massively outdated now, telegraphy revolutionised global communication.  The vital components in this global engine were the telegraphers, who relayed messages via Morse code.  While they were working mostly through the medium of sound, the code was still denoting letters, not phonemes.  An expert coder would have no problem even with the phonetic irregularities of English, such as the famous "rough, cough, bough, through" example.  We can only conclude that they must have been "reading" through their ears.

Reading and writing therefore cannot be considered independent of speaking and listening.  They are not separate "skills" but something that is built on top of spoken skills.  Which means that before you start teaching reading and writing, you must ensure you have something to build on!

What happens if you don't?

Well, the learner builds on something else -- either an arbitrary pattern or on their first language.  Case in point: many English speakers have problems with the "3 Es" of French: E, É, È.  You will hear even some advanced students asking "Does this E have an accent? Which one?"  But this is a regular feature of French: each refers to a distinct sound.  By starting from the written form and almost invariably picking the "e" of English "pet", the learner has not built a proper representation of French phonemes and they've all merged into one.  With only one sound behind all three forms of E, the choice of accent seems arbitrary and is difficult to remember.  But to someone who has learnt from phonology, the correct accent is a matter of second nature.

Note that I said "someone who has learnt from phonology", not "someone who has learned by listening", because the two are not the same.  People can also fail to notice phonemic differences when listening -- phonology must be taught explicitly.  The irony is that after everything I've said, in some languages (Spanish, but not Chinese, for example) orthography can actually be a useful tool in teaching phonology... but that path is rather convoluted so we'll avoid going down it today and leave it for another time.

An anecdote from personal experience

I've held the above beliefs for a good few years now, but it wasn't until I started trying out LiveMocha's Polish course that the reality hit home.

My Polish is pretty basic, but I do know how the orthography works.  I understand the non-palatised/alveolar-palatal/retroflex distinction in the main consonants, I know how it's written and I know how to pronounce it.  And yet...

LiveMocha's speaking practice exercises ask you to read out a script.  And I kept making silly mistakes.  For example, I kept pronouncing C as /k/, rather than the correct /ts/.  I put the stress in the 3rd-to-last syllable sometimes, or the last syllable sometimes.  Why?  Well although I "know" the rules of Polish sound, I'm not really comfortable with them yet.  Reading pushed me beyond my level of ability, and I fell back on the systems of other languages.

Conclusion and consequences

I suggested previously that an apparent better ability in the written mode than in the spoken mode was a sign that the learner was using inappropriate and untransferrable strategies in the written mode, which means that the common learner situation of having a higher ability in the written mode than the spoken mode is actually a disordered state and consequently leads to long-term difficulties.

Today, I've tried to give another reason why this is such a disordered state, by showing that the written mode isn't pure language, but rather a layer of abstraction added on top of the language, and you can't build on a foundation that hasn't been laid yet.

Now let me be clear: I am not saying that everyone should be better at listening than at reading (this is something I plan to discuss in my next article, on phonology), but simply that a beginner has an urgent need to develop performance in the spoken mode.  I'm not even saying that all new vocabulary should be presented in the spoken mode.  No, if the vocabulary is built on phonemes that the student knows and has rehearsed sufficiently, and the orthography is regular enough, it's not a problem.  But introducing new phonemes in the written mode is just mental.  The student will learn to read them, but he will have to construct his own phonology underneath that orthography, and that will almost certainly be wrong.

12 July 2011

A somewhat left-field theory on the discrepancy between learner performance in the written and spoken modes

In the post 4 skills safe, I argued that writing could be carried out using declarative memory, but that procedural memory was required during speech, but there may still be more to it than that, and I have a theory.  Feel free to tell me I'm crazy - it doesn't deny what I said about declarative vs procedural memory in the first place.

I have been told when you are reading, your eye scans each word on average three times.  This is because the written sentence is missing many important cues we would have in the spoken form, and it needs information from the context to reconstruct the full meaning.  And this is in your own language, so what must it be like in a foreign language you're not fluent in yet?  Your eyes dart backwards and forwards across the page as you try to decode the meaning, and in the end, without realising it, you develop the habit of reading in the wrong order.  You could be faced with a French sentence like:
Je le lui ai dit

and your brain might decide to jiggle the order round until it's reading the same as English:
*Je ai dit lui le
Why would the brain do that?  Because it already knows English, so it's easier that way. The thing is, you won't necessarily be consciously aware you're doing it, and the only way to ever find out that you are might be to head to your local uni's language science department for an eye-tracking study.

Well actually, maybe not, because if you're reading in the wrong order, you're probably going to... (drum roll please)... try to speak in the wrong order, because you end up creating a procedural knowledge of grammar based on your reading style.  And guess what?  Yup, lots of learners do indeed try to speak in the wrong order.

So what appears superficially to be a good "reading skill" is actually flawed reading, bad reading, disordered reading.  We celebrate a student's success in reading as motivation when they're not doing well in speaking, but in isolating and rewarding reading as a single "skill", we may actually be encouraging and reinforcing the very behaviour that is limiting their spoken fluency.

That can't be right, though, because they're still writing in the correct order!

Well yes, but the brain is subtle, and writing is a very slow activity compared to speaking or signing, so it has a hell of a lot more time and freedom.  The thing is that whatever language you're writing in, native or foreign, your brain is likely to be several words ahead of your hand.  This is where it gets twisted.  In theory, the brain has enough time to recall the words in the wrong order and then shuffle them about spacially to write them down.  As a skill, this would be good enough and fast enough for writing, but would not transfer into speaking; it may even prejudice against proper speaking.  By isolating and rewarding writing as a single "skill", we may again be encouraging and reinforcing a problematic behaviour.  I may be wrong, but without testing it, is this a risk we want to take?

And this time we can't even use eye-tracking software to detect the problem, because everything goes on inside the brain.

Except that there is one very subtle clue that comes along a little down the road: some people's grammar is great in a short sentences, but even simple grammar is beyond them when the sentence grows in length and complexity.  Traditional thinking puts this down as simply being "a difficult sentence", but really, it's just a combination of language points* that we have already taught and tested to our satisfaction.  If the students know the rules, why do they fail to combine them.

What if what we're really seeing is the writer running out of working memory or time?  If learners do indeed recall the structure out-of-order and reconstruct it on the fly, then it stands to reason that they will quite quickly fill up their working memory once they have to hold something in it while constructing a complex phrase, or even an embedded clause.

I think a good example is the difference in how German and English handle defining clauses (and you'll have to forgive me if this isn't quite right as I've not learned German properly yet.  Corrections gratefully received.)

I would like to buy the book you like.
Ich möchte das Buch kaufen, das Sie mögen.

Here we have a slight crossover as "the book" and "to buy" switch places.  But (as I understand it) it's actually that book in German, and the that is repeated after "to buy".  This means that "the book you like" is split up, and if you're trying to hold the whole structure in working memory, you'll be taxing your memory.

And it gets worse as you add in more information, as German lets you insert things in a multitude of ways that I'm personally not comfortable with yet.  And if its "the book you told me about yesterday", it gets even messier...
And thus the "out-of-order recall" strategy that was initally the simplest strategy for the brain to follow becomes unworkable and a barrier to further learning.

Consequences for teaching

Now first of all, I'll stress that it's just a theory and so any change of teaching practices should balance "what if he's right" with "what if he's wrong".  Furthermore, I'm not claiming that this is an inevitable consequence of certain teaching methods, but that certain teaching methods open the possibily that a student develops these flawed strategies.

What I want, therefore, is for teachers to work to reduce the possibility for students to develop suboptimal or counter-productive strategies.  I suggest this can be done by adopting two simple principles:
  1. Students should be made to produce spoken language of equal or greater complexity to their written language from the beginning.  This way the student is forced to adopt a strategy suited to spoken language.
  2. Language should be integrated with previously-taught language points early and often.
This second principle I cannot stress enough.  I was once made to teach children from a book in which each unit consisted of two 1-hour lessons.  The first lesson taught a verb structure in the positive declarative (=statement) form, and the second lesson introduced the negative declarative and the positive interrogative (=question) forms.  But the structures taught included such things as "I used to ", and the negative and interrogative forms taught were fully regular ("I didn't use to..." & "Did you use to...?") so could have been dealt with from the word go.  Neither lesson integrated with the present tense or the past simple to produce sentences such as "I used to play football, but I don't anymore" or "I used to play tennis but I stopped a year ago".  These are sentences that any learner at that level should be able to produce, yet we often delay them, and students are left without the confidence or competence required to use these straightforward conversational devices.

Footnote: Why did I come up with this crackpot theory?

When I started doing written grammar drills in Spanish, I found myself frequently missing the object pronoun then writing it in afterwards (object pronouns appear before the verb in Spanish, like in French).  I got better at doing this, until I was thinking a few words ahead of my pen by a word or two.  So I was still thinking of the verb before I had thought of the pronoun, and in the end I made a conscious effort to stop doing this and I refuse to put pen to paper for as long as my brain tried to put the verb first.

That's a sample size of one, so doesn't really prove anything.  But it does give a plausible mechanism for observed data, and one of my big problems with much of the writing on language that I've read is that in general, mechanisms are rather vague and hand-wavy.  Empirical data is all well and good, but all too often what is recorded is merely the tasks given to the students and the end result -- the process followed by the student is rarely tracked.

If anyone knows of an eyetracking experiment that has explored this, I'd be interested to know.  And if anyone fancies studying it as a masters thesis, let me know how you get on!

* "Language point" is a catch-all term for vocabulary items, fixed phrases, grammatical rules, etc.

08 July 2011

4 skills safe

It is common in language circles to talk about the "4 skills" of language learning: speaking, listening, reading and writing.  These skills can be categorised as receptive vs productive and spoken mode vs written mode, and you often get this represented in a neat little diagram like this:

This looks very tidy and regular, and there's nothing we like better in language than tidyness and regularity.  But yet language is never tidy, and language is very rarely truly regular, so we must suspect that there's something wrong with this diagram. 

Really, this analysis of language is superficial to the point of uselessness.  These 4 things are not skills at all, but the basic categories of language use, each category requiring multiple skills.  The actual skills of language are far more subtle and far more fundamental, and there is a massive amount of shared skill between these activities than is apparent when we elevate these mere "activities" to the status of "skill".

Where does this idea of "skills" come from?

It is obvious and undeniable that some students find it easier to speak, and others find it easier to write.  I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of students find reading easier than listening in a foreign language.

There is a great temptation therefore to say that what people find difficult is a "difficult skill" and leave it at that, but that is to shortchange the student, because these high level "skills" distract us from drilling down and finding the underlying core skills, and identifying which of them is the root of the problem.  What gets measured gets managed, to quote a business-speak proverb, and when we identify the problem as simply "listening", we really don't get much of a clue how to fix it.

Try to suggest a spoken-only class and most teachers will throw up their hands and declare that we simply must teach all 4 skills, or we are doing our students a disservice.  But are we?  What if focussing on these 4 skills independently is one of the reasons many people have difficulties with language?

What are the real skills of language?

I would suggest the broadest useful four skills we have are syntax, morphology, phonology and orthography.

Syntax: how we build sentences out of words.
Morphology: how we build words out of roots and affixes.
Phonology: the sound system of language.
Orthography: the form the language takes on paper.

Note that there is nothing in my four skills that makes a distinction between productive and receptive skills, and that two of the skills are common to both the spoken and the written mode.

In this article, I'm going to talk in general terms about the division of skills in the traditional model, and will use morphology to demonstrate why I think the traditional model is dangerously flawed.  I'll come back to phonology and orthography in a follow-up article.  But I haven't really got a lot to say about morphology, to be honest....

Commonality between spoken and written modes

With a few exceptions due to register and conservative schooling, the spoken and written modes of any language are based on the same syntax and morphology.  This is pretty obvious, and really goes without saying.  But if we carry this forward and ask ourselves why a student's accuracy in speaking is so often worse than in writing, we're in a hole.  How can someone know syntax to write, but not know it to speak?

It's a question that is actually pretty easy to answer.  The answer is that they don't know syntax.  It's that simple.

But wait, how can they produce grammatically correct target language if they don't know syntax?  Well, maybe it's not really "that simple".

At a superficial level, we have the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge.  Someone can consciously know the rules without having internalised them to the point where they become automatic.  On a simple level, reading and writing can be carried out using declarative knowledge, because time is not a factor.  Speaking and listening, on the other hand, rely on procedural knowledge, because time and speed are critical factors.  Modern language teaching philosophy disfavours declarative knowledge, and many teachers often claim to teach directly to procedural knowledge, and yet students still perform better in writing than in speaking (ignoring issues of pronunciation).

Productive vs receptive skills

As I said, my new four skills don't make a distinction between productive and receptive skills.  Why?  Because I believe that comprehension of language is a reflective act, that is to say that I understand language by imagining what would have made me say the same thing.

This is not as outlandish as it may sound.  One of the most important current theories in neuroscience is what is called mirror neuron theory (Wikipedia) which says that we understand a lot about each other through reconstructing their experiences.

Even stepping outside of that, there is still plenty of evidence for language as a reflective act:
  • People often finish each other's sentences.  To do so they must be actively constructing the utterance as they go.
  • People often mistakenly say that they've said something, when actually it was someone else who said it, and they only heard it.  So we identify very closely with sentences we hear (and agree with), suggesting a very close link between the mental process behind listening and that of speaking.
  • There exists a (fairly harmless) neurological disorder which causes someone's lip to tremble when they're being spoken to, and they often echo the last word of your sentences (often suffixed with "uh-huh" for assent).  For these people merely listening activates the physical speech organs. 
So as far as I'm concerned, attempting to produce an distinction between the two is asking for trouble.

Conclusion and consequences

Treating reading, writing, speaking and listening as 4 skills encourages people to develop strategies specific to these 4 areas, but students attempt to generalise these strategies across skills, and they don't transfer.

It is the teacher or course designer's job to make sure that the learner develops core strategies that are appropriate for and generalisable across all four areas.  What gets measured gets managed, and we can never objectively measure a student's comprehension of a piece of language.  Even in writing, the student's thought process is obscured by the relatively slow pace of production.

It is therefore only in speaking that we genuinely know that a student is following the correct process, and it is only through monitoring spoken output that we can diagnose and correct faults.  As a classroom teacher or even a self-teacher, this is the only way to monitor progress accurately and confidently.

04 July 2011

Translation: an unjustified scapegoat

I couldn't count the number of times that I've heard a teacher respond to an error by saying "that's because you're translating! You need to think in the language!"  This is all well and goo... no, there's nothing good about it.  I found it particularly frustrating when I found myself incapable of saying something specific in Gaelic, and my "friend" refused to let me simply say it in English.  I then said it wrong and he then let loose with the old "because you're translating" line (except in Gaelic, just for variety).

Well no, the problem wasn't that I "was translating", it was that I had never learned how to say it.  I hadn't learned it, I couldn't say it -- simple as that.

Translation has become something of a bogeyman.  If you make an error caused by native-language-interference, the witchfinder in front of you will cry "translation!" and insist you must "learn to think in the language".  Except that quite often these days, the witchfinder will be someone who doesn't actually speak your language and therefore blames translation when the converse is actually true.

My favourite example is the English and Spanish conditional constructions.  Spanish-speakers regularly get the English wrong, and teachers are wont to issue the usual battlecry of "think in English!" followed by a lecture on "2nd and 3rd conditionals" in abstract grammatical terms.  But in fact, Spanish conditionals translate almost verbatim into their English equivalents, so if the Spanish folk were simply encouraged to translate, they'd master the English forms in about half-an-hour.

I found a quote on-line the other day:
"Disillusionment regarding the relevance and usefulness of learning theory for educational practice has been responsible, in part, for the emergence of the theories of teaching that are avowedly independent of the theories of learning."
Ausubel, David. Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, 1968
1968, but this still seems to hold today.  When we discuss learning, there's one word that is perhaps more important than any other: generalisation.   Sadly, there's very little discussion of this in teaching literature.  Our job is to teach, your job is to learn, so generalisation is dismissed as the student's responsibility.

The problems that are often blamed on translation are better blamed on generalisation.

Native-language interference is inappropriate generalisation of known patterns (the fact that they are in the native language is incidental).

On top of that, generalisation even accounts for errors such as the conditionals where native-language interference should provide correct results.  How so?  Well, many intermediate and advanced learners have a tendency to try to construct any new target language structure out of known language structures -- ie they assume the language they have been taught is the whole language and try to generalise the known structures to cover any new case, and they fail to innovate.

For a specific example of generalisation gone wrong regardless of medium, I have to go back a good few years to my first experience of the language classroom: high-school French.

We started off with phrases, albeit with translation.  It was all "what is your name?" "I am 12 years old" "I'm fine, and you?"

Now our teacher told us that "j'ai" was "I have" and that it only meant "I am" when discussing ages, but several of the class got themselves in a right guddle over this.  Some would say "j'ai" instead of "je", and some would say "j'ai" instead of "je suis".  And then they would try using "je suis" instead of "j'ai".

The problem here wasn't translation, because we weren't building up from grammar rules -- we were substituting words in fixed phrases in the hopes of learning "by induction from examples".

So the problem needs to be described in terms of generalisation.  Regardless of what the teacher said, certain pupils automatically generalised telling their age to "I am".  A change of medium of instruction couldn't have altered that.

So what could have changed that?
I think the main problem was that this was our first encounter of the verb "to have".  Quite quickly we moved onto how many brothers and sisters we had, but by this point the confusion had set in.

Ausubel proposed something called progressive differentiation.  Under this framework you teach a core, high-level overview of a concept, and then refine all the particulars and special variations after.  The core use of "avoir" in French is possession of a physical thing.  If that had been taught and thoroughly learned before a specialist idiomatic form was encountered, inappropriate generalisation would have been impossible.

This is how Michel Thomas does it.  In his French, Spanish and Italian courses, you play around with "I have it", "I don't have it", "I don't have it but I want it" etc before coming anywhere near idiomatic constructions such as "to have hunger" for "be hungry".  It is thus impossible to generalise "to have" incorrectly as "to be".  Yes, you can generalise incorrectly the other way, and talk about being hungry (and then get a bollocking off your teacher for translating) but this is a far smaller error.  Not only that, this is an error of "not having learned yet", rather than an error of "learning wrong".

So please, don't simply shout down translation indiscriminately -- it's not the nasty beast you think it is.

01 July 2011

The Problem with Podcasts Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the problems with language learning podcasts.  I said the problem was that they modelled themselves on the form of radio programmes, and I stand by that, but I've been listening to a few podcasts since and I think there's another problem podcasts suffer, and it's maybe even more fundamental to the problem.

Podcasts are in a very awkward position when it comes to monetising their business, because their core product in fact doubles up as their primary marketing tool.

Basically, the main podcast is almost always free, and the podcasters make their money out of various add-ons: transcripts, grammar notes, flashcards, games etc.  That means that the core podcast has to continually remind the listener to go to the website.

Compare this with Pimsleur or Michel Thomas -- these courses do not need to constantly remind you what you're listening to.  Any announcements on these courses are merely as a sort of index ("advanced Spanish with Michel Thomas recording 2") or for copyright purposes.  Why so?  Because you've already bought it -- there's no need for the publisher to go chasing you for cash.

But with the podcasts, buying it doesn't stop you hearing the marketing, becuase even if you're a premium user, you get the same podcast: jingles, banter, visit-our-website messages and all.

So the problem with podcasts is a business model that goes counter to all good sense: the product actually has to be made worse in order to sell it.

And another problem with (some) podcasts

Now, not all podcasts fall into this trap, but there are several major podcasts who have made an interesting decision: subscribe and get full access to the back catalogue.  This really skews the sense of value.  JapanesePod101.com, for example, has been going for several years, and during May I downloaded seven thousand nine hundred and eighty three files covering approximately two thousand individual podcasts along with their supplementary materials on a trial offer that cost next to nothing ($1 IIRC).  Every subsequent month I would have had to pay the full subscription price, and I would have got less than twenty podcasts for that, and those 20 podcasts are over several different levels, so I'm not going to be able to use more than about 5 of them in that month.

Basically, there really is no need for anyone to subscribe for longer than a month or two, because the 17 continuous days of audio and video you get for that really isn't improved on by an extra hour or two.

This also splashes back with a secondary effect for the producers, Innovative Language Learning, because they are constantly increasing the range of --Pod101.com languages, in order to cash in on their brand.  But having got 17.2 days of podcasts for $1, where am I going to see the value in subscribing to something like PolishPod101.com, which only offers so far about 4-5 hours of phrases for absolute beginners (in 3 to 11 minute chunks, replete with the annoying jingles and banter I complained about last time) and 10 episodes of an advanced audio blog, none of which is over 5 minutes long.  There's nothing in the beginner or intermediate levels, and the advanced level hasn't had a new episode since September.  Basically, all they're offering right now is a talking phrasebook that gives you half a dozen phrase per week (if that!) and wants you to pay $10 a month for the priviledge.  This is not good value.

There is no link between cost and volume of material.  There is no guarantee of receiving any new material.  In fact, when you sign up for the "Free lifetime account", they immediately give you an "once in a lifetime" special offer on the full subscription price without giving you any opportunity to see exactly what content you're paying for.  You have to buy it "sight unseen".  You don't know how little they're offering.  You don't know whether they offer anything at your level, and they expect you to pay.  I'm sure in their heads the low level of content is justified by the low number of subscribers, but come on guys, your subscribers aren't a collective -- they're individuals, and your responsibility is to each one individually.  Don't treat them like sh*t, or it reflects on you.  It's up to the company to invest in the product.  Don't sell it until you've made it.