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.


Yousef said...

Good ideas, but I think it's rather uncontroversial to say someone can't learn phonology from text. Even the most book-centric course tries to compensate for this by having a phonetic script. But the results haven't been as good as one would expect.

And yet: here I am writing this message, after class with a student who has excellent reading and writing abilities far beyond what you would expect of a language learner, but who has to stop and think about sentence structure every time she has to say something longer than a few words. There definitely is something not right here. I'm playing around with the ideas of mirror neurons, syntax, chunking and cognitive overload, but my ideas aren't yet as fully formed as your arguments, so I'll be assuming the role of note-taking student for the time being ;)

It'd be interesting to contrast "someone who has learned from phonology" from someone who hasn't not from the results, but from the "how" of their learning methods. Surely just memorizing a phonetic script or drilling syllables isn't the (only?) way. Michel Thomas is good for phonological explanations, but I feel the courses themselves tend to only skim the surface of what he would've done in person. How explicit do you think this kind of instruction has to be?

Nìall Beag said...

I think it's rather uncontroversial to say someone can't learn phonology from text

True, but the point I'm trying to make is that the usual distinction in teaching is made between "learning from text" and "learning by listening". In both cases, this is superficial detail - the source of the input, not the style. What's important is, as you say, the "how".

What I was aiming to do in this article was simply to establish that principle.

In the past, I've presented my own views on teaching techniques at the same time as presenting the principles, and people have rejected the principles on the grounds that they don't agree with the techniques, so I'm trying to avoid confusing the two.

I'll be expanding more on phonology next, and Thomas will be part of my example. I certainly don't see phonetic scripts as the best way (although with English in particular, sometimes you've got no choice), and drilling is a very limited technique.

How explicit? Well, at a bare minimum, enough to ensure that two distinct phonemes are never pronounced the same, and enough that adjacent sounds are possible. But that's the gist of my next post, so I'll leave it at that for now....

Yousef said...

In the past, I've presented my own views on teaching techniques at the same time as presenting the principles, and people have rejected the principles on the grounds that they don't agree with the techniques, so I'm trying to avoid confusing the two.

Fair enough. I guess I got a little ahead of myself. Looking forward to seeing how these ideas develop!

Anonymous said...

This could explain the thing I've noticed - If people speak with bad accent, it's almost always because they can't hear the sounds correctly, not because they are unable to produce correct sounds. If they can hear the difference, they usually try again, but when they can't hear it, they are happy with using their native phonemes.

However, I disagree that phonology should be taught explicitly, not by hearing. That's like trying to teach deaf to speak. It requires huge effort and the result rarely good. Phonology has to be learnt by listening, only then it's possible to start speaking. Listening to the language for some time without attempting to learn or understand it will do the trick. One thing that probably should be taught is that the learners should not expect the same phonemes as in they're native language. This can be a major obstacle, because some monolinugals find this fact absolutely incomprehensible.