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:
*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.
Je ai dit lui le
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:
- 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.
- Language should be integrated with previously-taught language points early and often.
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.