31 October 2011

When teaching grammar, stick with the uncontroversial stuff...

I was in a grammar class for my Gaelic course today, and we were looking at noun declensions.  For one set of questions, we were using the word fàinne (ring).  Unfortunately, this word is masculine in some dialects and feminine in others.  The question stated that the word was masculine, but my partner for the exercise (a native speaker) has used it all her life as a feminine word.  She declined it perfectly correctly in each case -- as a feminine word.  The explicit instruction to decline it as masculine was ignored because she already has 100% intuitive command of the word.

Correct completion of the task therefore required that she stop dealing with the words as "language" and start thinking of them as some kind of mechanical logic puzzle.

The problem with the task is that it became counter-intuitive.  When teaching grammar, we need to employ as much pre-existing knowledge as possible.  Grammar teaching for natives has to start with forms they know, because you are not actually teaching "grammar", you are teaching "grammar awareness", and that simply means making them consciously aware of things they already know intuitively.

So you have to pick the most uncontroversial examples, the most universal and unchanging.

Work with your students, not against them.

30 October 2011

Think before you teach

Every culture has its own set of persistent myths that are passed down the generations.  I'm not talking about gods and monsters, though, I'm talking about myths about language.  Myths are like optical illusions -- once you know what you're looking at, it's obvious to you, and you can't imagine how you missed it.

As teachers, we should be wary about passing on linguistic folklore uncritically.  We should look at everything we've been told about our languages in detail to see whether it holds up to scrutiny, and if it doesn't, we shouldn't teach it.

I'd like to give you an example from the teaching of Scottish Gaelic.

If a course teaches noun cases explicitly, it will state that the "second noun" is always in the genitive.  It will then go on to add the acception that if another noun follows it, it isn't in the genitive, so that in a long and complex noun-phrase, only the final noun is in the genitive.

So it is self-evident that "the second noun takes the genitive" is an incorrect rule.  The actual rule is "the last noun in a noun phrase takes the genitive".  Once you see this, it is obvious, but the "second noun" rule is now so all-pervasive that I'm currently hearing it in grammar classes aimed at fluent speakers in their second year of university study.

The myth is being passed on to a new generation.

27 October 2011

Learning a related language without trying...?

So, you know French and Spanish and want to learn Catalan?   English and German and want to learn Dutch?  Polish and Russian, and Ukranian?  It should be dead easy, right?  All you need to do is start reading and you'll get it.

Possibly, but it's still worth picking up a book and doing a bit of study.

Eliminate the negatives:
If you just start reading (and/or listening), you will develop a reasonable passive understanding, but there's a couple of ways this limits you.  Passive understanding does not require you to process all the language in front of you (you can gain complete comprehension without complete perception) so you are never forced to develop an accurate internal model of the language.

This can be very limiting, because in the future, if you decide to learn to speak the language then you're faced with a massive "frustration barrier" -- a lot of people find that being able to understand lots but not answer is a very unpleasant situation.  It seems more discouraging to me at times than simply having low skills all round.

Accentuate the positives:
Besides, the most important thing stage of learning a related language is the very basics.  How so?  Well this is about the nature of regular and irregular language forms (as I've been talking a bit about recently).

Irregular forms are almost always the most common forms.  So in English "child, children" vs "adolescent, adolescents"; "give, gave" vs "donate, donated".

Interestingly enough, it's those most common words that are least stable.  The English word "will" (I will go, etc) developed from a word meaning "to want" (compare Modern German will and the Modern English noun will -- eg strength of will, willpower), whereas "want" originally meant "to lack" (they found him wanting, ie inadequate).

The same effects can be seen in other language families -- while the Italian and French words for "to have" come from the Latin "avere", the Spanish word for to have (I have a car etc) is derived for the Latin word to hold -- "tenere".  But when we get to a rarer word like "cultivate", we have an almost identical word: cultiver(FR), coltivare (IT), cultivar(ES).

So when a Spanish person says they can "understand" Italian or Catalan without ever having studied it, they genuinely believe that they can, because they can understand what they think are the "difficult" words, but are in reality the easy words.

The mistake most people in this situation make is to skip the beginners' material and jump straight to the advanced.  But it's the beginners' material that teaches most of the things you really need to learn. 

A little bit of time dedicated to the basics (conjugations, pronouns, declensions) at the start will accelarate you through to 90% understanding very quickly.

21 October 2011

How irregular!
I often say that the problem most people have with grammar isn't the grammar itself, but how it's described (I even wrote a post about this a couple of months ago).  The Romans came up with quite a sophisticated way to describe grammar, and it was so successful that we still use it to this day.  However, what a lot of grammarians still haven't twigged is that what meant a lot to Romans means absolutely nothing to your average inhabitant of 21st century Earth.
One of the words that would be completely straightforward to a Roman is regular, and of course the converse irregular.  People familiar with grammatical terminology tend to think it should be easy for an English speaker too, because the root of the word is so common in English: reign, rule, regulations.  A "regular" form is one that follows the rules.  Simple.
Except it's not, because we don't use the word regular to mean a rule-follower in any other situation.  Outside of language circles, it means to do something with a predictable frequency or schedule.  So what - it's a different thing, so there's no need for confusion, right?  Wrong, and this is a subtlety that's easy to miss, even though it goes to the very heart of irregular forms.
The majority of words in any language are regular -- the vast majority follow the rules.  The irregular ones, the ones that break the rules, are in a minority.  Which words are irregular?  Well, it's always the common ones: to be, to have, to go; child/children etc.  This is uncontroversial - it's a well-known statistic.  That there are a few uncommon irregular forms (eg ox/oxen) doesn't break the rule, because these are forms that were common relatively recently (oxen were still in use 100 years ago, because not everyone could afford a new-fangled "tractor") and are being lost anyway (when did you last call talk about an "ox"?).
So here we have a rather nasty piece of cognitive dissonance - the forms that are most regular in terms of frequency of occurrence are the ones we call irregular, and the ones that are least regular by frequency of occurrence are called regular.
A word that is supposed to help us understand actually ends up confusing us further, and we're not even sure why we're confused.  Not good.
This problem isn't limited to English, though, as the equivalent word in the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc) tends to have a similar meaning to the English.
The failure to understand the concept of regular has profound consequences in the teaching of forms, particularly when it comes to verbs.
How irregular?

The first thing that people forget is that regularity is not a yes/no question.  While the majority of verbs are completely regular, some "irregular" verbs are only slightly irregular.

For example, the conditional and future simple of a Spanish verb are formed by adding a suffix to the infinitive.  There are no verbs in the language that are irregular in terms of the suffixes.  There are a handful of verbs that don't use the infinitive, instead forming a "future stem" by dropping the vowel from the infinitive ending.  But then, is this even an irregularity?  The process we're looking at here has a name -- syncope -- and it occurs in other languages.  You can argue, then, that these future forms aren't irregular, because they do indeed follow a rule.  After all, the 3 major verb groups in Spanish (-ar, -ir, -er) all follow different rules, yet we still refer to "regular" verbs in each "conjugation".  So if we make a category of "vowel-dropping verbs", suddenly we find that we've defined the Spanish future as having no irregular verbs whatsoever.  At the very least, I would argue that the verbs that undergo syncope are only slightly irregular.

But maybe it's unfair of me to talk about the future stem, because as a rule Spanish stems are far more stable than their counterpoints in Italian and French.  In all three languages, the conjugation of "to go" is built on three different Latin roots -- ire, andare, vadare -- making it the single most irregular verb in the language (whereas the most irregular verb in English is be/is/was).  But with other irregular verbs, Spanish picks a stem for a tense and runs with it.  So while the present tense of "to have" in French and Italian is bisyllabic in the 1st and 2nd plural forms but monosyllabic in the singular forms, both words in Spanish ("tener", lexical verb; "haber", auxiliary verb) stay consistent across all persons, even though these are irregular verbs.

But all in all, we can see that some verbs are more irregular than others.


But if there is a scale of irregularity, what is the extreme of this scale?  I'd like to introduce a new term to describe it.  I call it...


There are words out there that completely ignore the rules (eg go -> went), but there are others that go completely against the rules.

For example, nouns ending in -o in Spanish and Italian are masculine, as a rule (rule -- Latin regula -- regular).  Yet "mano" (hand) is feminine.  It goes completely contrary to the rule, hence "contraregular".

Why is this important?

This goes back to the fundamental nature of irregular forms that I mentioned earlier: they only occur in frequent words or structures.  And in fact, the most common items are generally the most irregular.

And what is it that we tend to teach first?  That's right, the most frequent words and structures.  Hence the most irregular -- including the contraregular.

So in Spanish, you might learn the following within the first hour:
Good morning - Buenos días
Good afternoon/evening - Buenas tardes
Good night - Buenas noches

These are all contraregular -- -es normally marks masculine plural, but tarde and noche are feminine nouns, so the adjectives are marked in feminine plural. -as normally marks the feminine plural, but día is actually masculine, so the adjective is marked in masculine plural.

This isn't that big a deal if you just tell someone about it, but in many classes, you don't -- the student is expected to infer the grammar from examples.  If your students are first exposed to counter-examples, to exceptions, how can they generalise?  The irregular forms become a blockage, and the students are forced to learn each example as if there were no rules whatsoever.

But even if we do explain, should we be teaching this before we've covered the basics of regular adjectives?  I see no reason why we should.  There is no proven pedagogical advantage to being able to parrot a few fixed phrases before learning to use the grammar productively.  As a practical matter, such greetings may seem immediately useful, but there is no genuine value in being able to say "good morning" when you are otherwise incapable of saying anything in the language.  Besides, within a few hours in the classroom, you should be able to get your students to the point where they can construct such phrases themselves with a little bit of guidance.

18 October 2011

An unfunny joke

An Englishman, a German, an American and a guy from Barra walk into a bar.  "Tha Gàidhlig cho cudromach," says the Englishman [Gaelic is so important].  "Tha Gàidhlig cho sònraichte," says the German [special]. "Tha Gàidhlig cho breagha," says the American.  "I'm going for a slash," says the Barrach.

Not funny at all, I'm sure you'll agree, but you might not fully appreciate just how unfunny it truly is.  In order to understand it, though, you need to know that the Barrach is a native-speaking Gael.  So why did he speak in English?

It's something linguists like to call "divergence".  We use language to indicate social distance from, and proximity to, others.  When we speak like someone, we show variously agreement, respect or even affection.  I find my accent when speaking any foreign language varies depending on who I'm talking to, as I try to match them (particularly if it's someone I fancy).

The Barrach in the "joke" isn't rejecting Gaelic, then, but is indicating that he doesn't associate himself with the three foreigners.

What we have here is the core paradox of the current Gaelic revival.  While everyone says that the goal is for Gaelic to be considered normal in all contexts, the act of attempting to achieve this is actually making Gaelic into a far more self-conscious choice.  Gaelic is at risk of developing a sort of "personality" based on the feelings of the loudest advocates of the language, and therefore people who do not identify with this personality will therefore find themselves subconsciously pushing away from the language.

Well, I say "at risk", but I actually think that this is already the case in many parts of Scotland.  While not a statistically significant portion of the population, there is a reasonable number of native Gaels in Edinburgh.  Yet when there is a Gaelic-related event put on, it's often mostly the learners that turn up.  The natives will happily sit and talk to each other in their own language, but Gaelic in a public setting seems to be overly politicised for most to identify with.  (The association of Gaelic with nationalism has no real basis in fact - Gaelic is a language and is spoken by people of every political allegiance.)

The problem is that the domain of the well-meaning learner is stretching further and encroaching into the few remaining Gaelic heartlands.  Adult learners are gaining ever-increasing air-time on television and radio, as well as positions at all levels of Gaelic education.  Even several prominant members of the Scottish Government's Gaelic language agency are adult learners.  People are even being encouraged to learn Gaelic in order to teach in Gaelic medium schools, despite it being self-evident that the education available is insufficient to bring anyone close to a near-native model.

It is now often said that Gaelic's future is in the hands of the learners.  This is true, but it does not mean what it is supposed to mean.  We as learners cannot save Gaelic, but we do have the power to kill it within a generation.

If we want Gaelic to continue, then we must be humble.  We must accept that:
  1. we are not "Gaelic speakers", and we never will be;
  2. the books we study do not, in fact, contain "correct" Gaelic, but someone else's guess about what Gaelic is - the natives are the only real model worth following;
  3. Gaelic is not "ours" or "our heritage" - it belongs to the Gaels;
  4. and the most difficult of all: we shouldn't put ourselves forward as representatives of the language, either in a professional or amateur capacity.
In fact, I think it would be far more healthy if no-one even defined themselves as a "Gaelic learner", but instead as a "language learner".  Gaelic is a language, just like any other.  Learning another language or two will not only help you see this, but it will also actually improve your Gaelic.

13 October 2011

The effects of Michel Thomas in the wider teaching world

It seems like every other post I mention the excellent lecture by Wilfried Decoo On the mortality of language learning methods.  So I suppose it's not a surprise to see me bring it up again.

One of Decoo's central points was :
A new method draws its originality and its force from a concept that is stressed above all others. Usually it is an easy to understand concept that speaks to the imagination.
As more and more people bring out products inspired to some degree by Michel Thomas's work and the mist starts to clear, we're starting to see what concepts have been taken from MT to drive the next batch of teaching styles.

There's quite a few floating about now, but as I'm now a professional teacher, I don't feel comfortable discussing them by name.

The general notion that we're getting from all of them suggests that the soundbite for the next generation is something along the lines of:
Learn to form sentences, instead of parroting phrases.
This is a good start.  I agree with it 100%.  However, once we reduce the whole teaching philosophy to an eight-word phrase, we're in danger of slipping further away from Thomas again.

If you think about it, it's a very broad and vague phrase.  It's very easy indeed for anyone to rebrnd their materials to demonstrate how they fulfill this criterion without actually changing anything.

By definition, any tables-and-rules grammar course can claim straight off that it's all about sentence building.  But we know that the strict table-based methods are pretty ineffective.

And the phrase-based courses will reassert that they only use the phrases to show you how to form sentences.  Changing je voudrais acheter un croissant to je voudrais acheter un stilo is, at least superficially, a form of sentence building.

What I predict happening is that there will be a few more of these "upstart" entries into the market, but that within a few years, all the major publishers will be looking to knock the wind out of their sales by taking the rhetoric of this new movement and applying it to the latest iteration of their material.  What we'll be left with won't be much different from what we've had over the last 100 years, but with luck, it will be slightly better.

07 October 2011

I'm back!

Yesterday I finally put an end to my study with the Open University, so I've got a bit more time to think and write about stuff.

I've also just started a full-time university course in Gaelic, and will be supporting myself by teaching various bits and bobs of other languages while I'm here, so it's a good opportunity to look at the classroom from both ends simultaneously.

I've got a lot of stuff sitting in the drafts folder, and a few of them tie neatly into some of my thoughts about the course here, so I should be able to keep the blog regular for a while.