30 December 2011

Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I?

So as I said a while ago, I've recently started trying to work on my Welsh again.  I did a beginners' course last year, and I never really felt I'd got any real competence in the language (despite getting a pass in the course), and so I figured it was time to do it properly.

Now when I dug out the books (as I said), I just found myself really frustrated (and I've tried two more sets of course materials since the previous post).

So I got myself onto iTunes U to see if they had any useful materials and found a podcast Dialogues for Welsh Learners from the University of Glamorgan.

Well I've just fired up the playlist.  I listened to the introduction; fine.  I listened to the first "episode": Pwy dych chi? (= Who are you?)  The podcast was 5:39 long (including the usual timewastery) and was literally devoted to the question "Who are you?" and it's response "I am ...?"  Please note that this is not aimed at teaching the question, only at practising what you should already have learnt during your course.

Surely, surely, there is something wrong if these 5 words are so difficult that it takes this long.  And what is wrong?  It's my favourite phrase of 2011: disordered state.  The question and answer are trivially easy in terms of the language itself -- it's one of the most basic structures imaginable.  And yet people find it, as a phrase, difficult enough to merit 5 minutes of dedicated practice as well as untold teaching time in the class itself.

Doesn't this show just how inefficient phrase-based learning really is?

29 December 2011

Counterintuitive, perhaps, but sometimes it's easier to start with the harder material...

In general, whenever we teach or learn something new, we start with the easy stuff then build on to the more difficult stuff.  But this isn't always a good idea, because sometimes the easy stuff causes us to be stuck in a "good enough" situation.

When I started learning the harmonica, I learned to play with a "pucker technique", ie I covered the wholes with my lips.  The alternative technique of "tongue blocking" (self descriptive, really), was just "too" difficult for me as a learner.  So for a long, long time, the pucker was "good enough" and tongue blocking was too difficult for not enough reward.  It limited my technique for a good number of years, and now that I can do it, I wish I'd learnt it years ago.

The same block of effort vs reward happens in all spheres of learning.  If you learn something easy, but of limited utility, it's far too easy to just continue along doing the same old thing, and it's far too difficult to learn something new, so you stagnate.  Harmonicas, singing, swimming, skiing, mathematics, computer programming; there's always the temptation to just hack about with what you've got rather than learn a new and appropriate technique.

This problem, unsurprisingly, rears its ugly head all too often in language learning, but with language it has an altogether insidious form: the "like your native language" form.  If you've got a choice of forms, one is going to be more like your native language than the other, and this is therefore easier to learn.  Obviously, this form is going to be "good enough", and the immediate reward to the learner for learning the more difficult form (ie different from the native language) isn't enough to justify the effort.  However, in the long term, the learner who seeks mastery is going to need that form in order to understand language encountered in the real world.

The problem gets worse, though, when you're talking about dialectal forms.

Here's an example.  Continuous tenses in the Celtic languages traditionally use a noun as the head verbal element (known as the verbal noun or verb-noun).  I am at creation [of] blog post, as it were.  Because it's a noun, the concept of a "direct object" is quite alien, and instead genitives are used to tie the "object" to the verbal noun.  In the case of object pronouns, they use possessives.  I am at its creation instead of *I am at creation [of] it.  Note that the object therefore switches sides from after to before the verbal noun.

Now in Welsh, the verbal noun has become identical to the verb root, and is losing its identity as a noun.  This has led to a duplication of the object pronoun, once as a possessive, once as a plain pronoun -- effectively I am in its creation [of] it.  This really isn't a stable state, as very few languages would tolerate this sort of redundancy, and the likely end-state is that the possessive gets lost, and the more English-like form (I am in creation [of] it) will win out.  In fact, there are many speakers who already talk this way.

But for the learner, learning this newer form at the beginning is a false efficiency.  There are plenty of places where the old form is still current, so unless the learner knows for certain that they'll be spending their time in an area with the newer form, they're going to need the conservative form anyway.  To a learner who knows the conservative form, adapting to the newer form is trivially easy, but for someone who knows only the newer form, the conservative form is really quite difficult to grasp.

So teaching simple forms early risks restricting the learner's long-term potential.  So while you want to make life simple for yourself or you students, make sure you're not doing them or yourself a disservice.

26 December 2011

Creoles - the same story once again

So I was directed this morning to a news story on the BBC about the translation of the Bible to Jamaican Patois.  It's a move that's long overdue -- whatever you think about religion, you have to accept that the place of worship is vitally important in the survival of language wherever a large percentage of the population are religious.  The lack of a Bible translation and the use of the dominant language in religious services have been cited in the decline of many languages, including Scottish Gaelic.

It has been welcomed by some:
Several women rise to testify, in patois, to what it means to hear the Bible in their mother tongue.
"It's almost as if you are seeing it," says a woman, referring to the moment when Jesus is tempted by the Devil.
"In the blink of an eye, you get the whole notion. It's as though you are watching a movie… it brings excitement to the word of God."
Unfortunately, not everyone is so happy.
But some traditionalist Christians say the patois Bible dilutes the word of God, and insist that creole is no substitute for English.
You know what?  There was a time when people would insist that English is no substitute for Latin.  And even that was bigotted, because the Latin Bible was just another translation of the Greek, and it wasn't even that accurate!
What we have here is proof, if proof were needed, that a great many objections to minority language are a simple case of resistance to change.

Creole in primary education

The article doesn't restrict itself to the Bible, but follows on to a topic that is a matter of active debate in most creole-speaking countries: the place of Creole in the primary sector.

The story is always the same: the "big" language is of major economic importance, and therefore should be the focus of education.  As a political statement, it's appealling, and it doesn't take much thought to agree with it.  Which is just as well, because it doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny.

One thing that has been fairly well proven across the world is that kids do better in school if they are given "initial literacy" (their first experience of reading and writing) in their own language.  On the other hand, gaining their initial literacy in a new language actually hampers their ability to pick up the language accurately.
Worse, in some creole-speaking countries, the teachers are really only creole-speakers themselves.  Education in Haiti, for example, is very heavily orientated towards French, but the teachers really don't speak the language properly.  What you end up with is kids who aren't competent in either their own language or the "important" language.

All the figures show that the best thing to do is to start school in the kids' own language (and the teachers'!), and that the new language is best introduced in a spoken form, and by a native speaker.

Which isn't quite the same as what we do in Scotland with Gaelic-medium education, sadly....

15 December 2011

I love learning languages... but I hate language learning

Ok, so yesterday I had my last exam of the semester, so I decided to take a break from Gaelic and start working on my Welsh.  I never really did much study before, but trying to catch as much as I could by watching the Welsh-language soap opera Pobol Y Cwm regularly has helped some of it stick (but not all, by a long shot).

So I went to the college library, and started reading Asterix ym myddin Cesar, the Welsh translation of Asterix the Legionary.  Oooooh... it's tough going.

So rather than attempt to struggle through it in the library with a dictionary, I decided to check it out and take it back to my room to go over it seriously with a grammar book.  I was the first person ever to do so -- which isn't surprising given that there isn't even a Welsh course here...

So I took my copy of Teach Yourself Welsh Grammar off my bookshelf, and started reading... then stopped.  You see, while I love learning languages, the vast majority of language learning material is excruciatingly bad.  I know that this book isn't a language course, but it is aimed at learners.  So when the first chapter after the pronunciation guide starts by individually listing 31 different circumstances in which the soft mutation occurs, it immediately loses its audience.  There's no structure -- just a list.  In several of these circumstances, LL ard RH are immune to mutation.  Did they group these together?  They're numbers 1, 5, 6, 18 and 28.  There's no implication that these are in any way related, meaning the learner risks trying to learn 5 exceptions instead of one group.

I'm trying to extract enough information to teach myself, but I'm overwhelmed by information -- I have to try to read and understand it all in order to identify the patterns and salient points.  It's tiring, frustrating, and to a great extent insulting.

Yes, insulting.  Because at one level, the mere existence of the book is a claim by the author that this is good enough for the learner.  And if the book is good enough for the learner, then it must be me that is the problem.

I'm lucky -- I feel insulted.  Many, many people genuinely believe that they're at fault -- that they're "stupid" or "not good at languages".  And they think that I'm good at languages.  Well believe me, I'm not.  Even despite spending countless hours in this sort of book, I still can't make head nor tail of some of them.  If anything I'm worse at languages than the average, and I've only got where I am today because I refuse to believe I'm incapable.

The hardest part for me in learning any new language is getting started, because in general there's just too much information thrown at you in an unstructured and poorly thought out way.

So for those of you starting out and discouraged by your materials, remember: you're not the only one.