25 June 2011

The road to wealth: don't speak English
I've just read an interesting article on the Register (a news site for IT and science geeks).  The article mostly talks about the governance of the internet internationally, so regular readers won't be particularly interested, but here's an interesting thought:
But the internet doesn't work like that: a country that puts in internet infrastructure is more likely to see money pouring out as local ISPs have to pay peering partners to deliver content from Europe and America to their customers.
We put this point to Dr Touré, who pointed out how wrong we were: "Forget Europe, it's America that takes the money ... the content comes from America".
So while the international community is clamouring to learn English to improve international trade, English is becoming a money-sink for everyone outside the US as we continue to spend our money on American content, money which doesn't come back out.

Interesting thought.
Not Learning From Mistakes

I've been talking a fair bit recently.  First I pointed out that the emotional power of correction of mistakes is often overstated on the basis of a few exceptional cases, and then I pointed out that in the classroom it's underemployed for fear of embarrassment.

Not being corrected

But here's another perspective on the whole thing: some mistakes just don't get corrected.  There's several reasons for this:
  1. The other person doesn't want to be rude, so continues to nod politely rather than cause potential embarrassment by commenting.
  2. The other person doesn't understand you and says so, but can't correct you because he doesn't know what you're trying to say.
  3. The other person understands you, so doesn't see the need to mention the error.
  4. The mistake is noticed and mentioned but not corrected, because the other person suffers what is known as "language blindness".
Each of these is troublesome in different ways.

The first couple you can do nothing about, but it's really frustrating if your conversation grinds to a halt after five minutes when you discover that neither of you has a clue what the other is talking about.

From the third, it is tempting to conclude that if an error doesn't stop the other person understanding, it's an acceptable error (a widely held belief among communicative approach teachers).  But in general this isn't true, because it ignores the fact that what is unambiguous in one context may be very ambiguous in another.  For example, many learners of English have problems pronouncing the past suffix -ed (except in -ted, -ded) and drop it.  In the sentence I walked there but it was closed, losing the "ed" doesn't make the tense ambiguous (I walk there but it was close), because "was" clearly marks the tense, but if you only say I walked there and it comes out as I walk there, suddenly it's very ambiguous indeed.  The problem gets worse as phrases, clauses and sentences get more and more complicated as you proceed through the language, and as error builds on top of error, language gets less and less accurate.  One of the main ideas in the communicative approach is that you can "get by" with flawed language and that accuracy will take care of itself later on, but by saving up mistakes for later, they militate against improvement, which is a shame for the students....

And finally, language blindness.  This is when you know what is being said or what you want to say, but you can't find the words or the structure.  In translation it happens when the structure you're translating from blocks you from seeing the appropriate target structure, and it's something that you can't think your way out of, because the material you're working from seems only to get stronger when you think about it.  In the situation of conversational corrections, you've understood what the other people are trying to say, but when you try to correct it all you can hear is what they said, and in the end you cannot give them any hints as to what they said wrong.
Incorrect "correction"

And even if you do get corrected, how do you know the correction is correct?
Take a sentence like *I am going walking yesterday.  There are two likely intended sentences: I was going walking yesterday and I am going walking tomorrow.  Now with this sentence, most correctors would offer both options.  However, in general, listening is a subconscious act, so when listening to someone speak we hear only one thing.  If the corrector misunderstands the error, he will obviously give an incorrect form in response.

Also, you have to remember that very few people genuinely know how they speak - most of us only know how we were told we should speak, and I have heard native speakers "correcting" foreigners for using a (descriptively, statistically) correct grammatical form by providing an outdated (prescriptive) school-book form that they themselves don't use.  Or when pressed for a translation, they give something that is almost correct, but it subtley inappropriate.

All in all, correction during conversation is more than a little hit-and-miss.

While I feel that the idea of fossilised errors is a gross exaggeration, it's still better to get started on the right form as soon as possible to build up good habits.

If you rely on conversational corrections to teach you correct grammar, conversations will become a drag.  Maybe not for you (if enjoy the process of puzzling through), but most people don't have the patience to put up with it for long and you'll find yourself going through conversational partners very quickly indeed.  This is fine if you live in an area with lots of speakers of your target language, because you can always just hang about in a bar until another speaker comes along, but if you're trying to maintain a friendship (or even a romantic relationship), the language will soon start to be a barrier to communication.

Overall, it's just much quicker and more efficient to learn in a structured way where one thing leads to (and supports) another, rather than having a scattergun approach of learning whatever comes up even if it is in no way linked to what you already know.

And it is best to get your teaching from an informed speaker of the language - that is to say someone who not only speaks the language, but has studied it and is consciously aware of the subtleties of grammar and usage, of connotations and register differences.  (And yes, that means that sometimes a non-native speaker can be a better teacher than a native.)

20 June 2011

Teaching from mistakes

I find it curious that despite the claims that we learn best from our mistakes, many teachers are reluctant to take advantage of this in teaching.

Well, not reluctant, I suppose, but it's more a matter of wanting things both ways.

In your standard EFL class, we don't typically correct spontaneous errors on the spot (and there are certainly many circumstances where correction would break the flow of the conversation), instead giving "delayed feedback" -- a short period at the end of the class where several of the "big" mistakes of the day are put up on the whiteboard and discussed and corrected as a class.

One of the reasons for this is to avoid drawing attention to the invidual or causing any embarrassment.  However, this means it's too late.  Ten or fifteen minutes later, the student doesn't have the same emotional tie to the sentence and any correction is purely academic.  What makes this into a particularly fruitless endeavour is that most of the time they know the correct answer in theory, but they just fail to apply the correct rule in practice, so the error isn't addressed properly.
But if we look at the various confusions I mentioned last time -- married vs tired, embarrassed vs pregnant, having a cold vs having constipation -- we see that correction is at its most effective when it connects on a very vivid, immediate, emotional level.

I'm not saying we should go out of our way to embarrass and humiliate learners, but that we shouldn't be afraid to take advantage of the humour or absurdity of an error in making the correction more memorable.

For example, I know one fellow Gaelic learner who hasn't really grasped the correct use of possessives, and is wont to say things like "tha mi cat agam a' dol dhan bheat", which means pretty much "I am one of my cats on my way to the vet".  Now, you can correct her with "tha an cat agam" and she might repeat it, but 10 seconds later, she'll be saying it wrong again.  So why not just tell her she's called herself a cat? 

Ok, so you have to build up a certain rapport with the other party to make sure you're doing it in a good natured way, and they feel you're laughing with each other rather than laughing at the other person.

But delayed feedback is almost always too late: a mistake can only lose its power to embarrass when it no longer feels like that particular student's mistake, and if it's not that student's mistake then it's just another restatement of the rule. 

Hang on a minute... let's get this straight.  Delayed feedback isn't correction at all?!?  Not on a personal level.  On a technicality, yes, it is correction, but on an emotional, personal level, it's not.  Or at least not always.

So either correct in time to make a difference, or else find a way to teach that avoids errors in the first place.  (And that's not necessarily as hard as it sounds.)

16 June 2011

Learning from mistakes...?

I've heard it said many times that the best way to learn a language is to make mistakes and be corrected, because this correction somehow "personalises" the learning.  But to me, this is a logical absurdity.

Here's an example from my personal experience.  In Spanish, there is a special word hay that is equivalent to the English there is.  You therefore do not translate there is verbatim (which would give you *allí está).  In Spanish, they also have a word "demás" which is used for other(s), meaning the rest of a group (not other as in different).

Now I often mistranslate the others (the rest of the guys) as *los otros, but I never mistranslate there is as *allí está.   This means I can say hay correctly despite never being corrected and I keep getting los demás wrong despite fairly frequent correction, and conceptually one is no more difficult than the other.

This is only one example, but in general when someone corrects my Spanish, it's for one of a closed set of mistakes that I make all the time.  Being corrected seems to have absolutely no direct effect on my errors.

The only effect is when I subsequently choose to work consciously to eradicate that mistake.  Or perhaps more accurately, when I consciously work to learn the correct form, because more often than not, an error isn't the result of learning something wrong, but actually an indication that you haven't learnt it at all.  I get hay right because I learned it early on, I get los demás wrong because I never really learned it, and even now I'm only "aware of existence" -- I still don't feel I've learned it.

This isn't to say that errors and correction are valueless, not at all.  Corrections have no special ability to make language stick, but they at least indicate a gap in your knowledge and they often give you a starting point for filling that gap, so you certainly should listen to and take note of any corrections you're given.  What you shouldn't do is ascribe magic powers to corrections and believe that they are a substitute for other ways of learning -- this will only slow down your progress while making conversations in your target language far less enjoyable for both parties.

Why is this idea so persistent?

There is a small set of mistakes that people only make once.  For example, when a Spanish learner tries to say she's tired (cansada) but instead says he's married (casada), it is an instantly memorable situation and unlikely to happen again.  Of course it's a situation that's quite embarrassing, which might be compounded if she now mistakenly says she's pregnant (embarazada).  And she'll never do that again.  Similarly a Spanish speaker suffering a cold is unlikely to forget that being constipated is not the same as having a bunged-up nose (constipado in Spanish).

So these mistakes certainly do lead to better recall of the correct form, but this is not because of how correction works as a generally applicable learning strategy, but rather a consequence of the vocabulary in question.  Saying translación (an archaic variation of translación - movement/transfer)instead of traducción (translation) doesn't have the same comedic value (and in fact isn't likely to obscure the meaning in context) so doesn't have the same potential to stick.

Most often it is these extreme cases, these outliers, that are used to convince us of the efficacy of the technique, but don't be fooled: learning the correct form from the word go is far more effective than making it up as you go along and picking up a catalogue of corrections.

11 June 2011

Link drop: English Next by David Graddol

In 2006 the British Council released a book called English Next by leading academic David Graddol, discussing the future of English as a global language.  You can download it free as PDF from the British Council website, and I'll be putting it on my little ebook reader for a leisurely read at a later date.

I'm not sure I'll agree with it, though.  While I agree that the English used in business meetings the world over isn't quite the language I speak, it's still not standardised, and it's pretty hard to imagine it ever becoming standardised with such a disparate discourse community.  Popular culture will probably still mostly be filtered through one of the major native-speaking populations (mostly Hollywood), and we're always going to need some model to teach to...
Good news! Fossilised errors don't exist!

It has been claimed that errors that are made frequently enough "fossilise" -- that is to say that they "harden" and become difficult to fix.  This, I feel, is overstating the case.  It's certainly easier to learn something correct to begin with than to have to "unlearn" it later in order to learn the correct form, but even then, it may be less of a big deal than people think.

The evidence

I learned French at high school from first year, and took direct entry into 3rd-year Italian as an additional language when I got the chance.  I learned Italian quicker than French.  Years later, I picked up Spanish, and learned it quicker than Italian.   More recently still, I picked up Catalan... at lightning speed.

Well, that's to be expected, right?  They are closely related languages after all.

But wait... if they are really similar, then one could describe one language in terms of another language and a set of differences.  And if you think about it, an "error" is no different from a "difference" in cognitive terms -- the only distinction is that an error is a difference that isn't shared with a whole linguistic group.

So if fossilised errors really were such a big thing, wouldn't it have been harder for me to learn Spanish after Italian, rather than easier?

And this even holds as we get to languages increasingly distant from each other, because all we're doing is increasing the number of differences, which fossilised error theory claims would make things difficult.

Taken to its logical conclusion, fossilised error theory would make adult language learning an impossible task, because every language point we learn can be considered at attempt to overcome a fossilised language pattern -- ie the equivalent language point in the native language.

The paradox propounded by promoters of fossilised errors

The idea of a fossilised error is used as a warning against attempting to say things you don't know how to.  This is pretty logical.  But the idea of fossilised errors is particularly popular among the learn-by-listening crowd.  Take the site Antimoon, and what they call "myths" about language learning:
Myth #2: "The best way to learn a foreign language is to speak it"
Myth #3: "It is OK to make mistakes"
Myth #4: "As a beginner, you're bound to make a lot of mistakes"
Basically, they reckon that if you make lots of mistakes, they will fossilise and you will learn badly.  So you should listen to and read lots of examples so that you know it well before you attempt to say it.

But that's an inconsistent argument.  How can it be that we learn mistakes by speaking and learn correct language by listening?  Internally, the brain treats "correct language" and "errors" in the same way -- they're both just language forms.

So if it's the speaking that teaches us our errors, surely it's also the speaking that teaches us our correct language too?  I mean if speaking does fossilise language, surely it's to our advantage to use that to fossilise good language?


It's certainly a good idea to learn things properly from the word go, because it's easier.  Languages are internally more consistent, logical and systematic than many people give them credit for, and the real danger is that errors may distort the overall picture of the language, but they are never fatal and incurable.

It's better to avoid errors, but don't start distinguishing between "fresh" and "fossilised" errors and only attack the "fresh" ones.  Do not give up, because... well, it's just lazy.  If you start using "fossilisation" as an excuse, you'll find yourself making excuses for all your errors and you'll never really get as good at the language as you would like.

05 June 2011

Why I chose to study grammar

No matter what language you're learning, and no matter how complicated its grammar seems to you, one thing holds true for any human language you might study:

There is hardly any grammar.

How so?  Go into a bookshop or library and compare the size of the biggest grammar book with the biggest dictionary.  And don't forget that big dictionaries are printed on thinner paperstock than grammar books.

Juan Kattan Ibarra's Modern Spanish Grammar has 472 pages, and is pretty comprehensive.
Collins' unabriged Spanish dictionary has a whopping 2208 pages, in a smaller typeface than the grammar book and with a printed area approximately equal to two pages of the grammar book, and formatted to reduce white space to an absolute minimum.  In terms of raw text, a comprehensive dictionary is about 20 times as big as a good grammar book.

On top of that, each grammar point in a grammar book needs a couple of pages of explanation and multiple examples, where a word gets a couple of inches in each half of the dictionary.

Really, there's loads of words in any language, and hardly any grammar.

So why not get the grammar early on?  It's quick and it is universally useful.  Very few people can pass a single day without using the majority of the verb tenses and noun cases available in their native language.

Vocabulary is a different matter.  When did I last say "robot"?  I can't remember.  "Lamb"? Roughly four weeks ago.  "House"?  About 2 weeks ago.

So if I study vocabulary, I not only have an almost never-ending task (the dictionary I mentioned above has 315,000 references), but I also find myself unable to remember words because I don't use them enough.
But if I study grammar, I can cover all the basics really quickly, and those basics can be used every single time I have a conversation, and they will stick.

The best part, though, is that once you know grammar, learning words is easier, because you can use them and understand them in various natural contexts, because grammar can change both the form and meaning of words.

Right now, I'm mapping out the grammar of Polish in order to teach it to myself and a friend, and when I'm done, I expect to know less than 50 words.  But I can learn more words later.