24 August 2011

Mother tongue is mother's milk

I was reading an article on the role of Haitian Creole in the Haitian education system on the BBC news website, and it saddened me a little to see the same old debate that I've seen a thousand times before, and with to see from the comments that people still don't understand it.

The article proposes nothing radical.  The proposal is to teach Haitian children to read and write in their own language.  In academic terminology, this is "mother tongue initial literacy", and it has been proven time and again to be one of the most effective strategies.

In many, many countries, the establishment has imposed the dominant official language on the education system.  Generally the speakers of local or minority languages do badly at school.  Traditionally, this was dismissed by claiming that whichever groups was inferior -- remember that not that long ago, many serious scientists tried to define taxonomies of human "races" showing the "deficiencies" of anyone who wasn't in their own demographic.  Heck, people in my part of the world used to think having dark skin made someone an animal, and a comodity to be traded for a handful of shiny metal discs!

Thankfully, most intelligent people now accept that intelligence is universal.  The apparent differences in intelligence between dark-skinned Africans and light-skinned Europeans are down to the level of development of the education system.

Yet people are still willing to believe that people are in a particular social class because of their intelligence, and are willing to put down failures in education to being "working class".  This is inconsistence, because if hereditary differences in intelligence are such a big factor in academic success, surely we have to believe that race is a factor...?

Please listen to the experts!

It's widely established in academic circles that the language of the classroom is a critical factor in success.  Being criticised for being "wrong" inhibits children's expressiveness and willingness to contribute.  If children don't engage with the class, they don't learn.  It's as simple as that.

But people just aren't willing to accept the expert opinion.  One of the main flaws of democracy is that experts are outnumbered by ill-informed individuals.  As soon as you suggest accepting "how people speak" as a classroom model of language, you're greeted with howls of protest.

If you're talking anout regional varieties of a language, you're accused of "dumbing down", and the other person will rarely see the snobbery inherent in calling someone else's way of speech "dumb".  They won't accept that the suggestion comes from rigorous studies, but tell you you're just being a wishy-washy liberal.

The argument is slightly different when you're talking about teaching in a completely different language, although again you're accused of being a wishy-washy liberal.  We're asked to believe that eaching someone in their own language is robbing them of the opportunity to learn another, more useful language.  By that token, all schools in the world should be teaching English.

But it's not a question of either/or!  You can teach both!

Mother tongue as gateway language

I mentioned "initial literacy" earlier.  When you learn to read in your native language, you use all your knowledge of the spoken language to help you decode the symbols on the page.  Children can often "self-correct" when reading, thanks to their knowledge of sentence structure.  The principles of reading can be generalised across languages, so learning to read another language later is actually fairly easy.

But imagine that your first encounter with writing is in a language you don't speak yet.  You have no concept of how the words tie together and you're trying to sound out stuff off the page.  In the case of Haiti, this is a right pain -- in Haitian, like most creoles, verbs don't conjugate for person (consider a Jamaican Creole speaker saying "me go", "he go", "they go"), whereas in French they do.  Worse! - in French several conjugations are written differently but pronounced the same, and the ending -ent for verbs is silent while the ending -ent for adjectives (eg different) is pronounced.

Initial literacy in a foreign language is very, very hard, and a student will probably never master it.  People do better at the foreign language if the task complexity is reduced and they're not trying to learn two distinct skills at the same time.  The answer is...

The bilingual school

As I said earlier, it's not a question of either/or.  The best model of education, according to the experts, is a truly bilingual school.  Give initial literacy in the mother tongue, while teaching the new language in the spoken mode.  After three years of literacy schooling in one language, you can very quickly teach children literacy in any and all other languages that they speak.  It's an established pattern, and as far as I can see, that's pretty much what's being proposed in Haiti.

But I went to an international school, and I'm fluent in [insert language here]

One or two of the comments on the BBC site were of the form above.  But the International Schools are far from the norm.  On the whole they are expensive elitist schools that pay a lot of money to get well-qualified and very capable native-speakers to travel half-way around the world to teach in them.

This is very different from the situation in Haiti where the teachers themselves are likely to be underpaid native creole-speakers teaching in non-native French.  Believe me, this rarely results in fluency.  4 years ago, I was teaching English to teenagers who had been learning English all their school lives from Spanish speakers.  Their English was, well, extremely foreign.  In fact, you could even describe it as a Spanish-English creole...

Language revitalisation in primary schooling

Of course, Haiti is a place where the local language is strong.  What happens where the language is weaker?

This is where I shake my head in disgust.  There is a growing demand in minority language communities for immersive education, even where the minority language is not spoken in the home.  The only way Scottish Gaelic is offered in primary schools is with the first three years exclusively through the medium of Gaelic, which means for most children, initial literacy is in a non-native language.  Ask what's wrong with the internationally-recognised bilingual model, and you'll be told it's not suitable for an endangered language (everyone likes to feel different, after all).

People are also quick to point out that the Scottish model is based on the most popular option in the Basque Country in Spain.  But I'd like to point out that the model is popular with the parents, and parents are not experts.

In particular, it's impossible to have a debate with most parents about the effectiveness of the teaching their own children received, because they're already personally invested in the idea that they've given their children the best education possible, and they are averse to even considering that they may have been wrong.  You can't use examples of their own children's faults, or they're going to take personal offence, and if you take examples from elsewhere (eg a TV documentary on a Gaelic school) you'll just be told that bad Gaelic's better than no Gaelic at all.

Except that the bilingual model offers the opportunity to learn better Gaelic -- many of the mistakes that kids make in Gaelic-medium classes are caused because the effort of initial literacy distracts them from grammatical accuracy.

But sadly, in education, decisions are made by parents, and most parents really have no idea what education is all about....

19 August 2011

Use of liguistic terminology

(I've been busy this week and didn't have time to finish the promised article on phonology, so here's something that's been sitting in my drafts folder for a while.  It's quite relevant now as I've been using a fair bit of jargon of late.)
I've taken a bit of flak on a number of forums for my use of linguistics jargon (particularly when I get it wrong!), so I want to clarify something here: I use jargon to describe what concepts are to be taught (and sometimes how to teach them), but I do not advocate use of jargon itself with beginners, unless they are students of linguistics anyway.

The international standardisation on Latin terminology is quite useful in that I'm now able to discuss linguistics in several different languages.  It really impresses people that I can teach them grammar in their own language, but it's little more than a parlour trick.  A few regular sound changes and the appropriate suffix and your subjunctive is subjonctif or subjuntivo.  It doesn't generally get any harder than the Italians and Germans who call in a congiuntivo and Konjunktiv respectively.

Having studied a lot of grammar, I'm not only comfortable with plain conjunctions, but also with coordinating vs subordinating conjunctions so the terminology is useful to me.  (Subordinating conjunctions, see?)

The labels we give language aren't always meaning to the new learner, so don't really help.  But in the original Greek and Latin, they were designed specifically to help.  Take, for example, Latin's dative case.  "Dative" is a Latin adjective (oh look, adjective, another meaningless term!) derived from the word for "giving", and describes one of the fundamental uses of the case: indirect object as recipient or beneficiary.

"Accusative", on the other hand, comes from Greek, where it originally could mean either "for something caused" or "for the accused" (at least according to wikipedia).  The Romans picked one translation, and really chose the less useful one, "for the accused", which misleads people even to this day.  The accusitive is most commonly used for the direct object, and most "speaking" words use an indirect object for the person you're speaking to, yet the word "accusative" seems to suggest it's to do with speaking.

But not all languages use the Latin system.  Basque is a highly inflected language, and their cases are simply named by inflecting the word "who?"  Basque can do this very neatly due to it's nature, and while it isn't as neat in English, you could still name cases similarly.  Have a look at these and tell me that they are descriptive mnemonic labels:

who-did | who-done-to | where-to | where-from | who-to | who-from

True, such a description could become quite long or complex for certain languages, but it's still better than trying to remember things by such meaningless terms as alative and ablative (two words which are very easily confused -- they fit all three of my categories of confusion: similar form, similar usage, and frequent co-occurrence.

The same goes for sounds.  If you want to talk about a "bilabial unvoiced aspirated plosive", just say P.  If you trying to get a student to pronounce a "bilabial unvoiced unaspirated plosive", you just need to get the student to pronounce an "unaspirated P".  However, you don't need the word "unaspirated", but you do need the concept of aspiration.  Call it the "puffiness" of a sound, call it the "breathiness"... what you call it isn't important as long as you teach the difference.  If you want, you can even call it "aspiration", but there's no point introducing the term until after the student is relatively comfortable with the concept.  In fact, it is probably counter-productive to introduce the term "aspiration" too early, because it means something completely unrelated in colloquial English (related to goals and ambition).  Hearing a word automatically evokes its meaning, so the old meaning will interfere with learning the new concept.

So if I use terminology in this blog, it isn't my personal seal of approval on its use -- it's a concession to its current use in expert circles.  I don't think it's of practical use for beginners.

A concession to reality

On the other hand, if your students are going to be going out into the big wide world without you and are going to be relying on reference books to continue, then yes, they're going to need the terminology.  So teach it.  But look again at what I wrote about "aspiration", because again you really need to teach the concept before the word.  A word is a label for a meaningful "thing", whether a physical item, a phenomenon or just an abstract concept.  How are we supposed to learn words if we don't yet know what that "thing" is?  A word learned without meaning goes against the whole idea of language.  It's a disordered state, and once the student is in a disordered state, the teacher has lost control.

A massive change of opinion

Isn't it interesting how quickly you can change your own opinion by reasoning something through?  In the course of writing this post my own view of linguistic terminology has gone from "vehemently against" to "neutral-to-slightly-for".  I was always against it as I felt it was meaningless to the learner, but in talking about teaching the term after the concept, I realised that taught that way, it isn't meaningless at all.  I'd still prefer a more intuitive terminology, but maybe the old stuff isn't as big a problem as I thought....

14 August 2011

Phonology -- whats and hows part II

Last time, I wrote about phonology and the necessity of physically training the tongue to produce new sounds.  However, as I pointed out, not all new phonemes require new physical skills.  Can we pick these up just by listening?  I think not, and I'd be happy to tell you how.

Meaningful sounds

The problem that I'm always trying to stress is that the brain is only interested in meaningful input -- if something has no meaning, the brain isn't interested.

This leads to some striking (and often unexpected) results. The BBC documentary Horizon showed this with colours in the programme Do You See What I See? (UK only). In the program, you see several Himba tribespeople trying to pick out different colours on a computer screen. The show two tests -- one with a very slightly different green, which is difficult for the viewer and fairly easy for the Himba, and one with an obviously different colour... well, obvious to us, but not to the Himba.

The distinctions that the Himba find easy are ones that they have names for, and the distinctions we find easy are the ones we have names for. It would appear that the act of naming something focuses the consciousness on it, so if you tell me that a French P has a puffy sound, I'm more likely to notice it, because I know what I'm looking for.

Consider the old face/vase optical illusion: the first time you look at it, you see either the faces or the vase, and your brain fixates on that single image. If someone else tells you about the other picture, you struggle to see it at first, because your brain already sees something meaningful in the image. But once your brain finally sees the second image, you can change your mental focus between the two meaningful images at will.

But that example doesn't say much about subjectivity and objectivity, because the two objects are fairly arbitrary. A better example would be one where you can predict what the viewer will see based on simple demographic information. Maybe adults vs children, like this painting, where adults immediately see a particular image and children see a different one. (View the picture, and then read the explanation on the page.  I saw the second picture without reading the explanation, but only because I could understand the French label on the bottle....)

So what is meaningful to us is normally a matter of past experience and expectation. When it comes to meaningful sounds, past experience and expectation all comes from the languages we already speak.  So it would follow that we need to consciously draw the student's attention to the differences, or they're just not likely to notice them.

What do we need to draw their attention to?

The phoneme is not the minimal unit of sound

The phoneme is often mistakenly considered the atomic unit of pronunciation in a language, but most languages build their phonemes out of a series of distinctions, in a fairly systematic manner.

In English, for example, we have voicing of consonants as a distinction, and it occurs pretty much wherever it can.  Voicing is the difference between P & B (at the front of the mouth), T & D (in the middle) and C/K & G (at the back).  We also have nasalisation, which takes those three pairs and gives us the sounds M, N and NG.  It's a stable and systematic structure.

There are other languages (EG Gaelic) where the distinction between P & B is not one of voicing, but aspiration.  The same distinction carries through for P&B and T&D.  In fact, it's hard to find any language that has a voicing distinction on one of those pairs, but makes a distinction in aspiration -- in general, the same distinction carries through.

Polish gives a great example of how regular these consonant distinctions can be.
In the diagram above, you can see a clear structure uniting 12 sounds in 3 distinctions (two 2-way distinctions, one 3-way distinction).  It's almost entirely systematic -- this cannot happen by accident, so we must assume that the native speaker's internal model of language acts on the level of these distinctions.

For this reason, I believe that it is not enough to draw the learner's attention to an individual phoneme, but that we must teach them the individual distinctions.

This doesn't have to be done in a dry "linguistics" way, though.

Teach once, then repeat

When teaching a phonemic distinction like voicing or aspiration, you don't need to start with the idea in the abstract.  Instead, you can start by teaching the pronunciation of one letter, then its contrast (eg P first, then B).  In teaching the contrast, you pick a word that describes it ("puffiness" or "breathiness" is more meaningful than "aspiration") or you just describe it.  Then when you move onto the next pair (T,D), you can refer back to the first pair, because it's the same difference.  And once you get to the final pair (K,G), it'll be very easy to do.

Of course, this means that you have to restrict the number of phonemes to start off with, but there are many people who are theoretically in favour of gradually introducing phonemes -- it's just the order of material that messes them up.

Teaching one thing at a time

Most teachers like to start with seemingly useful words and phrases.  Hello, how are you, goodbye -- that sort of thing.  This takes away the teacher's control over the phonemes -- teachers don't choose them, they just use whichever ones pop up.

Worse, quite a lot of teachers will introduce numbers early on, and in many languages you'll have encountered half of the phonemes of the language by the time you reach ten.  (This probably isn't an accident -- ambiguity in numbers would be a problem, so they naturally evolve to be fairly different.)

One commercial course points out this problem, and suggests that the way round it is to teach numbers one at a time, in a way which supports a progressive increase in the number of phonemes.  The example they used was 10 and 100 in Spanish: diez and cien.  These two words share all but one phoneme (C before I or E is pronounced the same as Z in Spanish), so if you teach one then the other, you're only introducing one phoneme the second time round. 
(I think I remember which course this was, but the blurb on the website no longer mentions this, so I'm not going to link to it.)

And after all, why should we teach numbers in numerical order in a second language?  When teaching children numbers in their first language, we're teaching both the concepts and the words, but in a second language you're only teaching the words, because they've already got the appropriate concepts to peg them to.  We can now selectively use any of those pegs we want to, in any order we want to.

Putting it together

So if we teach a couple of consonants well, and then we introduce new consonants one by one, we can use the earlier consonants as an anchor to show repeated distinctions.  It doesn't matter whether the student can consciously remember what those distinctions were -- a native speaker normally wouldn't have a clue.  What matters is that the model the student uses automatically for pronunciation implicitly respects the consistent rules of the language.

This will not happen if the student is left to listen, because one misheard phoneme can threaten the integrity of the entire structure -- pull any one of the sounds out of my neat little Polish diagram and dump it somewhere else and the whole thing will collapse.

Next time

Previously I spoke about sounds as new muscle movements, today I spoke about simply the meaning of sounds.  Next time, I'd like to demonstrate how almost all new sounds really are new physical movements anyway.

10 August 2011

Phonology -- whats and hows

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing the importance of phonology, trying to demonstrate why it should be consciously dealt with in the teaching/learning process, but I took the decision not to include any comments on how to teach it in that article.  Basically, I didn't want to give anyone any grounds to reject my argument out-of-hand.  In this post, I'd like to cover how I believe it should be taught, but remember that this, the how, doesn't affect my argument on the importance, the why.  Reject my methods if you want, but please don't reject phonology as an area of study.

So, what did I establish in the previous post?
  • Incorrect pronunciation of an individual phoneme leads to problems in pronouncing clusters with that phoneme.
  • Problems in pronouncing certain sequences of phonemes lead to grammatical errors.
  • That vocabulary is harder to learn when you're not familiar with the rules of pronunciation in a language.
  • That not understanding target language phoneme boundaries makes it hard to understand native speakers.
  • That sounds that the learner drops in speech are often matched by a dropping of the corresponding letters in writing.
These are things that I have observed and do not see as particularly controversial.  And yet, my conclusion that pronunciation requires active instruction is rejected by many teachers.  Accent, they say, will take care of itself.  And accent, they say, is a personal thing.  But we're not talking about accent.  Accent is something that is layered on top of phonology.  Phonology is like the basic letter forms in writing, accent is more like individual differences in handwriting.  At school we are taught initially to get the basic forms right, and over the years we develop our own personal "hand".

Can we learn pronunciation from listening?

Some even argue that we learn pronunciation from hearing (and they sometimes add "just like children").  However, as I tried to demonstrate in my recent post receptive skills as a reflective act, there is good reason to believe that we understand language by comparison to our own internal model of the language.  In the follow-up post, I gave a concrete example of mishearing a word on Italian radio, and how my flawed internal model was good enough to understand the message without perceiving every sound.

OK, so that's anecdotal and doesn't prove a general case, but ask yourself this: how many different accents can you understand in your own language?  And how many of those accents can you speak in?

So you can see that simple exposure hasn't given you extra accents.  As I said above, accent is not phonology.  But our brains have learned to ignore accental differences (to an extent) to enable us to understand the widest possible number of people around us.  So if our brain assumes a different phonology is just a different accent, it throws away all the information you're supposed to be learning from.

So I really don't believe it's possible to learn from "just listening", no matter how much you do.

Motherese and exaggeration

Here's the outcome of an interesting study (YouTube video).  It turns out that when we teach kids to speak, we don't expect them to learn from natural speech, but we exaggerate our phonemes, effectively making them "more real than real" or "whiter than white".  And if you think about it, isn't this what we do when speaking to foreigners or people with a very different accent from ours?

The point is that we have to make the differences clear and noticeable, so that one phoneme doesn't blend into another.

I would suggest that this points towards the right answer in language teaching to adults: if even children (who have no preconceptions of what a phoneme is) need extra emphasis to understand the difference between similar phonemes, then us adults (who are biased towards our native language's phonology) really could do with a bit of help.  The brain has to be told that this new information is useful, or it will throw it all away.

Exaggeration of pronunciation appears to help the listener notice the differences.

Learning pronunciation through pronouncing

However, we learn to dance by dancing, and we learn to drive by driving.  In both cases we can pick up a few hints and tips from watching, but we need a heck of a lot of practice.  Why shouldn't this be the case with language?

People are very quick to tell me that language is different from every other skill.  That is a valid opinion, but it is still only an opinion - no-one has ever presented anything to me that demonstrates it to be true, or even likely.  Right now, it's just a theory... and it's one I do not believe.

To me, pronunciation is a muscle skill.  Let's consider some of the extremes sounds that don't occur in English.

Take retroflex consonants.  Retro - backwards; flex - bend.  In retroflex consonants, your tongue bends backwards, and the tip goes behind the alveolar ridge.  This type of sound doesn't occur in English, so a monolingual English-speaker will probably never produce this sound in his life.  If you ask such a person to put their tongue into that position, they won't be able to -- their tongue just can't bend that way.

But then your average person couldn't do yoga postures on a first attempt either -- the yoga teacher will lead them through some simple postures and exercises to encourage the muscles to stretch and strengthen appropriately until they are capable of performing the required movements.

The brain doesn't prepare the muscles just because you've seen the movements; the body prepares the muscles once you've started doing the movements.  Your brain similarly cannot train the tongue as it's just another muscle, after all -- only the body can do that.

So clearly, there are certain sounds that must be taught consciously, or the learner won't physically be able to say it.  But obviously there are also sounds that the learner is physically capable of saying, but isn't in the habit of saying.

This post is starting to get a bit on the long side, so I'll come back to the question of this second category of sounds next time.

How I learned to pronounce retroflex consonants

I had a notion to learn a few words in various Indian languages a few years ago when I was working in IT support.  Our front-line helpdesk was in India and I wanted to try to build a better rapport with my coworkers.

One of the sources I used stated quite plainly that while languages like French and Spanish let you get away with "close enough" pronunciation (not entirely true...) with Hindi, you would simply not be understood if you spoke in an English-speaker's accent.  It described the retroflex articulation and what I did was to start doing a regime of "tongue stretches" -- as I walked to and from work, I would tap my tongue continually off the roof of my mouth, and move it slowly backwards and forwards, to create a sort of silent T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t or D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d.  Every day I could reach slightly further back, and in about a week and a half I was able to produce a convincingly Hindi-like retroflex for all of the various consonants (except R, cos that's really quite complicated). I was curious about how far I could go, and within another few days I'd got to the point where I could touch the tip of my tongue to my soft palate.

So certain sounds need to be learned physically, and it's something that can be done.  Next time, I'll start looking at sounds that are more a matter of habit, and showing that the boundary between "habit" and "ability" isn't always that clear.

04 August 2011

The wolf in the forest

"Be careful in the forest -- there are wolves in there."

"Nonsense.  I go through the forest every day and I have never been attacked."

As fallacies go, this one's pretty clear.  Something does not have to occur to everyone every time in order to be a danger.  Knowing that there's a wolf in the forest, the second traveller should alter his behaviour to minimise the risk.  Carry a weapon, sleep next to a fire, the usual stuff.

When it comes to language learning, though, people do tend to take the attitude of the second traveller. Point out any of the potential pitfalls in a language learning strategy, and the other person will usually accuse you of talking out of your hat, and point out that he learned OK that way, or that some of his students did.

But just as one man emerging safe and sound from the forest doesn't disprove the presence of wolves, the success of one or two language learners doesn't demonstrate a lack of potential pitfalls in the methodology they employed.

People tend to have a hard time accepting this, though.  I point out a pitfall, and they declare it isn't a problem.  "And I'm living proof."  When I try to point out the fallacy, I'm often accused of disrespecting their experience. No no no.  I respect and acknowledge their experience, but my point is that there is more in the world than one man can experience.  Our capacity for reason allows us to go beyond our experience, and we should take full advantage of that.  We should not limit ourselves to our own experience, and we certainly shouldn't limit others to it either.  We need to reconcile our experiences with the knowledge of others, and thereby remove the pitfalls and reduce the risks before giving advice to others.