30 January 2012

Meaningful vs rote, discovery vs reception

Ausubel takes great pains to point out that many teachers believe all discovery learning is inherently meaningful, and that all reception learning is inherently rote.

I wrote once before about the nonsensical "discovery learning" we were asked to do in science at high school: boiling a beaker to determine the boiling point of water.  This was an absolute waste of time, and it was pure rote learning -- we determined that it was less than a hundred degrees, then the teacher told is it was 100 degrees.  But this is rote -- although we allegedly "discovered" the knowledge, the simple act of setting up the apparatus did not provide a meaningful framework in which to understand the data.  The act of boiling did not reveal anything new.

However, reception learning gives us a very memorable framework.

How do you measure heat?  What is your standard?  Well, we all know what ice feels like.  We all boil water.  So we already know about that.  Which is why some Swedish guy decided that it would make sense to use the boiling point and freezing point of water as the reference points on a scale.  Now, you should know before it comes to boiling that water freezes at zero -- now we know that it's no accident.  But what about boiling?  Well, how do divide up a metre?  Correct.  100 Centimeters.  So water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.  (He could have made it 1000, but that would have been confusing as his name starts with C, and millimetres start with M.  OK, so he probably wasn't vain enough to think this way, but as we associate C with hundreds, it's a meaningful association, even if accidental.)

So now we have two useful points of reference, and all within a meaningful and useful framework.  Heck, you could even throw in Celsius's first name (Anders) if you wanted to, and you could talk about body temperature too, and all this would be taught and learned in less than the time it takes to boil a beaker of water on a bunsen burner.

No demonstration is needed, because the student has all the concepts required - I don't need to see boiling water to understand the concept of "boiling", nor do I need to see a block of ice to understand the concept of "freezing".
OK, so I've wandered off the language track a bit with that, but I think it's an important point to make, because it shows that a known abstract concept can be meaningful.

The concept of zero is evoked by talking about ice.  The concept of that temperature is evoked by that word "ice".  The word itself evokes the concept better than any demonstration.  As language teachers, we can use that... as long as we don't fear the "translation bogeyman"....

24 January 2012

The nature of electronic communications

Electronic communication has changed human interaction in some very obvious ways - email seems to take the best of mail and phone calls and merge them into one, for example.  However, with the increased ease in communication, we're communicating a lot more, both in terms of number of messages passed and the patterns of these messages.  In times gone by (before I entered the workforce), your main source of message from outside your team was the office post trolley.

Once or twice a day, your messages would be delivered, and you would dedicate a chunk of time to prioritising, reading and replying.  But now those messages appear in your inboxes throughout the day, interrupting what we're doing and making us feel guilty if we don't reply immediately.

The result is that we train ourselves to deal with communication quickly, and we devote little concentration to each individual message.

In the corporate world, there's a working rule: if you need the answer to a question, make it the only question in an email.  All the evidence shows that people read emails up until the first actionable point and deal with that -- your first question should always get answered, but your second probably won't.  We still talk about the positivity/negativity sandwich -- that old idea of putting the negative feedback between two positive things, so that it doesn't demoralise or antagonise the recipient unnecesarily.

But the observations from email are clear: the first part of the message is the only thing the recipient is guaranteed to read, so we have to go straight to the negative.

The problem here, though, is the terminology.  In a performance review, "positive" is good and "negative" is bad.  That's fine.  But outside of a formally structured environment, "positive" really means "agreement" and "negative" means "disagreement".

If you look at web forums, you'll find that you can categorise many of them into two categories: "friendly" and "robust debate".  Even if the forum in particular can't be categorised this way, the users will be split across the two camps.

One of the characteristics of the "friendly" camp is the positive/negative sandwich.  Everyone prides themselves on supporting people, even when they disagree with them.  But look a little closer and you'll see that everyone starts missing the disagreements, because they're hidden in the middle of the message.  With everyone discussing why they agree, there's no scope to resolve the disagreements -- the disagreements aren't even recognised.  The two or more parties leave the discussion with exactly the same views as they entered it.

The "robust debate" camp eschews the politesse and goes straight to the disagreements.  You get genuine debate and you come out of it changed -- even if your personal opinion remains the same, you have a much clearer idea of the questions involved.  It's really only once you have these questions in your head that you can start to notice that sometimes your wrong.

And that's why I'll always be in the "robust debate" camp.  There's been plenty of debates which I've left convinced I'm right, but months or even years later, it has dawned on me that I'm wrong.  Knowledge isn't just about what you believe to be true, you need to know about what you believe to be false, or you will never be able to honestly evaluate your beliefs.

So if I seem short with you on your blog or forum, it's not an attack on you or anyone else, it's because I want to expand my knowledge.  It shows I've got a genuine interest in what you're trying to say.

And if I'm nice to you online, feel free to feel patronised.

18 January 2012

New Year's Resolution

Looking back at the last couple of years, I've realised how little language I've learnt.  Other than Catalan (which I basically learned by piecing things together from languages I already knew) I've really kind of stagnated.

The reason for this is that I allowed myself to be extremely critical, and I've not been able to be satisfied with any materials.  My goal was to stop myself ignoring the flaws of most courses, and start noticing them so that I could avoid making the same mistakes myself as a teacher.

Well, as I'm on holiday in Wales, I figured I should get my head down, stop moaning, and just learn some Welsh, even if the materials I've got aren't really very good.  And bouyed up by that, I also started trying to brute-force my way through Basque.  And so far, it seems to be working.  I'm getting through the material, and I'm learning stuff.

So I'm going to try to keep in mind everything I learned over several years of being hyper-critical, but I'm not going to let it discourage me from what I'm doing here and now.

In 2012 I will learn more languages.

In a fortnight's time, I'll be back at the college and studying Irish as an elective module.  I could take it easy and blag my way through the course -- I'm enough of a language geek to do that.  But instead I'm going to take it seriously, and I'm not only going to pass, I'm going to get a good mark, and I'm going to be able to really speak the language by the end of the semester.  This means I'm going to have to start watching TG4 again, too.

A fair amount of my TV viewing in 2011 was Spanish TV online.  (Some of it was actually quite good!)  I'm going to divert some of that time to Catalan TV, and I'm going to watch it fairly intensively.  I'll start by watching the first few episodes of a series or two closely, stopping and picking up my dictionary if I'm unsure of words, with the goal of being able to understand the later episodes without any problems or pauses.

Obviously I'm going to continue working on my Scottish Gaelic (as it's the main focus of my current studies) and I think I'll spend a bit more time with French internet radio too (all the French TV stations are pretty much closed to internet access overseas, so it has to be radio).

I'm also going to start working on my (currently very basic) German, seeing as there's a German conversation group at the college.

So the priorities for the first half of 2012 are (in order):
  1. Improve my grammatical accuracy in Scottish Gaelic.
  2. Learn Irish to a reasonable conversational level.
  3. Improve my Catalan, because I currently feel fraudulent speaking it.
  4. Maintain French and Spanish through internet TV, radio and news sites.
  5. Maintain some momentum with Welsh and Basque, if I can do so without affecting my studies.
Of course, none of those can be allowed to become an excuse for not doing any exercise -- I got a bit lazy last year, but mens sana in corpore sano as they say, or a healthy mind in a healthy body for anyone who thinks the use of Latin is more than a little pretentious.  I ran a race at the weekend, and I felt fantastic afterwards.  My thinking became so much clearer.

An hour spent outside without learning anything won't be "wasted", because it will improve the quality and efficiency of my learning.


I've just been banned from one of my favourite websites -- hooray!  This means I'll waste far less time on the internet and be able to devote more time to learning.

Thank you, admins!

15 January 2012

The importance of context

So I've been living on an island for a while, and my contact with languages has been limited.  I spend most of my time speaking Gaelic and English, and sometimes a few words of Polish (phrasebook stuff -- I keep promising myself I'll learn the language properly, but I haven't yet).  I do still try to keep up with Spanish TV, and I sometimes listen to some French radio.

But I came back to the Lowlands for Christmas feeling pretty rusty in several languages.  The Spanish seemed to come back OK, but when I tried to speak to a Valencian guy, Pau, I just couldn't spit out the Catalan -- it just wouldn't work.

So anyway, I happened to be over in Edinburgh yesterday, and as it happened there was a meeting of the Catalan "Casal" to welcome the new committee, so I stuck around and went to it, dreading the act of trying to speak Catalan, but when I got there, it was really no problem.  OK, so a couple of times I threw in an accidental word of Spanish or French, and sometimes I ran out of Catalan, but for the most part I was OK.  People were speaking to me at a natural pace and I was following it.

The problem I had speaking to Pau was a matter of habit, of association.  I've spoken to him in Catalan on several occassions, but mostly I speak to him in Spanish or English.  Pau was not associated with a Catalan "context".  But the members of the Casal are explicitly and inextricably tied to Catalan in my head.  I've not met many of them previously, and I've not met any of them often, but when I'm there, I'm there in order to speak Catalan, and my brain's happy with that.

Up until someone asks me about daily life up on Skye, when even the simplest words start to get confused -- I couldn't even say "to go" in Catalan while thinking about the college, because the context held such a strong association with Gaelic.

This isn't my first experience of the context-sensitivity of language.

I started learning Spanish and Gaelic more-or-less simultaneously, and I did find it very difficult to talk about the Highlands and Islands in Spanish, and I found it difficult talking about my holidays in Spain in Gaelic.  Every time I thought about the Highlands, I thought of Gaelic, and every time I thought about Spain, I thought about Spanish.

The only way round this was to practice.  I can now talk about Spain in Gaelic, and the islands in Spanish.  Victory!

But let's go back to Pau.

The association of person with language is very strong -- it's very difficult to change the habitual language of conversation with any particular individual.  So sometimes you have to make a firm choice to speak a particular language with a particular person, or you'll find yourself speaking another one.

This is also the reason most people find it difficult to learn their husband/wife/partner's language -- they have an established relationship associated with a particular language.

10 January 2012

What do you know?

"If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly."

This quote was taken from a book by David P. Ausubel, one of the most influential figures in educational psychology.  It was used in his book Educational Psychology: a cognitive view, where it came directly after the dedication, and before the preface.  It is the first thing the reader will see in the book, and this is by design, because this is the most important principle that every reader should have in mind while reading the book.

To many, this may seem trivially obvious, and something that every teacher does.  After all, you couldn't teach someone to do ski jumping if they haven't learnt to ski downhill already.  But there's actually more to it than that, and the subtlety isn't in the words used in the quote, it's also about the words that he left out: words such as "subject".  This is crucial.  If he had set "what the learner already knows about the subject", then it would include the possibility of a student in a state of zero knowledge, but as it stands it assumes that there is no-one who enters the classroom without a considerable amount of pre-learned knowledge.

The error made by many teachers is to attempt to compartmentalise knowledge, and the subsequent belief that such "zero states" exist, and this is particularly prevalent in the language classroom.

But we all have different levels of knowledge.

A Spanish person knows what definite and indefinite articles are, although his native concept doesn't quite match the usage in English.  A Polish person has no concept of articles whatsoever.  These are very easy indeed to ascertain, yet we still don't tend to teach them according to these.  The profession has in general bought into the myth of a "Universal order of acquisition" and the myth that there's "no such thing as native language interference", and there are hundreds of language courses on the market that pay absolutely no heed to the learner's native language.  In fact, Cambridge themselves produce a series of books on "common errors" from their exams, all completely in English and all sold worldwide with no attempt to tailor the teaching to the specific problems that speakers of certain languages have.

What's to blame here is the obsessive fear of "translation" in the industry.  Avoiding translation has become associated with avoiding any sort of acknowledgement of the existence of the native language.  We are expected to turn it off -- all that knowledge, and we're not supposed to use it.

But we do use it.  As I've no doubt said here on many occassions, when we are taught "hello, my name is ... , how are you?" in any beginner's class, we are learning concepts that only exist in language, so we are going back to our native language.  We do it in the classroom; we rely on it in the classroom.  But we pretend we're not doing it, which prevents us developing more advanced strategies based on the principle of native language as "what we know".  We limit ourselves through the lie.  Once we, as an industry, accept the truth, we can start to improve.

05 January 2012

Start small, or start big?

So, you're moving to a bilingual area, are you?  So which language do you want to learn first?  Well, in most cases, one of the languages will be clearly dominant. In the regions of Spain, that means Spanish. In France, French. In Italy, Italian. So it would make sense to learn the dominant one first, right?

...maybe, but just think about it for a moment.  The other day, I was talking about the dangers of falling into the "good enough" trap.  When it comes to bilingual areas, the same trap exists, because the dominant language will always be "good enough", making the effort required to learn the minority language seem not worth the bother.  And if you're having to live, you're always going to end up falling back on the dominant language in order to make yourself understood, meaning you're not going to get the opportunities to practice the minority language if you already know the majority one.

So if you're genuine about learning the local language, it's probably best not to learn the dominant language beforehand.  You'll succeed better if your minority language is stronger, so that you only resort to the dominant language when the minority language is unavailable.