14 February 2012

Meaningful vs rote: traps

Despite everything I've said so far, the term "meaningful" is quite dangerous in language.

Because, after all, from a certain point of view, all languages is arbitrary - That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet - but from another point of view, all language is meaningful.

So we need to recognise that the term "meaningful" has to relate to the relationship between the material and the learner and is not some inherent property of the material.

One of the biggest "meaningful" traps is the idea of word-pairs.  The most common word-pair would have to be the antonym (opposites).

So we teach "beautiful - ugly; tall - short; big - small".

The idea is that by linking the words, we're utilising the meaningful relationships between the words.  Ignoring the potential for confusion (discussed previously), teaching by antonyms fails to exploit the learners own meaningful framework.

If you have never encountered beautiful before, then it cannot help you learn the meaning of ugly.  So in the end, you're learning two things that are arbitrary to the learner -- you're teaching them by rote.  That the data is meaningful is irrelevant, because it is not meaningful to the learner.

Better then to teach one and then the other.  Previously learned vocabulary is part of the learner's framework that can be used to allow later meaningful learning.


Thrissel said...

I daresay it may even get counterproductive - with pairs of fairly similar antonyms like sìos/suas (down/up) or gràdh/gràin (love/hate) the learner will probably need to make more effort not to mix them up if encountered at the same time.

Nìall Beag said...

Yeah, you're quite right -- I still get my suas and sìos mixed up. It's a point I've discussed previously with other languages -- I linked to an older post about sources of confusion in vocabulary above, and suas and sìos inevitable fit 2 of my 3 categories of confusion:

form - they sound similar and look even more alike than they sound;
function - they are used in exactly the same way as each other;

By introducing them as a pair, we create the third category -- co-occurence (literally "occuring together").

I learned them together, and I'm suffering for it...

That said, suas and sìos are more similar than most antonym pairs, but all antonym pairs already have the risk of confusion by function, so adding confusion by co-occurence just makes it harder, instead of easier.