14 March 2012

Language and music

In David Crystal's book Language Death, he compares the memory skills of a traditional oral historian/storyteller to that of a musician who can play large works from memory:
Ask them [musicians] how they do it, and they will talk about developing wider perceptions of structural organisation, operating with different kinds of memory simultaneously, and downgrading matters of detail - 'The memory is in the fingers', as concert pianist Iwan Llewellyn Jones put it to me once.
I'm not a fantastic guitarist by any stretch of the imagination, but I recognise the sentiments expressed in the quote.  Even before I learnt a lot of theory, I had an intuitive feel for chord progressions and the like.

I learnt this from examples, and once I had, I found it easier to memorise new songs.

The relevance of this?  Well, what is grammar if it's not "structural organisation"?

When I started thinking about this, it was a bit of a troubling analogy.  Didn't I learn music before I understood the "structural organisation"?  Didn't I learn the "structural organisation" through simply practising the music?  Well yes, yes I did.

So why do I feel I should be studying actively the grammar of a language?  Why should language we any different from music?

I stopped and I thought about it for quite a while.  But the answer was pretty obvious, and once I spotted it I wondered how it could have taken me so long....

....I started playing musical instruments with the help of sheet music.  I played the same handful of tunes round and round and round and round for several weeks.  I simply could not do that with language -- it would drive me round the bend.  Repeat a paragraph over and over and over and over and over?  I think not.  But I could handle it in music, because the tune itself offered some small measure of motivation.  There's an intrinsic difference there.

But wait... doesn't that simply mean that we can tolerate inefficient teaching in music.  Maybe music could be better taught...?

8 comments:

Alasdair Maolchrìosd said...

The linguistic analogy would surely be learning poetry, lyrics or even maybe pieces of memorable oratory, drama or blas of? Then if you go on to study the grammar a lot of things will feel familiary and intuitively 'right'.
FWIW I think natural language is built more on a mess of interweaving analogies than on 'rules'. So what is the best way in for beginners? Like kids they can only grasp things that connect with the little they already understand, everything else is lost, goes over their heads. Which is fine if you have constant 24/7 input, as children do. I admit the idea of 'immersion' has always bothered me. Where I ask, are the bodies buried, those who drowned? 'Se ceist gu math chudromach a th'ann co-dhiù.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the first part got a bit mangled by the software ...

Nìall Beag said...

Certainly, after studying vast numbers of texts, certain things will feel intuitively correct. But that's a lot of study for little return, and in the meantime you can end up making a lot of false assumptions.

I agree that the "rules" of language are fairly fuzzy and often interfere with each other, but the deeper you look, the more and more you'll see that the fuzzy-looking "macro" rules are recombinations of the same underlying principles and "micro" rules.

Alasdair Maolchrìosd said...

I wonder how far the rules we devise when we write grammars are 'true' in the sense of reflecting the mental processes of a native/competent speaker, or whether they're just a useful descriptive framework imposed from the outside. But heavy philosophy aside, the practical problem is how to lead a beginner into a new language. The WAYK people seem to have stumbled over something important, though for the life of me I can't quite see what exactly it is, and for all the fun they have they appear to progress very slowly. Would love to get them in the same room as Finlay ... All these people with their patent systems seem to have a part of the answer, pity no one seems to be able to pull it all together.

Not so long ago I took a look at Galician, and although I don't really know either Spanish or Portuguese, I've dabbled enough in languages and with French and all the Latin-based words in English, I can make enough out of some texts to begin to follow them. That is there is a kernel of meaning right at the start that I can build out from. And it's like that with many main-stream european languages, they all have a lot in common. It's easy to forget just how much we already know and take for granted.

But try learning a completely unfamiliar language, Somali or Mìgmaq say, and you're in for a shock. It's just like running up against a brick wall. There is nothing familiar to lever your way in with. You're totally stumped. And that's probably how most beginners feel with e.g. the Celtic languages that we've been at home with for years and years, and so forget what it must have felt like.

I think the social aspect must be important at this stage. When you know too little to get any intellectual satisfaction from trying to 'decode' a page of text. Simply using basic language to communicate and form some kind of bond with other human beings is a powerful force. When I've learned new words etc. like that I can often recall the exact situation where it happened. And that I suppose is the obvious and probably the only way in for most learners.

With 'endangered' languages there's the added fact that it's rather pointless teaching people a language unless you can also create/maintain some kind of community of users. A language needs its own 'habitat'. Otherwise 'preserving' a language by teaching it in classes is equivalent to preserving a rare animal by keeping them in zoos.

Dé do bheachd?

Nìall Beag said...

"I wonder how far the rules we devise when we write grammars are 'true' in the sense of reflecting the mental processes of a native/competent speaker, or whether they're just a useful descriptive framework imposed from the outside. But heavy philosophy aside, the practical problem is how to lead a beginner into a new language."

I don't think that's really a matter of heavy philosophy, but the core of teaching.

If you're not teaching to a native grammar, and instead to an "imposed" grammar, you're not going to be able to support your students in building a native-like understanding in grammar.

Remember how I pointed out the link between auxiliary "do" and "any" in the Finnish discussion... this is something that most teachers aren't aware of and don't teach. But it must be how we understand it natively, and it's far easier to learn one thing in multiple forms than all those forms as "things".

This goes back to something I wrote in October about levels of irregularity.

For example, the French aller is only half-irregular because nous allons and vous avez are regular, the participles and past tenses are regular, and the future and conditional are irregular in stem only, but even that's stable.

In fact, the tendency of nous and vous forms to remain regular is fairly common across the French irregular verbs.

I can't believe that this isn't part of the internal grammar of the native speaker, so we should be ensuring that learners get that same structure, and I don't believe you can just assume people will generalise the rule from memorising verb tables....

Nìall Beag said...

"I think the social aspect must be important at this stage. When you know too little to get any intellectual satisfaction from trying to 'decode' a page of text. Simply using basic language to communicate and form some kind of bond with other human beings is a powerful force. When I've learned new words etc. like that I can often recall the exact situation where it happened. And that I suppose is the obvious and probably the only way in for most learners."

The logic's appealling, and I would have probably agreed with you if I hadn't learned Spanish (and subsequently revised Italian and Spanish and learned a bit of German) with the Michel Thomas audio courses.

While social interaction is the ultimate goal, the biggest barrier to social interaction is not being able to express yourself at a personal level. Any early focus on social interaction is going to necessarily focus on transactional language and simple social protocols. Michel Thomas instead focuses on grammar, particularly modal language, which gives you a remarkably flexible range of expression.

I'd done about 4 CD's worth of learning, and I was sitting in a London tube station with my sister kicking the air a couple of centimeters from my face, so I said "no lo haga" (don't do that [literally "don't do it"]). The Spanish speakers we were pretty taken aback.

So there was no "interaction" in the course, but in the end I became able to interact much more quickly after that course than any other beginners course I've studied has ever achieved. In fact, I was better able to communicate in Spanish after 8 CDs than I was able to communicate in Gaelic after a 1-week level 1 course at the SMO, or in Welsh after completing (and passing) a 30 point Open University introductory course, and both these courses were consciously constructed around social interaction.

I recently taught a short Spanish course to a few people up at the SMO, and it was all based on this idea that social interaction is naturally easy once you're able to build and understand complex, and often subtle, sentence constructions.

Once you've got the functional vocabulary and the structure down, lexical items just come to you so much more easily....

Alasdair Maolchrìosd said...

With regard to grammars, I think we may have been talking at cross purposes. I was suggesting that learners be not be encouraged to produce the same patterns as natives, in so far as this may be possible. I was really just wondering how far the a traditional grammar, with all it's neat tables of verbs or whatever reflects how the language is actually modeled in the mind of a speaker. It ignores for example the fact that some inflected forms (or phrases or whatever) are very much more common than others. I would guess a speaker uses these as starting points and builds the rarer forms from them by analogy. Indeed little used forms may be uncertain and suceptable to analogical remodeling. This might then suggest a teaching strategy, which is exactly the sort of thing you were suggesting. So I think we agree :-)

I don't have any experience of language teaching, and my experiences of classroom learning especially "School French" came close to putting me off languages for life. So I bow to your first hand knowledge in this field.

"Once you've got the functional vocabulary and the structure down, lexical items just come to you so much more easily...."

OK, you can go too far in any direction, like that man says. But the average student is not inspired by a list of disconnected sentences with no context, simply constructed to demonstrate this week's grammar point. Of course some people (many people?) go to classes week after week and work through such material as an amusement and an end in itself, and become what one Welsh source called "professional learners". Some people do this for years and years and still can barely put one word in front of another in a practical situation.

Am faca tu seo? :-) :-) but also :-(

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXrjouPxuAo

Nìall Beag said...

Well I've often said that grammar books are designed around paper, not the mind.

The standard paper representation of a verb isolates individual tense-aspect conbinations and lays them out in a two-dimensional table, person x number. But this hides things that are common and consistent across tenses.

For example, in Spanish "he/she/it does" is "hace". Familiar singular "you do" is "haces".

"He/she/it used to do/was doing" is "hacía", you familiar "hacías".

Notice that you just add "-s", a rule which extends to 6 different conjugations (7 if you include the archaic future subjunctive) -- there's only one conjugation (the preterite) that doesn't conform to the rule.

Also, "they do" is "hacen" and "they used to do/were doing" is "hacían". It's an add -n rule and guess what? - it happens anywhere you would add -s for a singular formal second person.

That sort of thing's messy written down, but it's the way language is built up in our heads and it can be taught that way.

"But the average student is not inspired by a list of disconnected sentences with no context, simply constructed to demonstrate this week's grammar point."

I completely agree, but that's not synonymous with "teaching grammar". In fact, it's actually the opposite of teaching grammar when you start looking at a cognitive level.

If you have a lesson that focuses on a single point, then at no point in the lesson is never having to select that point. The student is never given a situation and asked to chose and recall an appropriate piece of grammar to cope with the situation at hand.

If I set an exercise that prompts the student to say, in order,
I have a house
I have a cat
I have a pen
I have a shoe
I have a bus
...then while it superficially looks like "practising 'I have'", they're really practising "house, cat, pen, shoe, bus", because that's where the choice lies -- it's the only thing they're forced to think about.

When I did languages in high school, I noticed that I wasn't thinking about what was supposed to be important -- I was doing the tasks in the most efficient way possible. I had to force myself to pay attention to bits of the sentence that I didn't need to understand for the task at hand, because I could see I would never learn anything just by completing the tasks. Teachers keep telling me that's right and proper -- that students need to put in the effort themselves. But I only had to put in the effort because the teaching was inefficient.

So there simply should never be a "grammar point of the day".

Michel Thomas taught enough grammar points that by the start of the second CD of his French course, you should be able to ask "Quelle impression avez-vous de la situation politique et économique en France à present?", "je voudrais venir avec vous ce soir mais ce n'est pas possible" and you could even add to that last one: "Au contraire, c'est impossible!" -- and all that from first principles, more or less.

By contrast, after an immersive, communicative, one-hour introduction to Finnish, I struggled to say half a dozen fixed phrases and 8 or 9 nouns. I had no independent sentence forming ability.

OK, so Thomas makes clever use of cognates which gives an early boost for the Romance languages, but his principles can be applied to any language. I recommend you try out one of his courses -- he recorded them in French, Italian, Spanish and German. Any other language with his name on it isn't a genuine Michel Thomas course, and the vocabulary courses under the MT brand aren't genuine Thomas courses either.