05 March 2012

Minesweeper and language structure

Yes, that's right: Minesweeper.  That little freebie game invented by Microsoft to distract us and waste our time when we should be doing something more productive.  Well, I've allowed it to distract me recently to the extent that my index finger is getting a little tired from double-clicking.

Not exactly a language-related game, I hear you cry, and quite right you are too.  There is minimal linguistic skill involved in minesweeper -- it's all logic and counting.  So why am I writing about it on a language blog?

Well, I'm going to assume you're familiar with the game.  The mechanics are entirely internally consistent and logical -- there's no surprises and no special cases, except when you're unlucky enough to be forced to guess where one of the mines is.  You can play the whole game by following the basic rules.  However, after a particularly intense period of practice, I'd found that I had started to internalise certain commonly-occurring patterns (eg 1221 and 121), and that I could spot the mines in these types of situation without doing any counting.  I had abstracted and automated the task, even though I had started with a conscious process.  This is what is considered going from conscious competence to unconscious competence in the four stages of competence model.

It's something that Stephen Krashen refuses to accept holds for language.  Instead he asserts that conscious competence is nothing more than rote learning and will never lead to what he calls "acquisition", implying that acquisition is something different from unconscious competence.

But it also ties into other models of thought on language, such as the idea of the idiom principle versus the open choice principle.  The idiom principle posits that language is made up of predefined bundles of words, whereas the open choice principle states that we choose each word individually.  Very few academic linguistics would adhere to one of the two exclusively -- it is most widely accepted that there are parts of language so common that they can be considered fixed phrases, and that there are times when we put together words innovatively.

And yet, when it comes to teaching, there often is this exclusivity.  Teachers often either teach pure grammar or a course based entirely on phrases.  A good course needs to teach both.  But do you mix them up, or start with one then the other?

And here's where I think Minesweeper becomes a useful analogy.  I learnt it according to the open-choice principle.  This allowed me to complete the game long before mastery.  If instead I had learnt it by the idiom principle, memorising certain configurations of numbers, I would not have been able to complete the game until I had memorised all the possible configurations, which is a task of near-infinite complexity.

However, playing by "open choice" gave me the opportunity to become exposed to the "idioms" in meaningful situations (the game), even if slightly slowly at first. 

Similarly, when I started learning Spanish with Michel Thomas, I was able to expose myself to more real Spanish because I had learned "open choice" grammar.  In much the same time as I had spent with MT, I could have learnt by idiom principle how to greet people and introduce myself, but these would hardly have led to meaningful opportunities for interaction, as you can't get much of a conversation out of them.

But in both cases, language and Minesweeper, a specific pattern/idiom is only of value if recalling it is faster than reasoning through open choice.  Recall speed is related to the frequency with which an item is encountered, and therefore it is only the most commonly encountered items that will ever be dealt with by the brain as bundles.

No comments: