06 April 2012


Ooops... this wasn't a finished post -- it was a set of notes for a future post.  Deleted.

It referred to an MA thesis regarding the teaching of Finnish grammar.



Anonymous said...

Please explain the following conversation to a foreigner :
A. "How are we for food, have we *any* bread?"
B. "There's *no* bread in the house at all"
A. "We'll need to get *some* bread before the shop closes".
B. "Have you seen the price of *[null]* bread here!"
A. "There was some old stuff but I didn't fancy that *bread's* condition."

The rules for the use of *no* *some* *any* and *[null]* form a parallel to the choice of the partitive in Finnish. Could you explain them simply to a non-English speaker?

As for the genitive/accusative, they were once separate with the acc. ending in -m although now the distinction is only preserved in South Sámi and one of the Russian Fennic languages. The fact that two words or inflections have come to have the same surface form doesn't mean that they are conceptually "the same" to a speaker. Any more than "died" is the same as "dyed" or "dogs" the same as "dog's".

And in any case, on the whole Finnish is not really all that weird from a European perspective. If you want weird, take a good look at Basque :-)

Nìall Beag said...

The abstract opened that the claim that "Research has shown that explicit instruction with a focus on forms is needed in learning a very different language." It's expanded on in the body, with further claims that immersive "learning by induction" doesn't work for most learners of Finnish because they're normally Indo-European speakers and the language is too different to be picked up that way.

If this is true, then it is precisely because the forms you list are so difficult to explain that they need to be explained. I've certainly met a lot of foreigners who don't use the forms right in English despite frequent exposure.

I'm not going to write an entire English lesson here, so I'll pick one distinction and show why it needs conscious study: any/some.

The normal (unmarked) usage is as follows:
I have some money.
I don't have any money.
Do you have any money?
Don't you have any money?

The normal explanation is "positive statement" vs "everything else". This is correct, but to a speaker of another language, this may be pretty meaningless, as their language doesn't have a meaningful distinction between "positive statement" and "everything else". But English does. Let's look at the four sentences again:

I have some money.
I don't have any money.
Do you have any money?
Don't you have any money?

Notice the co-ocurrence of the auxiliary "do" with "any". It's something that's internally consistent in English, but not necessarily consistent with other languages. I only noticed this pattern because it is linked to the Celtic languages and their use of "independent" and "dependent" verb forms, which are roughly analogous to "positive statement" and "everything else" respectively(the main difference being that in English you can use a "positive statement" as a subordinate clause, but in the Celtic languages a subordinate clause will always be "dependent".)

That's why English grammar needs to be taught in its own terms, and Finnish grammar needs to be taught in its own terms; and neither should be taught in terms of Latin.

Alasdair Maolchrìosd said...

Tapadh leat! ('S mise air ais a-rithisd)

There are several points here worth discussing, and btw, I'm not out to disagree with you, rather to explore some issues. As to the best teaching methods, I'll go into that another time, suffice to say it's something I'm interested in, and also rather disappointed to find that there appears to be no general consensus over what works and what doesn't, given the importance of language learning. All I seem to find online is one snake-oil merchant after another, each demanding $$$ for their secret receipy. Co-dhiù ...

He may be right, in his general claim, but I was annoyed by the way he kept going on about the IE thing. Certainly the classical languages were of a kind, and most of the big continental languages share a lot of areal features in syntax and grammar, but East Eurpoean langs are quite 'weird' by comparison, and English is very odd indeed. That was all I was really trying to show. Finnish has no grammatical gender, except for a few pronouns, so just like English there. It has a regular case system for the core constituents of the sentence, just like Latin or German. It's not ergative-absolute like Basque, or split-ergative or whatever. It doesn't have a duel number, or inclusive/exclusive 1pl, or m/f 2/3 pl (like Hebrew), so all in all it doesn't rank especially high on the scale of weirdness from say a franco-german POV. No more IMO than English ;-)

My book on Finnish has literally pages and pages of rules on the use of the partitive, which I defy anyone to memorise, let alone apply in speech. I would guess that the only way would be to experience enough real meaningful connected Finnish to get a feel for it. From my very limited knowledge, I'd say its main function is to distinguish definite from indefinite referents. Finish having no "a/the" type articles.

I don't pretend to understand my English examples any more than the Finnish. But we must have some mental equipment for dealing with such subtle semantics otherwise how do we all (mostly) agree on what is correct usage? Simple rules may help learners, or at the very least stop them worrying, but if the rules can't be explained, then are several pages of complex and sometimes contradictory rules (as in the Finnish e.g.) any help? Are they not simply a distraction? (I don't claim to have the answer).

I agree with your last statement entirely. Which I suppose means that a good theoretical understanding of a language should lead to better beginners' courses. However that is not the same thing as saying the theoretical rules need to be taught explicitly, maybe they should simply inform how the course is structured.

'Se sin gu leòr son an dràsd :-)

Nìall Beag said...

Na gabh dragh -- there's nothing I like more than an informed debate (it's the best way to learn, after all).

You can't really blame the author of the thesis -- he's starting from the orthodoxy in Finnish-teaching circles... which is at least a better orthodoxy in English-teaching circles, where they've made a virtue of the necessity of having a huge uninformed, monolingual teaching force. :-/

On a side note, I've recently come to the conclusion that it's more useful to read postgrad theses than journal articles, because there's much more pressure against selective quoting when you're trying to get a degree, and you get a fairly accurate summary of the broader field in the background section....

Nìall Beag said...
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