31 August 2012

Terminological illogicality: possessive pronouns and adjectives

Enough of yesterday's self-indulgent self-pity, and back to the business of righting all the wrongs in language teaching.

Last night I was standing outside my tent and for some reason or another I started thinking about possessive pronouns and adjectives.  Now when I first encountered this terminology, the way I was being taught them seemed wrong.  Well, I've thought about it, and they were wrong, because the terminology was being applied in terms of other languages, not English.

If you're not familiar with the terms, I'll just define them by example: my is a possessive "adjective" and mine is a possessive pronoun, by standard nomenclature.

But now to demolish standard nomenclature.

Possessive adjectives
"My" is considered an adjective because it goes before a noun and gives additional information.  "My bike", for example.  But... in English, countable nouns never occur in the singular without some kind of determiner, whether that's a number ("one car"), an article ("the car", "a car") or a demonstrative ("this car", "that car").  Shouldn't we define "my" as a possessive determiner then?

Perhaps, and that used to be my preferred solution.  But the more I heard native speakers say that they were convinced it was a pronoun, the more I was convinced it was a pronoun in the native model.

Consider, in "my bike", the word my substitutes for Niall's - a noun in the possessive case.  Something that substitutes for a possessive noun should be called a possessive pronoun, surely?  So as I said already, I agree that "my" etc are indeed pronouns within the grammar of English itself.

The reason this isn't the case in traditional grammar can only be described in terms of other languages.  French and Spanish don't have a "possessive case" and instead have to say "the bike of Niall" (le vélo de Níall/la bici de Níall).  I would say then that French and Spanish use their possessives as determiners, because "the bike of Níall" goes to "his bike", just as "the bike over there" goes to "that bike".  Determiner.

But this isn't the case in Italian or Catalan, where the article is retained in the possessive "il suo bici" -- "the his bike".  So in Italian and Catalan, perhaps it is an adjective, but that doesn't mean we should try to call it one in English, French or Spanish... or any other language for that matter.

Possessive pronouns
Ok, so what about "mine", which is traditionally called a possessive pronoun?

It gets that name because it allegedly substitutes for a full noun phrase -- "that is my bike" becomes "that is mine".  However, that's all well and good where you have a language where adjectives can be used pronominally, but that's not the case in English where an adjective is often accompanied by the pronoun "one".  No, not one as in "one must", but one as in "a green one".

In English, we use that same pronominal "one" with possessives to prevent redundant repetition of the noun -- we can and do talk about "my one", "your one" etc.  Yes, anywhere where we can use "my one", we can substitute "mine", but doesn't that shift the meaning significantly?

When I say "mine", am I talking about the thing anymore?  Or am I instead talking about a property of the thing? -- its mine-ness, or its belonging-to-me-ness?  Because if it's a property -- and my gut reaction is that that's exactly what it is -- then it's an adjective.

Edit: [2015-02-19] My gut reaction was wrong. I hadn't thought about the use of "mine" etc as an object to a non-predicative verb -- eg "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

30 August 2012

If only this was Spain...

Right now I'm facing the rather daunting task of trying to find accommodation in a town with a population of about 7000... and an additional student population of over 2500.  And this through the medium of a language that I am not 100% comfortable in. It's slightly embarrassing phoning up to enquire about a flat and not immediately understanding that the person on the other end is telling you it's already gone.  And it's also quite demoralising.

I need to get a flat pretty sharpish or I can't open a bank account.  If I don't get a bank account I can't get paid.  Which in short means that if I don't get a flat I don't have a job.  Oh what a lovely situation to be in....

22 August 2012

Language choice as a habit

When I arrived on Islay, I was introduced to a lot of people who told me they'd forgotten all their Gaelic.  But by the time I left the island, several of these people would regularly speak to me almost exclusively in Gaelic.

It's tempting to call these sorts of people lazy (and I've heard many people do so), but I think there's a wee bit more to it than that.

They genuinely, genuinely believed that they couldn't speak Gaelic, because they genuinely found it difficult.  Why is it difficult with other people but not with me?  Because they learned to expect Gaelic from me, but they had learned to expect English from other peopled.

This expectation can be overcome, but it's a hell of an effort, and most just don't have the motivation to do it -- in fact, most people don't even know that that's what's going on.  It's not their fault.

So how do you encourage people to overcome this inertia?

19 August 2012

The weirdness of learning something you already "know"...

I've started looking at starting on Corsican a few times, but it's always seemed really difficult.  Why?  Because all the beginners' stuff looks too obvious to me to be worth looking at.  If it's not like Italian, it's like Spanish or French.  Everything I'd found was phrase-based, and I could understand most of them with no effort.  My brain saw no reason for effort.

That's something I find quite interesting, because I've always argued that extrinsic motivation (motivation from outside the material/course) is not enough -- all teaching has to be intrinsically motivating.

Well, today I came across a slightly better site (for French speakers).  The lessons there aren't brilliant, as they're just information and the exercises on the site aren't related to the lessons.

But the information's there, so I can juggle it about to suit myself.

Maybe it's time to dive back into the Python NLTK and write myself a wee bit of self-teaching software....

12 August 2012

Tattooing errors

I was travelling by bike yesterday and it was glorious weather, so lots of road cyclists were out.  I was waiting for a ferry from Arran to Ardrossan in a swarm of cyclists.  One had a tattoo on his leg which caught my attention, because I couldn't for the life of me think what could come before those last two words.

Now, those two words were French, and the guy sporting them wasn't, so I figured I'd probably found a good ol' tattoo translation error... oh yes indeed.

The full tattoo was the words "Iron Man", the Iron Man championship logo, and the sentence "la vie est plus queue respirer".  Those of you who understand French will no doubt realise that what he wanted was something about life being "more than [just] breathing", but that what it says is "life is more tail to breathe".

A couple of years ago, I would have put this down to human transcription error, but I'm guessing this may be a modern take on that -- autocorrect.

Anyway, I'm not into tattoos, but if you're going to get one, for pity's sake get one in a language you understand... and that the tattooist can write in too.

08 August 2012

More about how we know grammar

When I talked about this before, I used the simplest example possible -- noun, verb and adjective -- but I claimed it holds for any concept in the native language.  I suppose I'd better back that up with a few more complicated examples.

For instance, the verb conjugations in English provide a hard and obvious distinction between countables and uncountables:
  1. Some ____ is good.
  2. Some ____ are good.
More interesting, though, is the debate on "what is a word?"  Everyone can give conflicting answers, even individuals will contradict themselves; no-one will ever agree.  But this is a good thing, as even linguists can't agree.  You can take all the possible definitions of "word" and pin a new piece of terminology onto it.

Here's your prompt
How many words are in this piece of text?
(And you have a paragraph or a page of text to hand.)
You could answer that as how many unique words or as the word processor does, recounting duplicates as often as they appear.  Linguists call the first the number of "types" and the second the number of "tokens".  The students understand the concepts, so just stick the labels on and be done.
Is "wants" a different word from "want"?  And "wanted"?
The two concepts here are "word-forms" (you can say "wants" is a different word-form from "want" without claiming it's a different "word") and "lemmas" (the set of all variants of a single dictionary headword).

The English speaker already understands "want, wants, wanted" as a set -- we're just calling that set a "lemma".  The English speaker already understands "cat, cats" as a set -- again, we're just slapping the label "lemma" on a known and understood concept.

Of course, you're all crying out that types, tokens, word-forms and lemmas are of no practical use in the language class, and you're probably right.  It just so happens that I'm quite lazy, and rather than give dozens of examples of differing complexity, I wanted to skip from "simple" to "complex" in a single bound in order to demonstrate that even the most seemingly abstract linguistic ideas are readily available to the beginner.  If the easiest questions can be addressed this way, and the most difficult ones can too, you can be confident that most things in between can be handled in the same manner.

The other very important thing to take out of the question "what is a word?" is that the human brain doesn't run on fixed rules.  The human brain has a set of fuzzy rules that interact and make our own reality.  We internally maintain innumerable unresolved paradoxes and contradictions, and yet the end result is still functional and useful.  But each of these contradictions can be broken apart, and we only need one of them to teach a new concept -- one concept, "the word", gave us four distinct concepts: token, type, word-form and lemma.

So when we're taking a native-language concept and trying to use it to teach a slightly different target-language concept, we don't need to carry over the full thing -- keep the bits that work, ditch the   things that don't.  We don't need a full and precise rule -- the brain doesn't like them anyway.

03 August 2012

Everyone understands grammar.

I've often heard it said that grammar is difficult or that normal people don't understand grammar.  Some teachers believe that grammar would be useful in the language classroom, but only if the students came in understanding grammar in the first place -- they don't want to waste time teaching theoretical grammar before they can start teaching the target language.
And these are good arguments but for one small detail:
everyone understands grammar.
It has been observed that in cloze tests (passages of texts with blanked out words) native speakers will have a notion of the word-class of the correct answer before they know what the specific word is.
Take these three simple examples:
  1. I like ____.
  2. I want a ____ one.
  3. Don't ____ me.
It's impossible to know what the original word was that the author intended, but at the same time, it's pretty obvious that number 1 is a noun, number 2 an adjective and 3 a verb.  If you were to put these sentences in front of any literate English speaker, they could give you any number of possible words for each example that fit the categories.

So they have an internal concept of word-classes, even if they don't have an explicit awareness of it.  This means that there's very little work for the teacher to do -- all you've got to do is point out what they already know.
Michel Thomas tried to do this a different way, and it's a way that tends to draw a lot of flak.  On his recorded courses, you can hear him say that he doesn't like the traditional definition of "person, place or thing", and then he gives a couple of examples of abstract nouns, which he says aren't really things.  He then goes on to introduce his prefered rule -- a noun is anything you can use "the" before -- and a couple of examples, using both abstract and concrete nouns.

It is quite trivial to prove that his rule is wrong -- "the white house"; adjective after "the"; wrong.  "John"; most proper nouns don't take "the"; wrong.  And yet for all it's inaccuracy, this "rule" seems to work better than most.  Why?  Because Thomas isn't trying to teach a new concept -- he is merely trying to evoke the concept that the learner already has.  In fact, he is doing exactly the opposite of defining, and I would argue that he is doing so on purpose -- if you already know about the concept, thinking too much will override your instinctual understanding, so thinking should be avoided.

What Thomas did was quite subtle.  He took the traditional (correct) rule, but said he didn't like it, freeing the student from feeling inadequate for not understanding it.  He then presented the case that causes consistent real problems for students, the abstract noun.  All he basically said in informational terms was "these are nouns too", but he worded it in such a way as to say "it's not your fault if these don't make sense in the old rule", swatting away any confusion and guilt or inadequacy.  His final comment, about "the", is valueless out of context -- it is factually incorrect, but he uses it to reinforce the concepts already clarified by the old rule and the abstract examples.  He ties them into one bundle.  The student never writes down the rule, the student never memorises the rule, in fact, regardless of what he says, he has not given a rule.  All he does is evoke the learner's internal concept of nouns and label it with the word noun.  I'm pretty confident that the average student coming out of a face-to-face class with Thomas would have forgotten he'd even said it, but they'd be able to label nouns pretty acccurately if asked to.

It took Thomas a few minutes to teach "noun", "verb" and "adjective" that way, less time than it takes me to explain what he did.

Any concept that exists in the student's native language has the potential to be taught in a similar way.

The secret is not to take too long, and not to get hung up on the technicalities.  All you need to do is evoke the concept and stick a label on it.

And if you think about it, that's what we do as teachers every day -- it's called "vocabulary".