27 December 2012

Ability vs ability

The Telegraph was talking nonsense.  The BBC have the real story.

A friend of mine shared a link to an article about a man from England who had a stroke and started speaking Welsh, despite having only spent a short spell in Wales when he was evacuated there during the Second World War.

This is pretty interesting from a neurolinguistic perspective.  I did a tiny bit of AI at uni first time round, and one of the few things that stuck with me long-term was the notion that the brain works by a combination of activations and inhibitions.

Here's the concept in a simplified form (possibly oversimplified, but hey-ho)....

Human brain cells become excited or "activated" when they receive appropriate stimulation.  You can extend this idea of activation to groups or paths of neurones that map to more specific concepts.

Unlike a computer, this structure lets our brains evaluate multiple things literally at the same time.  If we have a complex problem, our brains will be contemplating multiple solutions.  But with so many possible solutions, how does the brain decide on which one to choose?

Evolution's solution was the mechanism of "inhibition" -- certain activations inhibit other responses.  In the case of a complex problem, the strongest solution "inhibits" the others, effectively switching them off.

Alun Morgan, then, had learnt enough Welsh to speak it... in theory.  But he hadn't learnt enough to overcome the inhibitions that English had placed in the way of him speaking it.

The Real Challenge
That, then, is the real challenge for any language learner: not just learning enough to be able to speak it, but learning enough to be able to defeat the native language that's competing with it.

This is where the apparent "magic" of immersion comes in: the brain picks up on the fact that the native language isn't any use.  On the other hand, this is probably why forced immersion so often fails -- because the learner knows that they don't need the target language to communicate with the other people in the classroom.

So do we give up on immersion?

Not "give up", no, but we have to stop seeing it as something magical.  Finding ways to make the language feel genuinely necessary to ourselves or to our students is not easy.  I don't personally believe that we can ever overcome the native language as a source of inhibition through pure force of will.  In fact, I believe it often has the opposite effect, turning the target language into a barrier to communication rather than a means of communication.

Computer games as language study

Before the Christmas holidays I tried to give advice to my students about what to do to keep practicing their English in the holidays, and the thing I really recommended them to do was to play computer games, and I was sure I'd blogged about computer games before, but apparently not...

Anyway, computer games as language study?  Nonsense, right?  "Blam blam blam, pow pow zap kaboom" is the same in any language, after all.

True.  Not all games are of any use to a language learner as most have virtually zero language content.  Action games really aren't much use... unless you're playing with native speakers on the internet, but most people aren't going to do that when they can play with people who speak their own language (and also on a local server minimising the lag).

The games that I recommend to my students are point-and-click adventures, the likes of the old Lucasarts Monkey Island series (if you're familiar with those).  If you're not familiar with the genre, you basically go around talking to people and trying to find objects to solve puzzles.  There isn't usually any way to die, you just keep going until you find the solution and win the game.  These are particularly useful for several reasons:
  1. Dialogue is central to the game.
    In most action games, very little of the dialogue is needed to complete the game; in a point-and-click adventure, the dialogue is full of clues on how to solve the puzzles.  The learner is therefore forced to pay attention and to try to understand.
  2. Dialogue is partially repetitive and has a restricted vocabulary.
    On the simplest level, there are default phrases that are repeated whenever the player tries to perform a task that isn't part of the game (eg "I don't want to cut that", "It's too heavy").  More subtley, though, the vocabulary is very "tight" as the same words appear very frequently to give you clues as to how to solve the puzzles.
    When you're watching a film or reading a book, there is repetition of language, but not to the same extent.  And yet, because these games are designed for native speakers, the repetition is not so blatant and restrictive that it becomes boring, unlike many dedicated learners' resources.
  3. Subtitled dialogue.Most of the games in this genre have voices and text, although the earlier ones are text only.  Having the option to read the text as you're listening seems to help train people to recognise the spoken form of words they know how to read.  You can't really do that with film and TV, because the subtitles never match exactly what the actors say (subtitles have to be easy and quick to read) but in these games, the spoken and written dialogue is almost always exactly the same -- as a rough estimate, I'd say at least 95% of all dialogue matches.  This makes this the only class of "authentic materials" that offers the ability to read and listen at the same time.
  4. Slow pacing.
    The dialogue in these games is pretty easy to follow, as it's not subject to the usual sources of interference.  In films, people talk over each other and loud sound effects mix with the dialogue.  In a point-and-click adventure, everything is usually clear and distinct (and if it's not, you can usually turn down the volume on music and sound effects independently of the dialogue).  As a bonus, the pacing of the game gives you plenty of time to look up unknown vocabulary as it occurs -- the game naturally waits for you, so there's no need to pause and unpause.
There's a few games of this type available for free at scummvm.org, and there are others for sale at GOG.com and on Steam, in various languages.

I've used this approach myself, having bought the first two Runaway games when I arrived in Spain, and having downloaded a couple of games in French before moving there.

It won't teach you a language by itself, but as a form of practice when you're at the immediate level, it's very, very effective, and I would recommend it to anyone, even if you don't normally play computer games....

21 December 2012

Classroom activity: the ever-expanding story

When I started learning Gaelic, I was learning from a very experienced teacher.  She was a retired headmistress (former music teacher) and had been teaching Gaelic since she gave up her previous job.  (Dr Margaret MacKinnon, a long-serving judge at the Gaelic music festival "the Mod".)

It was an intensive week-long course and towards the end of the week she had us lined up on the steps of the outdoor amphitheatre (it was a gorgeous sunny day) and she got us to tell a story.  The rule was simple: repeat everything that had already been said, then add something.

I liked this, and I've frequently gone back to analyse why.

My first attempt at an explanation was this:
It is easy to try to translate received language into your native language.  It is easy to remember the story as the meaning only, and forget about the words.  With a short sentence, you can usually get away with translating backwards and forwards.  As the sequence grew longer, the complexity of trying to mentally juggle the original sentence, the translation and meaning became too great.  The most efficient way to carry out the task was to stick with the Gaelic.

So that was my first thought: it "maxes out" your brain, forcing you to be more efficient.

Now I recently tried something similar but without the repetition -- just the addition of words.  It was only partially successful, leading to two further observations:
  1. The complexity of the structure of the story and language is supported by the repetition.
  2. The need to repeat is a great piece of classroom management.
The second realisation was useful to me.  Too many tasks leave gaps in the need for student attention, and it's in those gaps that many of my lessons have fallen apart.  If everyone listens -- if everyone has to listen -- the teacher owns the class.

The first one is pretty interesting to me, as I'm very much against rote learning, so of course I had to justify to myself why this repetition isn't rote. ;-)

Well, for one thing, they're not going to be able to recite the story the day after, so it's not really rote "learning", even if it's a somewhat rote process.  Well that's sophistry, so I couldn't really kid myself on with that for very long.

The second justification is that I found that the longer the sentence got, the more I needed to visualise the story in order to remember it.  You can repeat a short phrase parrot-fashion, but it takes a long time to memorise a long passage if you don't understand it.  Therefore the student is forced to engage in the material meaningfully.  This is just a refinement of my earlier assessment of it as a "maxing out" of the brain, but I believe it's crucial to addressing classroom problems in all activities.

Too many tasks that I have been faced with as a learner have left me with the choice between a rote, mechanical approach to solving the problem and a meaningful approach.  I've always chosen the meaningful approach, which is what makes me a successful learner.  The least successful learners are the ones who chose the mechanical approach -- but that's not the learner's mistake, it's the teacher's mistake, because the human brain always seeks the most efficient approach to complete the task at hand.  If the easiest way to complete a language task is a mechanical one, that's bad task design.

I cannot emphasise this point enough.  I have spoken to a great many teachers who simply don't get it.  They say my approach is the "correct" one, and what others should be doing too.  They blame the weaker students for making the wrong choice.  But how can they make that choice if they don't know what it is?  I knew how to learn because I was taught to learn: I spent most of my pre-school hours in the care of my mother, a fully-qualified school teacher, playing with educational toys.  I did not need to be taught how to learn, but the others did.  Please don't ask students to make a choice until you've started to teach them how to make that choice...

But I'm diverging from the activity....

So we've got a task that requires attention, discourages distraction, forces the student to process language efficiently and meaningfully

The next big concept I picked up on was the idea of "mirror neurones".  I had long believed that receiving and producing language were intrinsically linked, and that we understood others by considering what would make us say the things that the other party says.

Then I read about mirror neurone theory, which claims that this is pretty much what happens.  So does the activity put words in your mouth?  Are the students going through the process of production every time they hear this language that they now understand?  I hope so, and even as the teacher doing this task in English, I feel myself "speaking" in my head while the students are trying to recall the whole story.

But today I refined my views further in terms of gamification, which I have been thinking about a lot lately.

My lack of belief in gamification has been previously documented here, and can be summed up as "gamification isn't about the core mechanics of a game, and it's the mechanics of the game that make a game 'fun'."  In a gamified classroom, this activity would be rejected as there are no scores and no winners and losers.  There is no "competition" or "achievements".

If you tried to add anything like that in, you would reduce the effectiveness of the game.  When Margaret did it with us, she encouraged us to correct our own mistakes before continuing.  When I do it with my students, I correct their mistakes and work them into the story.   If a frequent pairing comes out in the wrong order due to the turn-taking, I stop and I fix it, and the language content improves (eg if one student said "butter..." and the next said "...and bread", I would correct it to the neutral order "bread and butter" to prevent rehearsing an unusual collocation).

But the only way of scoring it would be to penalise mistakes, which would probably result in much shorter and much less effective sentences.

However, the activity has a natural "game mechanic" which is solid and motivates learning: there is a challenge, and the challenge increases, and as you face the challenge you learn to cope with it.  That's what a game is: learning to progressively cope with more and more difficult, and more and more varied, challenges.  "Gamifying" this activity, like most educational activities, would kill "the game" that's already there... which is why gamification is such a waste of time.

So after all that theory and pontification, here's:

The activity

Arrange the class such that there is a clear order.  That can be rows, a single line, or a circle.

Say one, two or three words to start the story.

The first student repeats your words, then adds 1, 2 or 3 of his own.
The second repeats his, and adds 1, 2 or 3 more.

Now it's vital that this happens quickly.  Some students will want to stop and think of "what" to say when a quick "so he", "then it" or even just "and" keeps the game moving and leaves it to the next person to finish (and they've got the whole time of the repeat to think of something).

Correct errors.  Make sure they're repeating correct language.

It will stutter and slow down.  Some people will need prompting with a few words to jog their memory.  Keep it going for a while longer -- don't restart at the first forgotten word.

But at some point stop it and start afresh -- a few problems is a challenge, but too many is frustrating, which is never good.

Don't let them write it down -- that just gives them a way to stop paying attention.  (In a very mixed group, it might seem necessary for the weakest, but it's a survival strategy and it seems to reduce the educational value.)

So why all that pontificating before?

Why didn't I just explain the activity on its own, before all the theorising?

Because a learning task must serve a purpose and the teacher must know what that purpose is.

Because I'm personally tired of seeing teaching activities described without giving a clear description and justification of what they're supposed to achieve and how.

Because I don't want readers to see the activity and then "adapt" it without fully understanding what it currently does.  I don't want people to delete the repetition on grounds of being "boring" or "rote" -- the activity is far more boring without it.

And maybe mostly because I'm a self-important wee so-and-so who loves the sound of his own voice.  Aren't we all?

19 December 2012

Unrepresentative representation

I've heard it said that with a local councillor, a directly-elected MSP, several local list MSPs, a Westminster MP and an MEP in Europe, us Scottish people are better represented today than we have ever been.  But is that the case?  Commenters have noted that as populations have grown (and as the vote has been extended to commoners, women, and then younger people) the number of people represented by any individual politician has increased.  How can one person represent thousands of very different people?

When we consider also that most of these politicians represent a handful of major parties and are in many ways mere figureheads for "party policy", in the end you have 6 or 7 manifestos representing the entire population of the UK.  Clearly, they can't serve the public will.

When Thatcher wanted to dismantle union power in the 70s and 80s, she missed a trick: if there's one thing that democracy has taught us, it's that the best way to beat collective bargaining is by granting power to a representative body, rather than by taking it away, because the more diverse a group represented by a body, the less the body is representative of the group.

So you're probably asking yourself what this is doing on a language learning blog....

Well, it's not a language issue per se, but it is an education issue.  It's an issue for universities, and for education funding.  In my opinion, one of the worst things to happen to post-school education in the UK was when the technical colleges were given incentives to become new universities.  The line between vocational and academic education was blurred unnecessarily.  Do hairdressers need 4-year degree?  Few people would genuinely say they do.  And university education aims to build learner independence, when vocational education relies very much on supervised, hands-on training.

The two things are very different, and rather than grant vocational education the respect that it deserved in and of itself, they tried to make out it was something it wasn't.

Who is there today to campaign for a reversal of bad decisions?  No-one.

Why?  Representation.

University teachers' unions represent university teachers in all types of institution, and students' unions represent students in all types of institutions.  This means that neither the students' group or the teachers' groups are able to stand up and point at one group of universities and say "they shouldn't be universities".  It's pretty much impossible for these bodies to argue against any government policy (except across-the-board budget cuts) as any change will be beneficial for some of their members, and it's pretty much impossible to campaign for any new policy as it would likely be detrimental to some of their members.

The unions have therefore been given more and more representational power, leading to them rendering themselves powerless, and the government is free to do whatever they like.  Even where protests have led to changes in policy, this usually on delays matters by a year or two and the changes happen anyway.

So you may be wondering why this topic came up all of a sudden.

I recently received an email from a university advertising a couple of new CPD certificates they were offering.  For those of you who don't know, CPD stands for "continuing professional development", and is essentially means "job-related training courses".  It is all right and proper that universities should be seeking to earn additional income from the professional training market, and I have no problem with that.  These CPD certificates were built on modules in the university's degree scheme.  It is all right and proper that universities should be seeking to reuse existing material in new ways, and I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the fact that these modules were priced at the standard cost of a Scottish Higher Education module.  Presumably, then, the university is offering professional training, but putting it through the system as higher education and claiming government funding for it.

I contacted the student president for the institution to express my concerns about this, and he leapt to their defence.  Everyone has a right to an education, he told me.  Now I agree with this, but everyone should have the same right as everyone else.  Why should certain people get government funding for their CPDs when other people don't?  All in all, this seems like fiddling the books to me.

But in the end it doesn't matter what he personally believes, because he is duty-bound to represent all matriculated students at his institution.  (I did point out to him that the CPD students aren't students until they actually sign up, but that's not the main point.)

What we have here, then, is a situation where a small group are benefitting from special treatment at the cost of an education budget with a specific goal, but no-one is able to raise an effective protest against the misuse of funds because everyone represents someone who benefits from it, even though it is to the detriment of most of the people they represent.

How can we defend free education when we aren't able to denounce those who harm the system?

11 December 2012

Gamification... I'm not a fan

I'd been thinking for a while about writing something on Gamification, but I'd never got round to it.  I was kicked into action today, though, by a video appearing on Slashdot by a US lecturer by the name of Clifford Lampe:

Gamification, if you don't know the word already, is to use game mechanics to improve whatever it is you do.  It started as an idea for education and I wasn't a fan of the idea.  It moved into business and I wasn't a fan of the idea.  It's now moving back into the classroom ... and I'm still not a fan of the idea.

My main criticism is pretty blunt: learning is fun already.

"Now wait a moment," I hear you cry, "not everyone enjoys learning."

Well yes, yes they do.  What they don't enjoy is when they're stuck in a classroom and they aren't actually learning anything.  In fact, years ago I read an article claiming that by using a brain scanner, scientists had proven that all the fun in a game comes via the learning centres of the brain.

Gamification, in whatever I've read or heard on the subject, doesn't take this to heart.  Instead, it focuses on the accoutrements of gaming, and tries to manipulate "achievement addiction".  In business, you give out little badges to regular contributors to your website to encourage them to contribute, rather than making the actual process of contribution inherently rewarding.  That's fine for customer retention, but it's misdirected focus if you're attempting to teach.

Basically, the teacher ends up looking for ways to convince students to complete the task in the hope that in doing so, they will learn, instead of designing a task that is so inherently educational that the student becomes engrossed in the process itself.  The latter is what is traditionally known as "good teaching".

Gamification therefore continues the trend that talk of multiple intelligences and affective factors have established: an single small part of the puzzle eclipses the bigger picture and distracts educators from looking critically at their material in its own terms.

Now, Lampe's video is somewhat disingenuous (although that may be the editor's fault, not his).  At no point is there any mention of what his course is, although the mention of a mix of computing and sociology students gives us a clue that it's something about online interaction, and if we look at his personal university page, we can see he teaches two things: a first year undergrad Introduction to Information Systems and a higher level course called eCommunities.  Without this context, his talk about the use of social media in the classroom is utterly meaningless -- because web 2.0 isn't just the medium of the lesson, it's also the topic.

It's pretty hard to generalise out of this.

Worse, he himself suggests that the content of his teaching appears to be more memorable precisely because his teaching style is unique.  Consequently the technique must logically lose effectiveness if used elsewhere.  That's true of any mnemonic technique, of course.  Give a student 2 or 3 useful acronyms and they'll remember them.  Give them 2 dozen and they'll start to clash with each other and because impossible to use.  So "teaching style as mnemonic" suggests we should all be doing very different things, not all adopting the same technique (for example: gamification!).

Some of the other things he suggests are elements of gamification are choice of assignments, but many teachers already do that.  The question to be addressed is which teaching points can be fairly tested with a free choice assignment, and which need a specific task, because every point is different.

Moving on from Lampe specifically, the problem is that gamification comes down to the notion of "achievements".  The notion of achievements started with scout badges, as far as I'm aware.  Games started to recognise various skills rather than have everyone chase the same goal: the high score.  With online high-score tables, that high-score became harder to achieve.  But this evolved out of existing behaviour.  Games provided sufficient information to start manually comparing metrics -- people started replaying Mario games and finding as many coins as possible.  Sonic players took up the idea of the "speed run" in early levels.  Games started giving more and more information to allow players to track their metrics: Doom told you how long you'd taken, how many secrets you'd uncovered and how accurate you were at shooting (shots on target:total shots).

So what does that mean?  Early achievements were led by the players' existing behaviour -- it was not an imposition of "gamification" rules on gaming.

Of course, later achievements were an imposition of gamification on gaming.  A target like "kill 500 orcs with the axe" doesn't reward skill specifically, just persistence.  It doesn't promote learning, then.  Others involve very specific skills that are not of general use.  I tried for a while to get "Terminal Velocity" in the Steam achievements for the game Portal.  To do it, you have to perform some very delicate maneouvers to fall continuously for 30,000 feet.  But it's just fiddliness for its own sake, it's not a necessary skill to do anything pratical within the game itself.  How ironic is that?  Gamifying the game actually takes you away from the game?

They really are just using achievements as a drug to keep you coming back as an alternative to giving you a genuine reason to do so.

Copying this strategy into the university is a hiding to nothing, because you're encouraging time-on-task, but you're perverting their drive.  You're rewarding time instead of rewarding learning.  That's pretty rough.

And in the end, of course, any game can be gamed.  We already have enough problems trying to prevent cheating against established metrics (exams and assignments), but any new assessment metric is going to need hardened against cheating....

10 December 2012

Too many cooks spoil the net....

When I first took up English teaching in 2007, the internet was an incredibly useful resource.  If I was stuck for a lesson idea, a quick Google search or a glance at one of my favourite sites would give me the inspiration and ideas I needed to build a useful lesson.

But now, the TEFL world and his dog are all posting their ideas on the internet.  A search that would have brought up a handful of useful links in 2007 now brings up a load of low quality worksheets and seemingly aimless tasks.  The act of searching for material is now arguably more time-consuming than just sitting down and writing your own material from the ground up, leading to the wonderful paradox that publishing more information leads to less reuse of material.  And this potentially snowballs, as all those teachers who're making their own material "because they can't find good stuff" start to publish their stuff too, further exacerbating the problem.

Now this is not to say that the authors of these materials aren't good teachers, but it is clear that the worksheets and activities don't fully encapsulate the spirit and methods of their class.  The warm-ups, the support activities, even the teacher's personality have a transformative effect on the material presented, and to take a list of a dozen questions and divorce them from that context robs them of their meaning and effectiveness.

People often compare the sharing of documents to the open-source software movement (well, it's getting less and less common now that document sharing is getting more and more common) but I've always considered that a falacious comparison.  Open-source is about exposing the underlying logic to the wider world, and allowing them to improve that logic; but a document is merely the conclusions reached by the author, not the logic he followed to make those decisions.

A very well designed learning exercise or test will follow a very strict process to ensure a sufficiently wide coverage of concepts and minimise the influence of luck on obtaining the correct answer, but as soon as you change one question in a set, you can end up breaking the balance of concepts tested and leave out something important.

If we're honest with ourselves, though, most of us will admit that we don't properly balance our tasks.  There will be times when we hand out a worksheet and realise that we've missed an important case, and I know that as soon as I started marking the last grammar test I set, I started spotting gaps where concepts weren't tested while other concepts were tested multiple times.

Which is, of course, why we look to other people to provide us with exercises and tests -- it is far more efficient to have one person spend all the time making a meticulously balanced question set and then have hundreds of teachers reuse those questions.

That's why books are such a great idea in theory -- it's just a shame that in practice a great many language teaching books don't live up to the promise; which is where the internet was supposed to help.  Unfortunately, the online material I've found to date isn't of great help.  There's two major camps: the let's-dump-our-worksheets-and-move-on crowd and the oh-look-what-I-can-do-with-technology crowd.

The first lot is basically what I've already talked about -- problem sets with little or no guidance on how to build a coherent lesson around them.

The second lot is people who have learned how to use some flashy little piece of software, but more often than not they find themselves being controlled by the software, rather than being in control of it.  This leads to a proliferation of pairing exercises (question halves and question-with-answer) and ordering exercises (sentence order or line-by-line conversation) because that's what the author knows how to do with the software.  It's a further weakening of pedagogy.

The last example I saw of this was for revision of conditional sentences (if...).  There was an introductory page that described the four conditional types, and then a selection of revision exercises, but each exercise focused on one type of sentence only, so the learner never needed to choose which type of conditional to use, just remember how to form the given type.  These sort of structurally-focused exercises are usually only recommended when initially teaching the form, with student scaffolding being reduced continually until they are able to make free, independent choices.  But as I said, this was allegedly a revision page... yet they were doing exercises designed for introducing the structure, because that was the type of exercise the author knew how to create.  And it looked nice, too.

So, yes, the internet is slowly becoming more of a problem, not a solution.

A way forward...?

This problem isn't really anything new -- it has been the perennial problem of the internet.  In the early days, the web was a collection of articles written mostly by academics, so it was high quality, low volume.  As more and more people started posting stuff online, the volume went up, and the average quality went down.

"No problem," the academics told us, "the network will self-organise, and the cream will float to the top."

The mechanism by which this self-organisation took place was intelligent linking.  A trusted source recommends other trusted sources, and surfers navigated that way.  It worked -- that's how I found a lot of information online at the turn of the century.

Then came Google, whose algorithm worked on the same principles -- links acted as recommendations, and the value of a link was related to the linking site's rating.  It was very effective.

But this network of links just doesn't exist in the language resource world.  Most resources are what we would technically consider "leaf" nodes in the network -- they are end-points that don't lead anywhere else.  Even when they do, it's normally only to other materials on the same site -- there are very few teachers' resource sites that aren't dedicated to keeping you on their site and their site alone.  Those that do link to other sites are (at least in my experience) pretty unfussy about what they link to, listing far too many resources and in effect simply echoing the results of a Google search in a different format.

This means that Google has very little to go on when trying to rate resources for language teachers, and this leads to a paradox from Google's point of view: Google has become so popular as the way to find resources that people are no longer building up the web of links that Google relies on.  This isn't true in all fields, where forum posts have started to replace traditional websites as the source of recommendations.

However, most fields have a certain sense of simultaneity -- TV programmes, for example, are broadcast at a fixed time, and their importance fades.  Most spheres are subject to such fashions, so people will be talking about the same thing at the same time.  But language points don't come into or go out of fashion.  Every teacher in the world teaches them... but not at the same time.  Although there are forums related to the topic, it's not a topic that is really suited to the medium.

So there's not enough information out there to let Google separate the wheat from the chaff.  It's a mess.

What's needed is for teachers who find genuinely useful material to start cataloguing it selectively, publishing a useful collection of links to a small number of resources that cover the major language points that most teachers need.  Sites that favour quantity over quality.  And we need to start sharing the links to those sites.  And we need to start using those sites, rather than Google.  If you know of any such sites, feel free to add links in the comments section!

Collaborative materials

More than that, though, if we genuinely want to share our materials, we need to make sure that they can be updated and improved upon.  Millions of man-hours are wasted by producing multiple flawed worksheets, when we could make minor modifications to each other's and produce something of lasting value.

I doubt I'm the only teacher who alters the free materials I've downloaded from the internet, but like all the others, I keep my modifications to myself because the author's given me permission to use the material, but not to redistribute it.  This is a shame, because some of the best designed materials I've come across have been from non-natives, and fixing one or two little non-native errors would make them into something valuable... but I refuse to use or recommend anything with even one non-native error in it.

But just permission to republish isn't enough, because that wouldn't stop the proliferation of materials -- it would worsen it.  A dozen different sites with slightly different versions of the same worksheet... that would be a nightmare.  We have to look at the software world again and look at how they control their edits, updates and revision; how they resolve differences of opinion... or not (projects often "fork" into two versions when people can't agree on a single way to progress, and quite often these forks are merged together a few years down the line).


We could stick to the books and materials we've produced ourselves.  Your choice.

06 December 2012

Defining yourself by what you're not....

There is a danger, which many of us fail to avoid, that we start to define ourselves as individuals or as groups by identifying what we aren't, or what we don't do, rather than what we are and what we do.

France has traditionally had a strong identity, but all too often it is by defining differences.  They have a phrase: "exception française".  But this exception very very often becomes an excuse.  "We're different" ends up being a weakness, a reason not to even try.  And that's very, very sad.

Here in Corsica, they talk about the "exception corse", a philosophy which boils down to "the French are different and we're different from the French, so we're really different."  And again, it becomes an excuse for weakness, particularly when it comes to English classes.  Some of my strongest students aren't from Corsica -- they're from the mainland.

Why should Corsica be any worse off than mainland France?  It's a Mediterranean island, so it's a popular tourist destination for people from all over Europe.  English is spoken here all the time by tourists from the UK and the rest of Europe.  Heck, I've seen reviews by Germans online complaining about the fact that the owner of a dirt-cheap backpacker's campsite can't speak English.  A) why complain?  B) proof that English is vital to tourism.

But they've managed to define themselves as a community that can't learn English, and they're doing their best to fulfill their own prophecy.  Which is very, very sad.

The same philosophy of "we're different" seems to underlie their own language, too.  Many are fiercely proud that Corsica is very different from French.  But at the same time, many go to pains to identify it as different from Italian, its closest relative (the nearest part of mainland Europe is Tuscany, where most of the features of Modern Standard Italian are taken from).

As a learner, it's a bit frustrating, though, when you say something and get told it's Italian.  Quite often it is, because I'm just guessing, but very often it is Corsican.  Because as with any language, there are variations.  Things I have learned from one source are "corrected" by someone from a different region with the usual "no, that's Italian" - it's kind of off-putting.

That said, it's not like I haven't experienced this kind of thing before, and it's not like I wasn't guilty of it myself for a fair while, because isn't it true that in the same way UK English defines itself as "not American"?  How many times do we criticise each other for using "Americanisms", when a great many Americanisms actually originated in regional variation within the British Isles?  And given that a great many of these originated in Hiberno-English or in Scots, or indeed the Gaelic languages of both Ireland and Scotland, and given that I'm a Scot of Irish ancestry... well, when someone from another part of the UK criticised me for using Americanisms, was it true?  Had I really picked up "bad habits" from TV?  And when I did the same thing, was it true?  Or was the real crime not "Americanism", but simply "being different from me"?

Because that's one of the biggest problems that any group identity faces: the false assumption of identicality.  Even within a group, we must all be allowed variation and individual identity.  One of the reasons Scottish nationalism often slips into Anglophobia is as a reaction to the uniform notion of "Britishness" that is imposed on us from the south.  "British people" hate the French (Scotland's historical ally) and "British food" includes many regional English dishes, but no Scottish ones.  "British people" wave the flag and love the queen.

This narrow notion of "Britishness" doesn't account for or allow the full variation of individual identity within the group of people it purports to define, so it is rejected by a great many people.

People say that nationalism is inherently bad because it focuses on differences, and is therefore divisive.  I say that is not to be taken as a given: I believe that there is a real need to focus on our differences and to accept them.  It is when we try to pretend that those differences don't exist that we become divided.