31 March 2012

Towards a model for sustainable language learning resources

The volume of language learning materials released over the years is unimaginable.  And yet, the resources available to the individual learner or teacher are incredibly limited.  Too much of the material that is available is bound to a particular course or learning task.

Nowadays people are making available for free, via the internet, material that is of use to the language learner, but unfortunately a lot of it is still bound to a particular task.

What we need is to see a critical mass of materials that can be used together by the creative teacher or learner.  There are a few current projects working towards this.  For example, there's the Leonardo Pools project, and notably among the Leonardo members, the Scottish Gaelic and English Guthan nan Eilean/Scottish Island Voices project.

What we've got here is videos that are available under an open license for teachers to use any way they chose.  (Sadly they've not given legally useful terms for the license, but it's a start...)  There's also a linked project around building online tools to use these resources, but to me that's a secondary issue.

What I said was that we need a "critical mass" of material, and what we're seeing from even the most prolific of the Pools teams isn't enough on its own to reach that level.  That's why we should all be thinking about what we could be doing to work towards that goal.  I'm not a fan of Benny Lewis's blog or his advice, but he's fairly prolific in making videos.  Now most of those videos aren't a great deal of use to the learner because they feature his own learner speech, but recently he posted a video of a presentation given in Quechua about traditional crafts, which is exactly the sort of thing that I would love to see more of.

So we could all go out and video natives speaking their own language.  Problem solved, right?

Not quite.  Who's going to use those materials?  How do we make sure people have the right to use them?  And what rights do we give them?

Should a commercial operation such as Lingq.com be allowed to use the material for free, in order to make a profit?

It's a tough one.  The limiting factor in most language courses is the volume of material, and the limiting factor with regards volume of material is the cost of production and licensing.  But still, should the public and publicly funded projects be paying for the production of the material and someone else be making the money?

Is language learning enough of a "social good" that the ability of others to profit without giving back is a necessary evil?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

29 March 2012

Why do I speak English?

Perhaps this seems like a weird question for an English speaker to ask himself, but I found myself facing this very question today.

I was invited up to the college counsellor's office for a quick chat.  I wasn't sure why, but I went along.  Well, it turns out that what it was was that we have a "Gaelic language officer" here, who is supposed to encourage us to speak Gaelic.

Well anyway, she'd raised that she'd heard me speaking English a few times recently.  I wasn't in trouble for it, like many of my classmates have been made to feel in the past, because I'd commented months ago that I was feeling low and you could always tell when I'm feeling low because I end up speaking English.  This isn't something that's specific to English -- when I'm low (or when I'm hungover) my language capacity just drops and speaking a foreign language becomes a chore and a source of frustration.

So the counsellor was more interested in making sure I was OK than telling me off, which was nice.

But it started me thinking about why I was speaking English yesterday, when the language officer had given me a rather stern warning.

Well I had been feeling a bit down either side of the weekend, but I think I'd cheered up a bit -- the nice summery weather we're getting really puts you at ease.

So maybe it was the tail end of a spell of avoiding Gaelic.
Or maybe it was that I was chilling out with an ice cream and English was part of that relaxation.

But I think there's more to it than that.

The guys I was with at the time were all from the learner course.  That immediately makes it harder to have a conversation.

One of them is a good friend who I'm always giving big brotherly advice to, and as most of the conversations we have go beyond her ability in Gaelic (and often mine too), we talk English, so English has become the default language for us.

One of the others I don't get on so well with.  She's very sarcastic and usually disapproves of everything I say or do.  And thinking about it, I tend to avoid speaking to her in Gaelic normally too.  So why?  The memory that jumps to mind when thinking about her is her getting upset at me for trying to correct her.

And that's probably the biggest reason I stick to a particular language with some people.  I just don't like listening to someone making mistakes consistently and repeatedly and not doing anything about it.  If the person won't take correction, then why are they speaking in that language?  You can't consider it a "learning experience" if you're not learning anything, so what's your goal?

So I've worked myself out: there's got to be a reason for speaking the language you're speaking -- it's either the best means of communication or you're learning from it.  (Or possibly you're doing it specifically to be friendly.)  Just speaking for the sake of it doesn't cut it with me.

28 March 2012

A Happy Accident in the Computer Room

I'd been working on an essay on my laptop, but I didn't have a Gaelic spellchecker installed.  Never mind - it was actually quite helpful to me to have to look up words in a dictionary when i wasn't sure (and I used a web-based one, so it didn't take long).

So when I was finished, I emailed it to my university mail account and went to the computer room to use the spellchecker there.

When I had opened up the message and I was just about to double-click the attachment, I realised my mistake: I had saved it Microsoft .DOC (Word) format, not .ODT; and the Gaelic spellchecker is only installed as part of OpenOffice.org, not Microsoft Office.  This meant that I was about open it in a word processor without a Gaelic spellchecker.

But rather than saving it and opening manually in OpenOffice, I double-clicked anyway.  Why?
Because I realised I would learn more by doing so.  I opened up OpenOffice as well, and copied and pasted the text across.  I let OpenOffice highlight the errors, then I manually corrected them in Microsoft Word.

I'm pretty sure I learnt more that way than I ever did clicking Accept... Accept... Accept... Accept... Accept....

24 March 2012

Children don't know how to repeat.

I've written about it before - it's my firm and considered opinion that the idea of trying to learn "like a child" is contrary to all the evidence and completely counterscientific.

It's something that I used to believe in, although I thought it would only work in an intensive situation, and that trying to force it into a short format for night classes or as part of a high school curriculum was doomed to failure.  But that was before I studied language at university.  The magic of immersion is pretty alluring, right up until you see the cold hard facts behind it.
Now don't get me wrong, it's impossible to set up a large scale double-blind study on child-rearing, so most of the facts are more tepid and slightly crumbly than cold and hard, but they're maybe the best we're going to get.

What research there has been is pretty much ad hoc - all we really have is a series of case studies performed by (mostly female) academic linguists as they bring their own children up.  The main finding, as my university teachers told me, was that children cannot be corrected.  They showed us several transcriptions of attempted corrections by the mums, but the most common occurrance was for the children to repeat the same thing they'd just said, "error" and all.  Don't believe me?  Have a look at this video of a parent from YouTube...

Why can't this kid say banana?  Because he hasn't learnt the word yet.  Simple.  But surely he should be able to repeat it when he hears it...?

Well no, because he hasn't learnt the fundamental components of the word banana.  A word is not a fundamental unit -- it is composed of syllables built and combined within certain constraints that vary from language to language.  "Banana" happens to be a very unusual word in English, so the rules that govern its construction won't usually be learned until fairly late on.  The traditional conclusion is that a child cannot repeat something that they wouldn't produce spontaneously; that the child develops a "theory" of language which is constantly refined by input, and that every utterence is realised in accordance with this theoretical grammar.

But people kept telling me that I didn't know what I was talking about, because I don't have kids myself.  They have kids, and they corrected them.  Why does this sensation persist?

Well have a look at this talk by MIT researcher Deb Roy.  He's a machine intelligence researcher rather than a linguist, but trying to mimic natural language is a major theme in machine intelligence.

At 4:20 onwards we get to hear Deb's son slowly progress from "gaga" to "water".  Interestingly, you can see a period of instability - he doesn't switch immediately to "water" and seems to revert to "gaga" for a while.  If there is a perception among parents that children can be corrected, it may well be because there is a zone where the child's grammar accepts both possibilities, and at this point the child presumably can be corrected, because he can spontaneously use both the incorrect and correct forms.

He goes on to point out the patterns of parent-child interaction:
And what we found was this curious phenomena, that caregiver speech would systematically dip to a minimum, making language as simple as possible, and then slowly ascend back up in complexity. And the amazing thing was that bounce, that dip, lined up almost preciselywith when each word was born -- word after word, systematically. So it appears that all three primary caregivers -- myself, my wife and our nanny -- were systematically and, I would think, subconsciously restructuring our language to meet him at the birth of a word and bring him gently into more complex language. 
So the natural teaching process appears to occur as and when the child is ready for the language feature in question, without the caregiver ever knowing they're doing it.

The parent's perception of correction can most likely be explained thus:
The parent attempts correction frequently.
The child generally rejects the correction.
The child accepts the correction a rare few times, when they're in the unstable zone between the incorrect and the correct zone.
These few successful instances are more significant to the parent than the many unsuccessful instances, biasing the parent's memories.

Whatever, children learn whether we consciously try to teach them or not.
But children will not be able to repeat "what is your name" until they have learnt question word order, possession, "what" and "name".  An adult, however, will be able to parrot them without any access to the underlying concepts whatsoever.  A child can only learn these concepts and structures through exposure as this is our only "interface" with the infant brain, but we can get direct access to an adult brain through the language the adult already has.  It is pretty trivial to demonstrate that any successful adult learner does indeed think about a new language in the abstract, regardless of the medium of instruction: just ask them a question.

The adult learner attempting to "learn like a child" will be relying on higher-order reasoning, but the immersive environment does little to prepare the material for a higher-order approach. Conscious instruction, with native language input, gives the opportunity to do it right.

(Which is not to say that it guarantees to do it right, but that's a matter of methodology....)

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...?

13 March 2012

Rastamouse the Racist Rat

I was reading a Guardian article on a new TV programme aimed at teaching toddlers foreign languages.  I've not got much to say about the programme itself short of the fact that experts seem to agree that TV alone cannot teach a child a language.  There is some indefinable "magic" that the real world gives to language.  Until we know what that is, TV can only tickle the edges of the language learning experience.  So the programme will be a moderate success because parents love it, but the kids won't get much out of it in the long run.

But what sparked this post was seeing a reference to "the controversial Rastamouse".  Rastamouse was, in my opinion, controversial for the wrong reasons.  It was criticised for teaching "bad English", because it was scripted in a dialect on the creole continuum between Jamaican English and Jamaican Patois.

Ever since I hit the section on creoles during my university studies, I've wanted to learn Patwa, so I was really excited when I found out about Rastamouse.  But then I watched it.  Rastamouse does not teach bad English, but in fact bad Jamaican Patois.  Most if not all of the actors are English.  Would you have a bunch of English actors record a series filmed in French?  Probably not.

So I looked at the credits list.  All these voice actors... what did they have in common?  They're all black.  Voice actors, remember.  What relevance does skin colour have to the voice?  Rather more important is accent, surely.  And yet the IMDB CV for the actor behind one of the recurring characters only lists "British" under his accent.

In this manner, the BBC undermined their own point: if the speech in Rastamouse is not "bad English" but a separate and legitimate language, how could it be delivered by English speakers?

The implied connection of language with skin colour is abhorrently racist, even though it was clearly a conscious attempt not to be racist.

Language is about people and place, and if you want to make a cartoon series involving Jamaican Patois, you should get Jamaican Patois speakers to voice it, white or black, it doesn't matter.  Just Jamaican.

10 March 2012

Minority Languages aren't tied to Political Parties

It's all too often that you'll see people decrying Scottish Gaelic as some kind of tartan-wrapped plot by the Scottish Nationalist Party to trick people into independence.

Well, sorry, but it's not.

A) Gaelic has had cross-party support, and cross-party opposition in both Westminster and Holyrood.

B) Scottish Gaelic is more of a weapon against Scottish nationalism than a tool for it.  After all, people see it as a tartan-wrapped plot by the Scottish Nationalist Party to trick people into indepedence.  People don't trust it.  People don't like it.  Which is a bit mean of them, but that's beside the point.  Gaelic doesn't win elections.  No party claims it as their own.

Anyhow, back to A: cross-party support.

An early-day motion has been presented to parliament by Tom Harris MP, Labour member for Glasgow South.  This motion calls for Westminster to give the same status to Gaelic as it has already done for Welsh.  The motion is sponsored by Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon constituency (Aberdeenshire); Tom Clarke, Labour, Coatbridge Chryston and Bellshill; Jim Cunningham, Labour, Coventry South (yes, England); Graeme Morrice, Labour, Livingston; Jim Sheridan, Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North.

To date, 25 MPs have signed.  Yes, all 5 SNP MPs have signed, but then they would, wouldn't they?  You might also expect Plaid Cymru and the SDLP to sign, and 2 of Plaid Cymru's 3 have signed and all 3 SDLP MPs have signed. But the motion has been backed by 3 LibDems and 12 Labour MPs, so over half the support is from mainstream parties.  7 of the MPs represent English constituencies, and in addition to the 2 Plaid signatories, there are 2 Welsh Labour MPs.

It is clearly not a partisan issue, and the majority (14 out of 25) are not in Scottish constituencies.  It was proposed by Labour.

A language is not a political party, and people would do well to remember that....

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.

02 March 2012

The inconsistency of prescriptivism

I was recently involved in a little "edit war" on Wikipedia (now there's something of a hyperbole -- comparing a few mouse clicks to bullets and napalm) and it provided a great example of the arbitrariness of prescriptivist grammar.

"Prescriptivism" is the view that there is such a thing as objectively "correct" language, and the imposition of rules on everyone's language.

It is the prescriptivists that teach us that you use "may I...?" to ask for permission to do something when in natural speech we practically always use "can I...?".  The dangerous thing about prescriptivism is that we believe the myth and spread it, even though we don't actually do it ourselves.  So a native speaker will often "correct" a learner who uses perfectly normal, natural English.  This is a Very Bad Thing, as it makes it much, much harder for the learner.

Anyway, the prescriptivist will tell us that double-negatives are very, very wrong.  Well, there was a time when they weren't, and English operated much like the rest of Western Europe, not doing nothing to nobody.  The prescriptivists got their way, though, and eventually they managed to drive the English double-negative to extinction.

Well, almost.

For some reason, many of the same prescriptivists who insist that "a double negative is a positive" (and there ain't never been no truth to none of that) will also insist that not ... nor is "more correct" than not ... or, and likewise neither ... nor over neither ... or.

Why have people in general stopped using nor?  There's a very simple explanation: we don't think in double-negatives any more -- the prescriptivists taught us not to.  Nor only ever existed as the second of a double negative.

We can split most negative pairs and have two valid modern English sentences:
I haven't never been there -> I haven't ever been there / I have never been there
I haven't done nothing -> I haven't done anything / I have done nothing

But look what happens when we try that with nor.
I had neither one nor the other -> I had neither one or the other / *I had either one nor the other

Keeping only one negative in the sentence produces two options: keeping the first negative (not or neither) gives a clear and comprehensible sentence; keeping the second negative results in a sentence which is unclear and difficult to comprehend.  But we had to lose one, because our model of English rejects the double negative.  Hence we lost nor.

Arguing against "I ain't done nothing" while simultaneously arguing for "neither... nor" is likely telling everyone to take up a vegetarian diet, but saying that bacon isn't meat....