20 November 2012

Is language subconscious?

Is language subconscious?  It's a question I hadn't given much thought to -- I'd always pretty much taken it for granted that it was.

Well anyway, apparently it's been a pretty contentious topic in linguistics and psychology for a while now, but a group of scientists from Hebrew University have found compelling evidence that it is, indeed, subconscious.  (And not only "language" language, but even symbolic mathematical language to an extent).

Discussing this elsewhere called to mind a time when I was working on learning Scottish Gaelic with the aid of a piece of software.  It flashed the word "eye" up on the screen, and I couldn't translate it.  I had a complete block.  I knew the word.  I knew I knew the word.  But it wouldn't come.

It felt to me like my brain didn't believe it was "eye", and that it wasn't sure it wasn't "I", or "aye" (or possibly even "ay").

The way I see it, a conscious language skill should have allowed me to override this confusion through conscious attention to the written form, which is (in theory) unambiguous.  The fact that I couldn't force my way through to the correct meaning suggested that language is something you have less conscious control over than you think....

But fair enough, I've always felt that contextless words are very much a first step, and that for the most part you should be practising in context.  This experience kind of confirmed it for me.

But the publishing of the findings came at the perfect time for me, having just written the draft of my last blog post about translation, and the way I automatically translated frames of reference (eg using the first person when the software says "you are..." etc), because that's the source of my dilemma:

Translation is effective precisely because native language is understood subconsciously.  You understand and internalise the meaning effortlessly.  This means you know exactly what message you want to express in the target language.  There is no other means for a teacher, book or software package to indicate so clearly to a learner what do say.  Also, there is no other means to ensure that the teacher knows exactly what the student is trying to say (I've heard many teachers "correct" students errors by leading them to say something that is valid in the target language, but completely different in meaning to what they intended to say).

Translation is ineffective if and whenever the native language is not understood subconsciously.  Too many courses present contrived, meaningless examples.  Perhaps these aren't quite as nonsensical as the examples the researchers from Hebrew University used, but as long as they are unnatural, they will interfere with subconscious processing, leaving the learner to process them consciously -- it's not "translation" that's the real problem here, it's "word juggling".

And translation's weak spot is the one I mentioned in my last blog post: our subconscious deals with relative references automatically.  When you say the word "I" to me, I understand the concept of you, the person speaking.  So dealing with first and second person pronouns is a perilous task.  In order to do it correctly, the student has to stop using their subconscious processing, and language starts to become a conscious process... which is when translation stops working as a language learning technique.

This leads me to a conclusion that I really didn't expect, and that I'm not yet fully convinced of:
the optimal mixture of native-language instruction and target-language instruction in the classroom isn't a simple function of how advanced the students are, it goes right down to the level of "I" vs "he".


16 November 2012

Just how do you prompt a student?

I'm a big fan of the courses recorded by Michel Thomas before his death, and I'm always happy to say so.  The biggest complaint I hear about the Thomas courses are that they "teach you to translate".  The argument goes that because the students are only ever prompted with their native language (English) then they never learn to "think in" their target language.  This bold assertion lacks any substantial evidence.  I would argue that translation is one of the best methods of prompting a student, and that avoiding it actually delays proficiency.

Last year I wrote a post entitled Translation: an unjustified scapegoat, in which I pointed out that translation is very very often blamed for errors that do not arise from native-language interference, and therefore cannot be translation errors.  What I neglected to say is that this is a real demotivator for learners.  To be told categorically that they're translating, when they don't really believe they are translating, and to be told to do something else without any instructions on how to do it... well, the teacher is essentially blaming the student.  That's not teaching, sorry.

Anyway, that's not the main point of this article, so time to put the train of thought back on the rails.

I am in favour of translation for three main reasons:

1: Translation allows simultaneous focus on meaning and form

If you perform a language class in the target language only, it is all too common for the answer to be mechanically reproducible from the question, without any real need to understand the meaning of either.

eg Do you have a flargrard? - No, I don't have a flargrard.

I've no idea what a "flargrard" is, so it's a reasonable bet I don't have one. (Note to non-native English-speaking readers: the word "flargrard" doesn't exist -- I made it up for this example.)

It gets worse if you include substitution drills:

House: I have a house - I have a house
Cat - I have a cat.
Dog - I have a dog.
Flargrard - I have a flargrard

Translation, on the other hand, gives the student a prompt that can be understood unambiguously.  The student cannot fail to understand the full meaning of the sentence, a meaning which will therefore be instrinsically linked to the target sentence.

2: The so-called "form focus" of many monolingual tasks is really no such thing.

If the task can be done mechanically, as in the "answer in questions" example above, or the substitution drill, then you never have to select the appropriate form.  You never have to recall it from memory.  If you don't have to recall it from memory, you cannot learn to recall it from memory.

In fact, it is pretty much impossible to devise a monolingual language task that will elicit the required grammar point/structure spontaneously.  You either supply them with the structure, or you end up involved in a metalinguistic discussion that leads to one or two of the class recalling the "rule", and if we end up talking about rules, we're not connecting with spontaneous language.

3: Target-language-only normally fails to be "naturalistic".

I've discussed the issues of expository vs naturalistic language before, and in this case, I'll refer you back to the question Do you have a flargrard?  The natural response is to say simply "No," or "No, I don't," but we're generally forced to answer in (unnatural) sentences in the monolingual classroom: "No, I don't have a flargrard."  I don't know about you, but I don't like "answering in sentences" -- my brain knows it's wrong and unnecessary.  I don't like telling students off for not answering in sentences because I see this as evidence that they're actually involved in language, rather than just juggling words.

So target-language-only is potentially devoid of practice of both meaning and form, which I'd say is a pretty big problem for language learning!

Is translation the panacea then?

Well, no, because it certainly has its pitfalls.

For example, if I ask you to translate "a brown bear", am I asking you to say "a bear of colour brown" or "a bear of the species brown bear, also known as grizzly"?  And even if both translate to the same thing in the target language, there's a point of assymetry when we hit "white bear", which is not ambiguous.  Prompts for translation must be very carefully selected, then.

This limits how far we can learn a language by translation, obviously.  We cannot learn every noun and idiom by direct translation, but we don't need to -- the trick is to use translation where it's (1) obvious and easy or (2) where conscious awareness of the difference helps overcome a specific difficulty.

(1) The "obvious and easy" would include my favourite example: conditional sentences in English vs Romance languages, which translate pretty much directly -- eg  "If I was/were you, I would...", "If I'd known you were coming I'd have baked a cake" etc.  This is "advanced" material in traditional classes, but translation makes it trivially easy (to the point where Michel Thomas would be teaching it on the second or third day of his courses).

(2) An example of a specific difficulty is the difference in idiom between "to be" an age in English and "to have" an age in the Romance languages.  Not a difficult rule, but even after loooots of practice, you'll often here a learner make the mistake one way or the other.  So the practice method the teacher uses gets the student to produce the desired answer, but it doesn't build any resistance to native-language interference, so in an uncontrolled setting the original error returns.  (And the teacher blames the student for translating, and the student is confused and disheartened etc.)

One of the biggest visible benefits of translation though, is simple:

Speed, volume and throughput of practice

Because translation starts with a readily-understood prompt, you don't have to waste too much time thinking about what the prompt means or what you're being asked to do.  This means you can get through a lot more questions.  A translation-based lesson that manages to present no more questions than a target-language-only lesson is a wasted opportunity.

In an attempt to teach myself Corsican, I've written a little program that conjugates, combines and declines words and presents them to me as translation tasks, checks my answers and tells me if I got them right or wrong.  I can batter through hundreds of examples in very little time.  Kind of exhausting, yes, but pretty effective.  A couple of hours using it, spread over a couple of weeks, has hammered in some of the basics pretty solidly.


Translation's biggest problem

Once you start whipping through the questions at speed, you really do start to work on autopilot, and you start to see patterns emerging in your errors.  And I noticed one specific type of mistake that I made frequently that I hadn't been too aware of before... I kept switching my "I" and my "you".

It makes perfect sense, now that I think about it, and I probably did it a lot with MT, even though I didn't pay it any mind at the time.  And heck, I've even heard the same thing from some of my students when I've asked them to translate short sentences.

Because when the computer says to me "you know it", that "you" refers to me.  It's "eio", "io", "je", "yo", "ich" or whatever.  That's what it means.  Literal direct translation is therefore something of a higher-order function, an abstraction.

And yet it seems to be quite effective.  So what do we do?

Well, personally I'll be attempting to stay away from first and second-person references as much as possible.  I'll be sticking to the minimum required to learn them individually as grammar points, but when the person is included only as part of the context for a sentence testing another grammar point, I'll favour "he/she/it/they" over "I/we/you".

But I'll certainly be paying more attention to what exactly happens when we translate.  I still think it's one of the best tools the learner has, but we've just got to work to eliminate the ambiguities....

14 November 2012

By yon bonnie banks....

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority in Scotland have been busy refreshing their public image with their logo, which is pretty nice, even if it does look a little bit like an island.  (I'd say it's most like Barra, but only after a few meters of sea-level increase turns Eoligarry into a separate island.)

They've put up some fancy new stone signs at some of the entrances to the park, too:

It's very nice, I'm sure you'll agree.  There's only two problems.

First up, why on Earth is "the Trossachs" so much smaller than "Loch Lomond"?  As a child, I spent a heck of a lot of time visiting the Trossachs (Loch Venachar being one of the few lochs in the area suitable for swimming in) and not a lot of time around Loch Lomond.  I personally feel a wee bit aggrieved that the much nicer part plays second fiddle to something everyone knows from "that song"....

But secondly, there's no Gaelic on it.  Nothing out of the ordinary in that, and while it was traditionally part of Highland Gaeldom, Gaelic is now extinct in the local area.


The signage to the park had been raised bilingually, which means that this new (and expensive) sign is actually taking away the existing visibility and status for the language.

I've written to the park authority:
I am from near to the national park (Gargunnock) and a frequent visitor. At present I am working overseas, but am looking forward to finishing and getting home, and getting my bike back up the Duke's Pass, along the Inversnaid road and round Loch Katrine.

I am aware that the park has taken on a new brand identity, reflected both on the website and on new long-life stone signage erected at certain major entrance points.

I am disappointed, however, to find that the new logo has no space for the Gaelic name of the park, and that this has led to existing bilingual signage being replaced by a monolingual alternative, which is directly contrary to the general trend in Scotland.

Indeed, it is likely that at some point the park authorities will be subject to a Gaelic Language Plan, and that one of the key actions for the park will be the use of bilingual branding and signage. It is therefore easily foreseeable that the present signage will need to be replaced in the not-too-distant future, leading to additional expenses on the park that could have been avoided had a little foresight been applied.

I am currently living and working in Corsica, one of the many minority areas in Europe that considers themselves a "nation". The current debate over independence has led to increasing exposure for Scotland in the public consciousness here, and in other areas such as the Basque Country and Catalonia, where developments in Scotland are often featured in major news bulletins.

This presents an opportunity for Scotland, whether or not we eventually opt for independence.

While Gaelic does not represent a central feature of Scottish identity in the same way as Welsh in Wales, Catalan in Catalonia and Basque in the Basque Country, it is certainly a feature that is currently garnering much attention, and is therefore useful in attracting tourists. Loch Lomond, the Trossachs and most of the placenames therein are Gaelic in origin, and this is something that should be exploited to its maximum to attract tourists to the area.

Thank you for your time and attention in this matter,

All of this is true.

In my classes here, several people have asked me if I speak Gaelic -- I don't get that a lot.  When I was living in Edinburgh, newly-arrived Catalans, Basques and Galicians would ask about the language.  It is a tourist asset.

I say this, but I am not one of those learners who proudly declare that Gaelic is "my language".  It is not.  I was brought up in the lowlands, in a village that probably spoke an Anglo-Saxon tongue from its very founding (there are various Celtic-derived placenames in the vicinity, but most of these are very, very old).  I didn't start learning Gaelic until my mid-twenties, and even then I learned Spanish to a much better level.  Either "my language" is English, or "my languages" are Scots and English.  I am a nationalist, but my support for Gaelic isn't about Scottish nationalism (most people do not consider Gaelic a pre-requisite for Scottishness, so Gaelic is more likely to damage nationalism than help it).

Gaelic deserves its support simply as a mark of respect for people who speak the language.  (By extension, any learner who claims to "love the language more than a native speaker" has completely missed the point of why you should learn someone else's language.)

But if that's not good enough, then be mercenary: Gaelic is a marketable asset.  Scotland has a limited tourist draw thanks to its climate and those ******* midgies.  Gaelic can be employed as a commercial tool to sell us as a destination for people from the other small nations of Europe, rather than relying on the New World diaspora revisiting their roots, and the odd European whisky fan on a "distillery pilgrimage"....

13 November 2012

More than words....

It is a truism that a language isn't just a collection of words.  This is interpreted by some teachers and learners that meaning that there's no point in studying a language formally, and they instead propose that we should memorise set phrases, and just read stuff until we understand.

OK, perhaps I'm overstating the case, and building something of a strawman out of the extreme position.  However, even if most practitioners attempt to mix the two approaches, they've still missed the point of the observation.

It's called the "Principle of Compositionality" and it's summed up excellently in O'Reilly's book by Steven Bird, Ewan Klein, and Edward Loper on the Natural Language Toolkit for Python programming:
the meaning of a complex expression is composed from the meaning of its parts and their mode of combination
There's a deeper examination of the term at Wikipedia, but Bird et al's summary is pretty clear and correct.

So a language isn't just a collection of words.  It's a collection of words and a collection of ways of combining words.  (Ignoring the fact that a "word" is often a combination of smaller morphemes.)

Teaching individual phrases as fixed units leaves behind much of the subtle, beautiful complexity of how languages build up their meaning.

In English teaching, it is often claimed that so-called "phrasal verbs" are not systematic and must be memorised, but what we do with "verb + particle", the Romance languages do with "prefix + verb root".  A fire extinguisher puts out fires, and we shout out our exclamations.  Seems pretty systematic to me.  (Not to mention German, where a prefix often becomes detached from its verb and becomes a particle -- see?  it's all part of a single spectrum....)

And when people talk about the arbitrarity of "to be" vs "to have" in ages (en "I am 33" vs fr, it, es etc "I have 33 years"), well, at least it's consistent within the language.  It's a logical consequence of the Romance "to have" structure that phrases like "at 40" (life begins...!) become "with 40" in these languages.

But while most learners are capable of getting a handle on the be/have difference, I still meet a great many people who borrow the "with" structure into English.  How easy would it be for the teacher to point out a few of these little things?  To encourage the learner to build a meaningful model that (at least in part) mirrors the native speaker's one?

But perhaps that would take too much time.  Nevertheless, we have built an environment where we discourage our students from looking for meaning and structure.  We expect them to resign themselves to learning everything as an arbitrary single data-point.

That subtle, beautiful complexity I was talking about?  We hide it from them.  We keep it from them.  We make learning a language into an ugly, clumsy drudge.  What we are hiding from them isn't just thte beauty of the language, because that beauty is intrinsic to the language.  To hide the beauty, we must hide the language.

How can we teach someone a language we are unwilling to truly share with them?

09 November 2012

Speaking tasks.

So I've been setting lots of speaking tasks in class recently, and I've had a chance to test out a bit of received wisdom that was passed on to me in my training, and appears in various books etc.  It is said that giving students the opportunity to script a speaking task helps build confidence and ability for later spontaneous production.

My experience is slightly different.  What I see again and again is students crippled by indecision.  I hear them sitting discussing (in French) what to write, and almost invariably deciding that they can't write that.  They agree on a great many things that they can't write, and very few that they can.  If it takes more than a quarter of an hour to script a minute or two of dialogue, I can't see how that will be of any use to them in later spontaneous production.

I don't think I'll be doing a great many of this type of exercise in the future....

05 November 2012

New languages, and new views on old ones....

I had a bit of a realisation this morning about English, and it's all thanks to Corsican.  Corsican tends to weaken certain vowels when they're unstressed.  So marking the stressed vowel with bold type, "accende" (the infinitive to light or enflame) becomes "accindite" (present, 2nd person plural).  And this happens with almost all Es.  Almost.  Note the unstressed E at the end of both accende and accindite.  But these unstressed Es only seem to occur where they have a specific grammatical purpose -- as far as I can tell any other E becomes I.

Now in certain parts these vowel "mutations" don't occur, but the majority dialects tend to do it.  The odd thing, then, is that vowel mutation happens even though speakers of the language are evidently capable of saying the "forbidden" sound.  Why not say it if you can?

Well, somewhere along the line, I started thinking about English, and in particular the prefixes pre- and re-.

There's two pronunciations for each: one with schwa and one with /i/.  The schwa occurs wherever the syllable has no stress, normally adjacent to the primary stressed syllable -- eg "report", "reply" -- and the /ri/ pronunciation when it has secondary stress.  So that's an "ee" sound, like a Corsican "I".  It never seems to have an "eh" sound, like a Corsican "E".

And no matter how much I try to, I can't think of a single word in English with the "eh" of "pedal" and "petal" anywhere but in the position of primary stress.

Unless your American, in which case it occurs everywhere.

And that's what I'd never noticed before -- I always thought of the US "reh"-produce as though it was something specific to the re- prefix, but it's a bit more fundamental than that, isn't it...?

02 November 2012

Why I'm afraid of conlangs

Part of me loves the idea of building new languages for fun, and I've often considered learning one myself.  If nothing else, I don't imagine there's a great amount of competition in the teaching space for sci-fi languages like Klingon and Avatar's Na'vi.

But every time I get close to giving it a go, I back off.  Why?

We can start with the "big one": Esperanto.  I've mostly specialised in Romance languages, a choice which is in part laziness.  But only in part.  The more I learn of the Romance languages, the more I'm fascinated by the way the languages form a continuum.  Corsican, for example, has the unique feature of having two major dialect groups that have a phonology much like Italian (in the south) and far more "Iberian" in nature (in the north).  In the south, double vowels are "geminated" (lengthened) as in Italian.  In the north, they aren't, and a single vowel may be "lenited" (softened, weakened, lightened). So while in the south, the island name "Corsica" is said much like an Italian would expect, the pronunciation in the north softens the second C by voicing it -- making it sound identical to a G.  Spanish people call the island "Córsega".  Past participle endings in Italian almost all have a /t/ sound: -ato, -ito, -uto; in Spanish they have a /d/: -ado, -ido.  And in the south of Corsica it's a T sound and in the north a D (both represented in the written form by the same single letter T).  But of course the "D" of -ado in Spanish in some accents is weakened to /ð/ ("th" of English "the")... and if you put a single D between two vowels in Northern Corsican, you get the same sound.

When I first looked at Esperanto, I saw that it took Romance roots and Germanic roots, and it modified them in ways that were not possible within the two language families themselves.  As I learn more Romance languages, I find I'm more able to deal with variations, so I can almost understand languages like Portuguese and Occitan, even though I haven't learnt them.  My fear with Esperanto, then, was feeding "false data" into the language function -- polluting the natural spectrum that I am acquiring with points that would mislead my brain and reduce my ability to understand one language from another.

It's an unprovable assertion, and no-one's going to be able to prove otherwise with enough certainty to make me risk it.

My latest temptation was the idea of using a simple language such as Toki Pona as a test case for a language learning application/framework that I've been trying to develop.  I figured that its minimalist featureset and its completely formalised, regularised grammar would make it a simple and quick language to program and test.

But what scared me off this time was V.S. Ramachandran's notion of "synkinesthesia" -- the idea that language is about shape at some level.  When thinking about pronouns and demonstratives, I always remember watching Ramachandran on TV demonstrating the "pointing" that a speaker will do with their lips when using many of these words.  I was helping someone learn Gaelic over the summer, and she could never remember her "here,there,yonder" distinction, so I pointed out to her that "seo" feels close (the tongue stays in the back of the mouth), "sin" points forward a bit (palatalised N) and "siud" is far away (dental T, tongue nearly leaves the mouth).  It seemed to help her (at the time, at least).

But that's something that no conlang I know of covers.  Perhaps there are conlangers incorporating Ramachandran's ideas -- it's an idea I've toyed with myself in the past -- but then again, it's still just theory.

Any conlang can only encode what is known in theory, and will miss many of the subtleties of real languages that have evolved through natural usage and change.  It may even miss one of the really core ideas of real language.

It's the same, then, as my original concern about Esperanto, but the system isn't one of sound changes and a few superficial syntactic differences: no, what I'm worried about now is that I train myself out of recognising the underlying principles of natural language by teaching my brain an artifical language that doesn't exhibit them.