11 January 2013

TPR: how to teach Creole...?

I'm suffering from a persistent head cold that's messing up my right ear.  It's not just clogged or muffled, there appears to be some fluid buildup behind the drum that's messing around with frequencies and stuff.  So I went to the doctor, who really wasn't interested in my history (this has happened before, and the last doctor said it was liable to recurr) and more interested in what he could see (which isn't much, because the ear canal is badly inflamed).

Well, he's lived up to the stereotype of the French medical system and prescribed me more medicine than even my dear old granny had in the final years of her life.  The sound in my ear doesn't appear to be getting any worse, which probably means it's getting better.  (The last time I went back to the doctor several times over the course of the month complaining that it wasn't getting better, until eventually I got a different doctor who told me that even though the infection was gone, the fluid would take a long time to drain away, and there really was nothing to worry about.

It's not easy teaching a language when sounds are messed up, but in practical terms it only means that the students have to be more careful with their pronunciation.

But one little conversation in the waiting room really sparked my interest.  There was a guy there who must have been in his 60s.  His dad had been in the French military, so he had spent a lot of his younger years in Africa, where he had also been involved in teaching French to the locals, and his opinion on teaching was simple: "you have to move; there has to be movement".

Even though he wasn't familiar with the terminology, he was talking about the principles behind Total Physical Response: learning by reacting to commands, and then moving on to giving commands.  I'd been reading an amateur ebook on Mauritian Creole a couple of nights before, and something clicked...

Verbs in Mauritian Creole don't conjugate, and they have at most two forms: a "long form" with an /e/ sound at the end and a short form without it.  (There are some verbs with only one form, ending in a consonant.)  These two forms are more or less the singular and plural imperative forms: (you boy,) do that! and (you lot) do that!

On reflection, I may have jumped the gun a bit, because most French verbs in a fair percentage of their conjugations match quite closely with one of these two forms (parler, parlez, parlé, parlait, parlaient etc are all pronounced the same).

Still, there's enough data there to make me wonder, even if I can't draw a firm conclusion, because most French verbs not ending in -er (/e/) in the infinitive still become -ez (/e/) in the plural imperative.

The responsibility for the formation of Creole languages is often put down to the speakers themselves trying to muddle through the best they can, but isn't it possible that the pedagogy of the imperial powers has contributed to it to?

I doubt the man I was chatting to had ever heard of James Asher (the "inventor" of TPR) and I imagine he was doing what the French military and overseas administration had been doing for ages, given that their teachers probably knew little or nothing of the local tongues.

I'm certainly preinclined to accept this theory, as I have encountered a lot of very common errors in learner English that don't have their origins in native-language interference, and can therefore only be explained as teaching errors....

No comments: