02 April 2013

Reinventing square wheels.

It's amazing the number of people on the internet that promise to do something entirely new, and then retread the same "new" ground that has proved fruitless for thousands before them.

Now don't get me wrong, I think it's great that so many people are willing to experiment, and I wish I had half the confidence in myself that they have in themselves, but I just wish they'd stop and do a bit more research and a bit more reflection before jumping in and declaring that they have the method to end all methods.

I won't name any names here (although if you've seen it, you'll know which one I'm talking about), but the latest is yet another picture-word mnemonic idea.  Well sorry, but that has been done innumerable times before, and there are even many professional resources on the market based on this idea.

The idea is certainly appealing: you can understand why it should work.  But more insidiously, you're consciously aware of everything you have learned using it, making it appear far more noteworthy than it is.  But it's a very limited technique, as a recent literature review published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest aptly demonstrates (see section 5: The Keyword Mnemonic).  It clearly works in the short term, but appears to be a potential barrier in the long term.  Either way, it takes up a lot of time, and the more mnemonic images you have, the harder it is to sort through them.  I myself have a couple of mnemonic images for Russian stuck in my head... but I can't remember what the word means.

Ponimatz.  A pony on a mat.  What does it mean?  I have no idea.
Patchimoo.  A Frisian cow (cos it's all patchy).  What does it mean?  I have no idea.

I can hear these words on TV and recognise them, and see the image, but I have absolutely no notion of what they mean.

The PSPI article picks up on this problem, with the idea of teaching French "dent" (tooth) with the image of a dentist holding a tooth in his pliars.  When you recall the image you have to decide whether you're looking at the dentist, the pliars, the tooth, the patient....  (Of course, "dent" was always going to be a particularly stupid word to teach that way, given that with "dentist" and "dental" in the English language, it's not a hard word to teach as a cognate.)

PSPI states also the obvious: images only lend themselves ready to certain, very concrete, concepts -- the problem with my Russian images is (if I remember correctly) that they were fairly abstract terms that don't have an obvious visual representation.

The latest "big idea" that I started talking about earlier seems to take that on board, thankfully.  The proposer suggests that he's picking some easy and memorable words to start with simply so that the learner has enough vocabulary to be able to learn grammar, based on the belief that you can't learn grammar without enough words behind you.  (Note that this is demonstrably untrue, as Michel Thomas demonstrated multiple times during his life.)  He decided from there that the trick was to use toilet humour, and teach moderately dirty words.

Unfortunately, he's fallen foul of just about every trap in the image mnemonic book.

First up, he mixes phonetic mnemonics with orthographic mnemonics.

So "pene" (penis) is phonetically twinned with "penne" (the pasta shape), but "ballena" (slender L, realised as /j/ in many dialects) is orthographically twinned with "ballet".

His mnemonics are also polluted by native-language phonology, particularly the Y and W-glide long vowels in English.  So "borracho" (drunk) (which he incidentally spelled wrong) is compared with a rat chewing.  Not only is the E blatantly the wrong vowel, but the mnemonic encourages the W-glide, something which has to be actively fought against when teaching Spanish to an English speaker, not encouraged.

This goes a step further when he equates "aburrido" (bored) with "a burrito".  As soon as I read that, I heard his accent.  But the weak US T is not the same as a Spanish D, and like the diphthongisation of vowels, the T/D distinction is something that needs to be actively taught/learned to avoid the learner falling into bad habits that are difficult to shift later on.  Worse: burrito is a Spanish word, borrowed into English, and the two words have nothing in common.  The mnemonic not only reinforces pre-existing phonemic confusion, but it also starts to mislead in terms of morphology: -ido is a past participle ending, and -ito is a diminutive.

Loan-words as a teaching device have always been fraught with difficulties, and there is one bookshelf audio course out there that makes the same mistake, teaching the -ado past participle ending in Spanish by comparison to "bravado", which we borrowed from Spanish in the first place.  The problem is, the teacher says a southern English "ado", with it's weak A sound, not the harder A of Spanish, and with the w-glide O diphthong, rather than Spanish's pure O.

I was going to give this guy a break, and leave him to just run out of steam quietly, but then after all his promises of having a "new" way that would teach grammar using dirty stories and insults, he suddenly popped up again on one of the forums asking for advice on how to teach grammar.

And this is the problem with languages on the internet -- there are a million and one guys out there who have "an idea", but one idea is not enough for an entire course.  There are so many variables to think about in teaching a language that I've been running over them in my head for about 8 years now and it's only after spending hundreds of hours in front of a classroom of students that I really feel I can start to knit my "ideas" together into some sort of coherent whole.

Are ideas useless...?
No, ideas are great.  But if you have one idea, don't attempt to build an entire teaching solution around it.  Start small.  Build resources; make things that other people with other ideas may be able to stitch together into something far more useful than you alone can make.

The internet is full of lesson 1s, sometimes with a lesson 2 and occassionally even a lesson 3.  But if you never get beyond that, and your material is tied to your lesson (whether through technical means or due to your choice of license), no-one will benefit from it.

If you try to be everything to everyone, you will fail, so why not just be something small, and let others may that something part of something big?


Anonymous said...

The Russian part is even better than you think for those of us who do know the word понимать... :)

" [...] based on the belief that you can't learn grammar without enough words behind you. (Note that this is demonstrably untrue, as Michel Thomas demonstrated multiple times during his life.)"
Um... "enough" is such an unprecise word, strictly speaking this means you can do without any words at all.

Nìall Beag said...

OK, good point. Not a precise enough word...

And thank you! I couldn't look the word up as I don't know cyrillic!

Nìall Beag said...

I think the full mnemonic was "I don't understand why the pony is sitting on a mat.

And unless I'm very much mistaken, the other word was почему , and I confused my "I don't understand" with my "asking why", so there was some mutual interference going on. (Although I recognised the verb ending for "understand".)

Anonymous said...

I'm positive it was почему, I can't think about a similar word you might come across as a beginner, the nearest that comes to mind is почти = almost, but it has one syllable less.

Just for fun, the mnemonic translated into Russian would be "Я не понимаю, почему этот пони сидит на коврике."