I've been a bit preoccupied with exam season and have been putting off many things, including blogging. But I'm going to try to get back into it, and I'm going to try to get this blog back on the language track, and I'll mostly be posting my thoughts on MOOCs elsewhere.
So here for your perusal is some recent thoughts on the filter of perception, and how it affects notions of learning by absorption.
During a recent break, while I was holed up at my parents' house due to a foot injury (a pratfall in a doorway), I started studying German with one of the free interactive web courses. I'm relatively happy with the course itself, although there are (as with any course) some rather stupid things in it.
There are various types of questions in the course, including translation, multiple-choice and taking dictations.
So there I was, and I heard the computer say to me:
"Liest du Büchen?"
which I started typing. But then I stopped, because I'd made a mistake with this before. The form I should have been typing was "Bücher". I knew this. But I'm telling you, I heard Büchen. Yes, the computer said Bücher, but I heard Büchen, clear as day.
The brain is a remarkable thing, and what we perceive is not always what hits our eyes or ears.
There are rules to the universe, and once our brain knows the rules, it filters what we receive to produce a perception that matches our expectation of the universe. If we see a man standing half-hidden behind a wall, we don't perceive "half a man", we perceive "a man that we can see half of". We make a rough guess at the hidden bits based on proportions relative to what we can see and the many hundreds of humans we've seen in our lives. If you see a man with a hand over one (presumed) eye, you assume there's an eye underneath, and you would only be surprised when he moved his hand if there wasn't an eye there.
In language, this is particularly useful as it lets us understand dialectal variation without too much effort, and crucially without ever having to truly "learn" the dialect we're trying to listen to.
If an Irishman said to me "ten times tree is tirty", I might well perceive "ten times three is thirty", and if the conversation was quick enough, I might not even be consciously aware that he had said T sounds instead of TH. And if I said to him that "ten times three is thirty", he wouldn't have any problems understanding me, just because I used the "extra" TH sound that isn't in his inventory.
But while that's good for the fluent speaker, it's a potential pitfall for the language learner. In the case of my German lesson, I had an unconscious rule in my head that said "-en is the German plural suffix" and that filtered the received "Bücher" and gave me the perceived "Büchen". Now before anyone blames "rules" for my error, let me make it clear that this was an internalised, procedural rule rather than a conscious, declarative one.
Had I never been punished for perceiving it wrong, my ear would probably never have been learned to perceive the difference, because there would have been no impetus to do so. (Say, for example, I was only asked to translate from German to English.)
And so it is for anyone living through a foreign language. I recall one interesting experience when doing a listening lesson with two private students (I thought I'd mentioned this here before, but I can't find it in my posting archive). There was a gist-listening exercise with comprehension questions, and then there was a series of close-listening tasks consisting of a sentence or two of audio and a fill-in-the-gaps version of the sentence on the worksheet. As they whittled away the gaps word by word, they were left with two gaps, but that wasn't enough, because every time they listening to the recording, they heard three words: "prices of houses". I replayed the file several times, watching them in fascination: "prices of houses", "prices of houses", "prices of houses". How was it that even when they were listening very, very closely, they couldn't perceive the simple phrase "house prices"?
As far as I can see, it comes down to this:
that structure wasn't part of their language model, and continued exposure to the language only trained their ability to filter the input to adapt it to their structure, rather than adapting their structure to match the input.
If we comprehend input by mangling it to match our internal model, then accurate acquisition by comprehensible input alone must be an impossible dream.