30 September 2014

Language shaped holes: looking back at my Gaelic learning

After my first couple of intensive (week-long) courses in Scottish Gaelic, I developed an analogy for how I thought language learning worked. Classes, I decided, don't put the language in your head, but instead drill "language-shaped holes" that you can later pour stuff into and, like jelly in a mould, what you get in the end is language.

A lot of my school-level language learning had worked that way too. I studied stuff, but really had no conscious command of most of it, but at some point later I mastered through a combination of self-study, practice and exposure. Adherents of the "input hypothesis" would say that only the last one counts, but I don't buy it.

The process I went through with Gaelic was all about production. The first courses I took favoured production over input (the teachers were kind of old-school) and outside of those courses, I took part in discussions on internet forums and at a conversation circle.

My strategy at the conversation circle was to read a little of a coursebook every week before going. The book was ordered grammatically, rather than the thematic units of modern TY/Colloquial and the like. This meant that I could pick a feature, read it up, and then practise it as much as possible during the hour-or-so of conversation.

Quite often, these were features that I'd studied in class but forgotten, and I don't think the book explanations alone would have done the trick.

I kind of went blank on the conditional for a long time, but I started noticing other people use it at the conversation circle. But I could not have noticed if there wasn't a conditional-shaped hole in my head.

Since then, I've decided that language-shaped holes are not the optimum manner of teaching, but as suboptimal goes, they're pretty good....