27 November 2014

The feeling of "I should be able to speak this..."

Right now, I'm sitting in a beautiful part of the world: Franconia, a culturally and historically distinct region of Germany, mostly within the boundaries of modern Bavaria.

Or to cut a long story short, I'm on holiday in Germany, and people around me are speaking lots of German.

I've studied a little bit of German, having done most of the Michel Thomas course and 8 or 9 levels of the Duolingo course. When I'm in the shops, the bars and the streets, I keep hearing German, and although I don't understand it, I feel completely like I could. The sounds, the rhythms and even some of the words just feel natural to my ears.

And so I will learn German properly now. I'm not going to wait another month just for the sake of turning it into a New Year's resolution. Previously, I'd been using German as a mostly-unknown language so that I could get a feel for what DuoLingo was doing (and I have lots of year-old notes and screenshots on a harddrive somewhere, prep work for a review that I never bothered to write up) so it wasn't a serious push. Time to change that.

This is a feeling I've had before, and it's always been followed by an intense period of focus, because my brain is just ready to soak up all that it needs.

I suppose it's a bit like cycling up a hill, and struggling up a steep bit, then hitting a milder uphill that feels almost like a downhill. You're still peddling, still pushing yourself up, but somehow it feels effortless by comparison to the previous slog.

Ich will Deutsch sprechen können.
(I hope that's the right word order...)

12 November 2014

Language tends to deteriate dramasticly.

Johnson, the guy who compiled that famous early dictionary of English, once said
Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay,
There seems to be a value judgement their against the natural processes of language change, but it strikes me as far less clear than others make out.

Is he talking about how language change in general? Was he lamenting the loss of conservative feature such as "thee"/"thou" and subjunctive conjugations?

Or was he talking about loss of precision in language, such as the change in meaning of "decimation" from "killing one tenth" via "massacre" to more general "destruction".

Either way, language does most definitely change, and the two words in the title that your spellchecker probably would say aren't words at all are good examples that I hear with reasonable frequency in my own life.

I don't know how many of you will have worked out there meanings and/or origins from reading them, but please leave a comment to let me know.


Of the two, this is the one I hear most often; from my own mouth, from the mouths of friends, and often even on TV. You probably hear it too. It's simply a contraction of "deteriorate". It occurs in the derived noun too: "deteriation".

The loss of a vowel in the middle of a sentence is what we call "syncope". Syncope is particularly common where a vowel is sandwiched between two instances of the same consonant. Here, it's the repeated R that triggers the lost syllable.

A more topical example of the same mechanism is the word "quantitative", as in "quantitative easing". Listen to the news, and most reporters will pronounce it fully. In an unscripted interview, though, you may just hear "quantative". Discuss the economy in a bar, and after a couple of glasses, you'll all be saying it that way. Even that form still has two Ts, so one day it might just shrink to "quantive".

What's interesting about "deteriate", though is the /i/ sound. We haven't lost the "io" from deteriorate, and just had the Rs collide, we've lost the "or". Hmmm...


(Or possibly "dramastically".) This is something I'm not aware of hearing that much. I associate it particularly with my little sister (although I'm aware that several of us in the family have said it), and a few months ago I heard it in the pub in my parents' village, so maybe it's a local thing. I'll keep my ears open.

This work is a confusion between "dramatically" and "drastically", and I was always conscious of that fact. But that doesn't mean it's not a legitimate word. We have a lot of evidence of words "falling together" in multiple languages.

For example, the conjugations of the verb "to go" in Spanish, French and Italian are a mixture of three verbs in Latin: andare, ire and vadere. But now they're just one word.

A far more recent example of falling together is the term "nailed it".

Most of us would associate that with getting something right/doing it perfectly. In that sense, it derives from the phrase "to hit the nail on the head" and evolved from saying the perfect answer to doing something really well, like "nailing" a jump at a skate park.

On the other hand, we have the management version, where "nailing" something is just getting it finished. It probably derives from the phrase "to nail ((something)) to the wall". That's pretty much the opposite meaning, because that phrase is all about not doing things perfectly. The metaphor is a kitchen cabinet -- you don't care if the door is slightly squint, you just want it on the wall so that the job's finished and everyone can go home.

Both of these long proverbial forms have reduced to the same verb, which can cause misunderstandings.

This sort of change isn't uncommon, though, so you should always be careful about discounting any theory about the origin of a term because of some other theory. It could turn out that both are right....

01 November 2014

Newsflash: unquestioning praise considered harmful!

I have found myself for years defending the teaching profession against what I saw as unwarranted attacks. People accused the culture of praise in modern schooling as being namby-pamby liberal nonsense. I tried to explain there was a good body of evidence behind it.

But news came this week of a report rubbishing the practice.

Perhaps my mistake was in trying to educate the lay people rather than the teachers. You see, most teachers didn't get it, not because individually they aren't bright, motivated professionals, but because the news came to them filtered through layers of management, focus groups and in-service training teams, each of which reinterpreted what the last had told them in a great game of academic Chinese whispers.

The message that reached the teachers wasn't the message that the psychological studies had given, but something completely different: "Always encourage! Never criticise!" I never believed that could work. I have always hated praise or encouragement when I don't understand something. The difference between me and a "bad learner" is that when this happens, I don't lose faith in myself -- I lose faith in the teacher. (And I have lost a lot of faith in a lot of teachers over the many years I've spent in full-time and part-time education.)

No, the advice was more subtle and nuanced than that.

As I recall it, the observation came first with misbehaving children. It was noted in classroom observations (carefully managed studies involving timing of teacher-pupil interactions) that teachers spent a lot more time berating misbehaving children than they did praising them when they behaved well. There is a school of thought that sees most children's misbehaviour as a call for attention, and by giving children more attention for misbehaving than behaving, on a certain level you reward the bad behaviour. The theory was that by increasing contact time during periods of good behaviour, you would reinforce the fact that good behaviour leads to adult approval.

But it went further than that. The observers noted that the teachers' response to a misbehaving child just wasn't positive at all. There was visible relief, and the teachers would actually draw attention to the child's normal poor behaviour. By doing so, the researchers claimed, they were establishing the teachers' low expectations, and undermining the pupils' confidence.

Now, can anyone really argue against the idea that we should show kids that we appreciate their good behaviour? Does anyone think that showing a kid that us adults have identified them as a "problem child" has any possible benefits? I doubt it.

So far, so uncontroversial.

But the follow-up to this was that researchers identified similar patterns with children that didn't necessarily misbehave, but just weren't doing well. Criticism for getting it wrong, implied criticism on the occasions they do get it right.

I still think we're in pretty uncontroversial territory here, because the advice is still pretty straightforward: when an underperforming child finally answers a question right, don't say "Thank God! At last you've got one right!"

And, in fact, the most uncontroversial advice from the experts was to smile as you say it, because they saw teachers who never smiled at a correct answer from an underperforming pupil.

The experts were not calling for uncritical, undeserving praise.

How does that translate into the classroom?

Well, a couple of years ago, I was teaching English in a French university. The French (like the Italians and the Spanish) believe themselves to be incapable of learning languages. I also had the challenge of an extremely mixed-ability first year group in the law faculty, everything from people with no previous experience of English to people I could have sat and talked to for an hour or two without problems. Imagine trying to teach a room of 20+ in that situation. It was not fun.

Often trying to get answers felt like trying to get blood from a stone, and when I finally got a good answer from some of them, the relief was palpable...

... and that was it. I had caught myself falling into the trap that the experts warned about. My attitude was more or less "why couldn't you have said that in the first place?!?" and it was all too obvious. The students were reluctant to give answers, and when they did give them, I did nothing to bolster their confidence.

What I had to do wasn't a simple matter of giving out "well done" stickers, but a complete change in my attitude to the students. I was seeing them as obstacles, as problems, when the problem was the circumstance, and my reaction to it. It was easier to see this as a situation that I could do nothing about than to actually do something.

So I set about the task of finding material that was suitable for everyone (and to a great extent succeeded), but more importantly, I changed my attitude to my students. Instead of feeling relieved when I finally got the correct answer, I felt happy. Instead of dropping my shoulders and saying "why didn't you say that earlier?" I smiled and said "of course! I told you you knew it"... until I had built such a rapport with them that I could start dropping my shoulders again and saying "why didn't you say that earlier?"

Which brings us back to the report, and the suggestion that invariable praise projects low expectations onto the students.

In the end, whatever I did was projecting my expectations onto the students. I always had higher expectations of the students than they had of themselves. But my projection had to satisfy two criteria for the students to accept it: it had to be realistic based on their ability, and it had to be close to their own expectations.

If a student's confidence is five steps behind their ability, there's no point in projecting a confidence that matches their ability -- you have to project one that's one step ahead of theirs, and slowly bring up their confidence.