30 May 2014

Return to forumland: Polydog.org

It's been over a year since I stopped using language learning forums on the internet. I was banned from one, and it was the right time for it to happen, as it had become my main method of procrastination.

But recently I got invited to join a new forum polydog.org. It seemed like the right time to get back into the community proper, so I signed up. If I'm honest with myself, my posts have slowly got less and less interesting as there's nothing to challenge my views if I don't get involved in discussions, so how are my views going to develop and change.

So it's time to talk. Lots.

28 May 2014

An observation on the order of teaching (from English)

As I recently said, I've been experimenting with Michel Thomas-like techniques in the classroom of late.

One of the crucial elements of Michel Thomas's teaching, seemingly forgotten by the teachers after him, is to address student errors in complicated sentences by reverting to simpler, related sentences and then rebuilding the complexity. The effectiveness of this technique is that it builds and reinforces the underlying structural concepts in his students' minds, as opposed to just giving answers that don't train any linkage between structures.

But it turns out that doing this mindfully also presents the teacher with a hell of a lot of information about what is difficult and easy for students, and hence what order things should be taught in.

With my current MT-style student, my first divergence from standard teaching order was to focus on auxiliary verb-based tenses before the simple past and present, and this did seem effective.

Yesterday, I was trying to revise and solidify the whole pattern of positive declarative vs negative declarative vs interrogative. Now in English, there is only one main pattern, which has three variations: "to be" vs simple aspect vs auxiliaries.

I was eliciting each form from her to build up a table like this:
To beSimple aspectauxiliary tenses
I'm here.I like it.I'll do it.
I'm not there.I don't like it.I won't do it.
Are you there?Do you like it?Will you do it?
I was here.I liked it.I can do it.
I wasn't there.I didn't like it.I can't do it.
Were you here?Did you like it?Can you do it?

Nothing spectacular. I've always taught "two verbs in the negative and the question, unless the verb is 'be'," and that's what I was trying to show. What was different was my student's errors: she tried to say "I can to do it" -- a mistake I thought I'd wiped out ages ago. At that point, I instinctively moved on to the negative, because subconsciously I remembered that she didn't make the mistake in the negative, because she knew the difference between "I don't like to"/"I don't want to" and "I can't"/"I won't".

What I realised (and scribbled down in about three places) was that even despite constantly revisiting these structures, the original emphasis on the present had created an erroneous link between the two structures, as they look very, very similar, but as that similarity doesn't carry through to the negative form, the negative unlinks the two.

The result is that in future I intend to start by teaching negatives and interrogatives before introducing the positive forms, in order to force the students' brains to store the auxiliary verbs and verbs like "want" and "like" as different things.

Let me anticipate the first criticism: "students will end up overusing do/did in the positive." I don't think so. Yes, they will initially want to use an auxiliary, but I'll teach them not to -- that's my job after all, isn't it? Besides, the standard order of teaching leads to plenty of predictable, oft-repeated errors: do you can...? I can to do... I want do.... Even if I introduce one error, I'll be eliminating several more.

22 May 2014

Answer in sentences II: Death to abstraction!

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how the standard practice of forcing beginners to answer "in sentences" seemed to devoid the grammar of meaning.

It was inspired by trying to teach past continuous (he was running etc) and revise times (target: at five o'clock, he was running in the park, at half past eight, he was eating dinner in the dining room etc). Unfortunately, the weaker students would look at a time and say "it's five o'clock", and they would look at the action and say "he's running", and they would look at the location and say "he's in the park". The he's, it's etc structure was drummed so heavily into their heads that they didn't dare diverge from it.

This week, I observed a related problem, as I was giving an exam to some secondary school pupils.

They're preparing for a Trinity GESE exam (spoken English), and one of the features of the level they're at is that they're expected to answer to prompts that aren't actually questions. "Tell me about a time when you..." etc. This is considered a more advanced function because it requires abstraction.

But isn't it true that when we teach students to "answer in sentences", we do so by training them to recycle the words of the question...? Well, guess what. My students were regurgitating my words. I wrote Write about a past holiday, and many of the answers started In my past holiday... Obviously this is not natural English.

Is it the student's fault? Is the student incapable of abstraction? Certainly not! Instead, it seems to me that we as teachers actually train abstraction out of our students as soon as we start this "answer in sentences" thing, because it's a skill they have already learned in their first language, and we actively militate against them using it in the new language.

On the occasions where we do answer in sentences, natural language often uses non-symmetrical forms, such as answering What is your name? with I'm Niall.

Our second-language instruction, then, seems to teach language in a way that is quite contrary to nature....

19 May 2014

Looking to the future...

Last week marked the halfway mark on my current contract, so in two months I will be out of a job. Since I got here, I haven't really learnt any Sicilian, and only a tiny amount of Russian from my flatmate. My Italian has improved, but not all that much given that I've got a couple of flatmates whose English is better than their Italian (one's even Scottish).

What do I want to achieve in my remaining time? I think I really should be working on the Sicilian -- I'm in Sicily after all. And my flatmates are going to be disappearing slowly: the Russian one is planning on leaving for Germany in a couple of weeks. The Scottish one's contract ends a few weeks before mine. The Sicilian part-time flatmate's courses will be finishing in a few weeks' time. My world is gradually dissolving away, and it's forcing me to think about what comes after.

The default option was a return to Scotland, back to Edinburgh to try to gather a few private students while working on a piece of software that I've been supposed to be writing for a long, long time.

Or do I just go out and find myself another teaching job? Wouldn't it be easier just to keep the money coming in, while doing a job that I find satisfying and rewarding?

Besides, if I go back to Scotland, I'd be giving up the chance to immerse myself in another language full-time, which would be a shame.

There is a compromise, of course. I could go overseas and work on the software in a foreign country. But that could potentially be a very lonely existence. Without a job, I wouldn't have colleagues to lean on for company.

Maybe I should go back to Corsica and finally get a proper grip on Corsican. But if I did, I would probably end up working in a language school anyway, and the software would suffer.

The question I'm asking myself is: what do I desire?

And I really do want to get this software written.

I want to produce something better than everything available to the language learner, and part of me thinks I can do it, but another part doubts my ability to do it, and that doubt results in a fear of failure. Fear of failure leads to inaction, because if you never try, you never fail.

This fear of failure is what cripples many language learners. They hit obstacles, and things get difficult. Suddenly they're faced with the fear that the problem lies within themselves, when typically the problem is nothing more than ineffective teaching.

I had those same doubts myself for a very long time, and it held me back and prevented me fully committing myself to language study. I got over them for language. Now I need to get over them again in a different circumstance, and believe that I'm genuinely capable of doing something no-one else can do, and write something that is truly revolutionary.

And more importantly: something which removes the obstacles that cause most learners to believe that they're "just not good at" languages.

14 May 2014

Language books and forgetting the rules of teaching.

I can't remember where I first heard it, but this rule immediately struck me as one of the most sensible and important rules in setting classroom tasks:
Always write more questions than you need.

It's a fairly straightforward rule -- the stronger students will finish questions quicker than the weaker ones, so as a teacher you are left with a choice between stopping the exercise before all the students have finished, or leaving the faster students hanging around bored after they've finished.

We all typically compromise, leaving the stronger students waiting for a little while, but still not giving the weaker students the chance to finish everything. We formalise this with the immortal line "It doesn't matter if you haven't finished," but in reality, normally it does.

Have a look at most language exercises. You'll typically find that a great many question sets only cover a particular language point or case once, and if you don't answer that question, you don't practise that point. So yes, it does matter if you haven't finished.

The common-sense solution is to write a question set that covers all the points once, then add in additional questions that revisit the same points, but in a more complicated way. Say your minimal coverage of the grammar points can be done in 6 questions -- add another four to make it up to 10. Now you can watch for your weaker students finishing question 6 and declare in all truthfulness that it doesn't matter if they haven't finished... because actually, they have finished -- they just don't know that the remaining questions are primarily time-fillers.

But yes -- primarily time-fillers. As I said, they should also serve to practise more sophisticated uses of the point in question. This way every class is differentiated. All students cover the same basic material, but the advanced students get advanced practise.

Sadly, none of the materials I'm asked to use in class work this way, and I'm forced into the dishonest version of "it doesn't matter if you haven't finished." I would like to see books where the minimal coverage is marked with a line to indicate where "it doesn't matter..." becomes true, beyond which the questions are not strictly required.

This would be helpful. Shame they don't do it.