18 January 2015

Shooting my mouth off...

A student of mine invited me round to his flat for Sunday lunch -- I big traditional paella, which was absolutely delicious. Now this isn't twitpic, so I'm not going to bore you with a photograph hashtagged #nomnomnom -- no, I'm more interested in a discussion I had.

Regular readers know I can be more than a little opinionated at times, and I'm not afraid to disagree with people, so when I met another teacher shortly after I arrived, the conversation quickly turned heated.

First, he asked where I taught. I said I was teaching privately because I don't like the way things are done in schools. He asked what I meant, and I explained that I don't like mixed native-language groups, because the problems a Spanish person has with English are completely different from those a Polish person has (a stereotypical TEFL class in Edinburgh is composed of one Polish person, one Italian, and then a whole pile of Spanish people). Targeting lessons at resolving student problems is then really difficult.

He had a bone to pick with that "mixed-ability is real life, there are no heterogeneous groups in the real world."

Mixed ability is real-life, true, and you will never have a truly heterogeneous class group, true. However, this argument doesn't hold up to logical analysis -- a simple reductio ad absurdum (note: this is not a strawman) is enough to cut it down: we do not mix absolute beginners and advanced students, therefore we all draw a line somewhere on the scale between heterogeneous and completely mixed; every teacher sees that line as being somewhere different, and "no such thing as heterogeneous" is no more a justification for his chosen line than it is for mine.

The next thing he said was quite interesting, and certainly bears reflecting upon. He suggested that my desire to teach students in more uniform groups was not respecting their individual needs. It's an interesting viewpoint. He felt that teachers who propose heterogeneous groups in order to reduce individual differences so that they could give one lesson and not worry about addressing individual needs. This may be true of some teachers, but it is not true of me. Personally, I find that in a heterogeneous group, I can predict individual needs better, because actually most Spanish speakers I've met have exactly the same problems... which means they are not "individual problems" at all. If I eliminate all the group problems early, then I can really deal with the genuinely individual problems as they come up.

He wasn't convinced... far from it. Now he objected that I was talking about "accuracy" when... (wait for it!)... "communication is the important thing." Oh dear -- my least favourite meaningless statement. I had used an example of a particular error that a lot of Spanish people make: even if they normally remember to put the adjective before the noun (eg "a pretty girl"), when they qualify the adjective, it tends to migrate to after the noun (eg "*a girl very pretty"). He (quite correctly) responded by saying that this type of error does not interfere with communication. However, just as with mixed-ability groups, there must be a line somewhere, and inductive logic allows us to generate incomprehensible:
  1. the US colloquial term "purdy" is readily understood to mean "pretty"
  2. foreigners who have difficulty pronouncing /ʌ/ will usually be understood if they instead use /æ/
  3. => It therefore follows that saying "pardy" instead of "pretty" will be understood.
Except, of course, it doesn't. Language has evolved to contain a lot of redundancy, and one or two steps of difference is acceptable, but the effect of errors on communication is cumulative, and there's a critical mass where the information finally gets lost (as well explained by Claude Shannon's information theory, in particular the Noisy Channel Theorem).

Let's continue the induction.
  1. "a girl very pretty" is understood to mean "a very pretty girl"
  2. => "a girl very pardy" is understood to mean "a very pretty girl"
  3. Oh, and swapping T and D isn't normally a problem either, eg "breat and budder" instead of "bread and butter"
  4. => "a very party girl"
Three errors, and the meaning is gone. But is this because it's just a phrase and not a sentence? Let's add in another "insignificant" error that's common in the English of Spanish speakers and get ourselves a sentence to look at:
  1. dropping a subject pronoun that can be inferred from the context, though incorrect in English, does not hinder comprehension. eg "Last night, met a very pretty girl" instead of "Last night, I met a very pretty girl."
  2. => "Last night, met a girl very party"
Four errors, and not a lot of meaning left. You might just get it, but it's going to be an effort to understand.
  1. Superfluous "the" added to "last night" doesn't interfere with comprehension. (In many sentences, this is true.)
  2. => "The last night met a girl very party"
And of course Polish and Chinese people have a tendency that we can add in here
  1. Dropping of "a" or "the" doesn't usually interfere with comprehension -- eg "give me apple" can easily be understood as either "give me an apple", "give me the apple" or even "give me apple" from the context
  2. => "The last night met girl very party"
Oh yes, and I've still got some Ts I could make into Ds
  1. The lazd nighd med girl very party
Notice how the first two Ds do nothing to interfere with understanding, as you would still recognise "last night", but it doesn't make sense to accept it in this situation as that sets up a habit that will also affect words and phrases that aren't ambiguous.

The third D now makes things more difficult. Is that "met" or "made"? Or maybe we're talking about a "med girl", ie. a student doctor.

Can we agree that the lazd nighd med girl very party is not comprehensible? I hope so.

But let's rewind and look at all the individual sentences we can make with one single error:
  • Last night, I met a very purdy girl
  • Last night, I met a girl very pretty
  • Last night, met a very pretty girl
  • Last night, I met a very preddy girl
  • Lazd nighd, I med a very pretty girl
  • The last night, I met a very pretty girl
None of these are going to cause a native speaker too much trouble, although the last one may be ambiguous depending on the context, but when we add all these errors together, the result is incomprehensible.

The boundaries of comprehensibility are difficult to judge, especially for a teacher, whose own ability to understand non-native language is much better developed than that of an average native speaker, even if only due to the difference in the amount of contact time they have with non-natives.

if comprehensibility can be measured, it can only be done in terms of the number and severity of errors... ie. comprehensibility can only be gauged by measuring accuracy.

And if comprehensibility and accuracy are so tightly connected, you cannot declare that one is more or less important than the other.

But I digress.

The conversation moved on, and the other teacher lamented Scotland's lack of attention to and alignment with the CEFR. He was there when it started, he told me, back in 2001. Now it's been a while since I've mentioned the CEFR on this blog, but when I did, I gave a fairly strong opinion -- an opinion that I readily repeated to my new acquaintance... who then clarified that when he said "he was there" he didn't just mean he was teaching -- he was involved in setting it up. Ah, right.

As it turns out, the guy isn't actually an active teacher any more either... he's now employed in his country's diplomatic service and is in Scotland to liaise locally on the teaching of foreign languages in Scotland's schools and universities.

They say you should pick your battles carefully, and in this case I didn't -- this was a debate that could not be won. To argue against Communicative Language Teaching with someone whose entire career and professional identity was built on the championing of CLT is not going to get you anywhere.

It's not just that I couldn't change his mind, though, but also that he couldn't change mine. It is very rare that I come out of a debate on language teaching without at the very least questioning myself, but that typically occurs when a question of personal style or perspective comes in. When you reconcile the personal views with the formal views, you can start to see why people believe what they believe, even if you don't share that belief. Both parties get to reanalyse themselves against someone else's frame-of-reference, and try to analyse the other in terms of their own. It offers new perspectives.

But if someone is truly, deeply invested in the orthodoxy, all you will hear is the dogma. There will be nothing new -- you will have heard it before from teacher trainers, colleagues and boss. You will have read it in several books and magazine/web articles.

Ah well, never mind.


Douglas Carnall said...

Great post, thanks for sharing! I agree with you that the notion of classifying aspirant speakers of foreign tongues into "levels" is probably more an organisational convenience than actually helpful to the student, but not that heterogeneity of mother tongue is a bad thing in language classes (if the taught language can become the 'lingua franca' socially beyond the classroom, this will definitely be a good thing).

Re: challenging dogma and orthodoxy

As you found, the speaker may have too much invested in a belief system to ever concede in debate. So the objective becomes rather to produce utterances that are subversive of this defended belief system in the minds of others. In other words, had your conversation taken place in a formal debating chamber, you're not trying to convince the opposing speaker, but your mutual audience.
It's always as well to remember that this is where the true power of rhetoric lies; for, truly, it is a rare human indeed who enjoys having their basic assumptions challenged.

Nìall Beag said...

Class groups do often become a social unit, so I get your point about the language of social use. We definitely have to balance purely pedagogical questions with pragmatics and logistics, but I just feel the difference in needs becomes too great.

In fact, I feel the mantra of "communication is the most important thing" is actually an after-the-fact rationalisation of the difficulties of teaching accuracy to a mixed mother-tongue group.

There are a great many things we do simply for practical reasons, but ego tricks us into forgetting the initial justification and believing that we're doing it because it's the best way.

If we supplement the group instruction with a social element that goes beyond the particular class, whether that's a school social programme or splitting the timetable into accuracy in homogeneous groups and mixed conversation, then why can't we have the best of both worlds?

Anonymous said...

If you haven't seen it already, search for 'Mind Your Language season 1' on You Tube. It might give you a laugh. On the other hand, it might be too close to reality TV for you...