25 September 2016

Don't get any big ideas: the dominance of names in social sciences

It has bugged me for quite some time that in language, in education and in the social sciences in general, there are certain names whose big ideas get repeated ad nauseam even once others have moved the state-of-the-art onwards.

For example, when textbooks and courses discuss formal grammars, they typically focus on Noam Chomsky's generative grammars. Chomsky's model of grammar divorced structure from meaning, which he demonstrated with the nonsense sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Since then, however, it has been observed by many commentators that a command of grammar as an independent from semantics is only really valid for people with training in grammar, and culturally not universal.

Take for example the early nineties computer game "First Samurai". Developed in the UK, they asked a Japanese translator what the game's title would be in the Japanese script, as they wanted this for the cover. The response was that it was impossible, because you can't rank samurai. Reportedly, they then asked how you would say the "first samurai" you see in the morning -- still impossible. In the end, they had to ask for another phrase to be translated and then take the symbol for "first" from that and place it next to the symbol for samurai.

There are dozens of similar anecdotes attested worldwide. In her 1978 book Children's Minds, Margaret Donaldson cites a report of an adventurer who asked a Native American to translate "the white man shot six bears today."
"'How can I do that?' said the Indian. 'No white man could shoot six bears in one day.'"
Donaldson roundly rejects the idea that this grammaticality sense is anything more than a result of our education.

The other major blow to Chomsky's model was Lucien Tesnière's valency/dependency grammars. Whereas Chomsky built his trees based on part-of-speech only, Tesnière identified that certain words had to be accompanied by certain other features, and could optionally be qualified by additional ones.

Chomsky split his basic sentence trees into subject and predicate, as was the norm at the time. Tesnière instead argued for "verb centrality", putting the verb at the top of the tree. This meant that the verb in Chomsky's model had a direct link to the grammatical subject. It is trivially obvious that this is a superior model, because with no direct link, Chomsky's model essentially claims that "*He say I does" would pass a grammaticality test. Now I'm sure Chomsky at some point will have presented a round-about argument to say why that's not acceptable, quite simply Tesnière's model was better. Tesnière's model is widely accepted, and it's key to a lot of computer-based language techniques.

And yet when I studied language, lots of space was presented to Chomsky, and I have no recollection of seeing the name Tesnière or talk of valency or dependency grammars. When I briefly studied formal grammar in computing, lots of time was given to Chomsky, and dependency grammars were mentioned only in passing. To me, verb centrality was an obvious notion, and every time Chomskyan grammar was presented to me, I wanted to put the verb at the top. It wasn't until about four years ago that I picked up a book on Computational Linguistics/Natural Language Processing and was introduced to Tesnière's theories.

This is a very dangerous state of affairs -- students are being taught outdated, disproven theories instead of the current state of the art. In education, one of the best examples would be Piaget, whose theories have been proven wrong time and again, but are still one of the main focuses in most introductions to childhood development.

Why? The typical answer is that to understand the current system, we have to understand the underlying theories they're built on. This, I'm afraid, is not true. Or rather, it is true, but the underlying theories of modern grammar are derived from Chomsky, and the underlying theories of modern childhood development are derived from Piaget. By teaching the original theories, we end up holding back development in the field: most courses spend so long talking about the outdated theories that they don't leave time to fully discuss the current ones and the students leave the courses with a working model of the wrong theories. We therefore spend a lot of time debating the same thing as the generation before.

Certainly, we don't do this in the physical sciences. No-one would suggest that in order to learn about the big bang theory we first have to learn about the theories that predated it. Such theories are clearly of some interest, but are best restricted to specific modules on the history of science.

The problem in the social sciences seems to be a reluctance to rewrite part of a major theory based on subsequent observations and refinement. It appears that to be genuinely influential in social sciences, you cannot simply do incremental improvement, and instead must write a new theory practically from the ground up. In doing so, you are guaranteed posterity, because your grand theory will continue to be published, cited, repeated and taught as is long after all the elements it is built of are individually discredited -- the field will not allow anyone else to revise it for you.

Take Bloom's Taxonomy for instance. Even when it was first devised it was a bit of a kludge. The most common form seen today is still the simplest triangle form, and all versions and derivatives still hold the same ordering of "remembering" before "understanding" -- i.e. it preaches rote learning in line with the behaviorist thinking of Bloom's day, even though no modern school of thought actively professes a belief in rote learning as a useful mechanism.

The book Second Language Learning Theories by Mitchell, Myles and Marsden discusses the proliferation of theories in the introduction, and says "We believe that our understanding advances best when theories are freely debated and challenged among a community of scholars." I would certainly not dispute that, but I think we waste an awful lot of time when we discuss disproven theories and treat them as though they have equal merit to theories not yet disproven. We also, as I said earlier, do a lot of damage to the next generation of academics by preparing them to discuss the disproven theories rather than the current ones.

Worse, though, is the effect on non-academics. Teachers overexposed to outdated theories and not familiar with current ones are unable to take advantage of advances in the field and translate it into classroom practice.

Does cross-language transfer exist?

[I actually wrote this about 6 months ago and I'm not sure why I didn't publish it. I've read it over and it looks finished to me...]

It's always seemed weird to me that some people claim that L2 errors are not related to the form of the learner's L1. Surely it's common sense? For instance, a speaker of Chinese, or Polish, or any other language with no articles is going to have a problem learning when to use "a", when to use "the" and when not to use an article at all in English, right?

But of course, common sense is only common sense until it's proven wrong. It was once common sense that the sun went round the Earth and that there was such a thing as "races" of people -- scientific study has since shown us otherwise.

So language must be open to scientific study, and teachers must be open to the results of study. And there are plenty of studies that purport to disprove the idea of cross-linguistic interference.

For example, I'm currently skimming through bits of the book Understanding Second Language Acquisition by Lourdes Ortega. There's a chapter on "cross-linguistic influences" (they reject the term "interference", because they reckon it puts too much blame on the L1) and they open by looking at a couple of studies that show that the similarities and differences between languages have less influence than might be expected. The first of these is to do with the placement of negatives in Swedish, where they find that learners on the whole tend to incorrectly place negatives before the verb, even if their own language also places negatives after the verb. [Hyltenstam, K., 1977. Implicational patterns in interlanguage syntax variation. Language learning, 27(2), pp.383-410.]

What questions does this raise? First I would say that negation is an undeniable universal of language, so here we're talking about a linguistic concept that is already known to the learner, and the only variable under examination is word placement -- syntax. There is no examination of usage -- for example, what happens with complex clauses? In English we most commonly say "I don't think so", but some languages are more likely to say "I think not", which now sounds quite old-fashioned. It's far more likely that a native English speaker would say "I don't think he's coming" than "I think he's not coming", but "creo que no viene" is perfectly normal in Spanish. It's readily apparent that this sort of transference occurs at the phrasal level, and this is the sort of thing that is often never taught and simply left to the student to work out. It is also readily observable that learners make errors handling polysemy (multiple meanings of a single word) -- again, looking at Spanish "esperar" is to wait, to hope and to expect, and it doesn't take long in the company of Spanish learners of English to hear someone pick the wrong one of the three.

I haven't had a chance to read the original paper yet (I'm not familiar with my new university's online search and I'm feeling too impatient today to start hunting) so for the moment I'm just thinking about what I'll be looking for when I get round to reading it (which might not be for a while!). First up, is there anything that goes deeper than simple word placement? Secondly, as a tangent to the point about cross-language transfer, and continuing the thread on slots, does something change when it's a multi-part structure, with the two sections separated by other language content?

Besides, is negatives even a fair example? My gut reaction is that in every language that I've come across a sort of "Tarzan speak", the stereotypical form is for pre-negation ("me no hurt pretty pretty" and the like).

The second paper cited discusses object pronoun placement in French-speaking learners of English and English-speaking learners of French. [Zobl, H., 1980. The formal and developmental selectivity of LI influence on L2 acquisition. Language learning, 30(1), pp.43-57.]

Again, I've not read the paper yet, but the summary in the book baffles me a bit, because it seems somewhat obvious. We have the example of the pair "je les vois"/"I see them" and it is observed that English speakers often erroneously say "*je vois les", but French speakers don't tend to say "I them see". This is not a symmetrical error, but then, this is not a symmetrical pattern. As I see it, the difficulty for the English speaker isn't simply one of the absolute position of the pronoun, but the fact that pronouns appear in a different place from explicit noun phrases as object -- je les vois vs je vois des hommes. The English speaker learning French has the difficulty that he sees pronoun noun phrases and explicit noun phrases as subcategories of a single thing that share a position, and in order to learn French accurate must learn a fundamentally new distinction between weak pronouns and other noun phrases. The French learner of English, conversely, doesn't necessarily need to learn the English speaker's categorisation, and can maintain the French distinction and notion of two slots, and can then simply focus on the syntax, learning two different positions that happen to be the same. It feels to me that focusing on the superficial differences here has failed to account for the real underlying difference.

Another question this leaves in my head is about my own observations from dealing with Romance speakers. I recall hearing a lot of them dropping weak pronouns altogether, and my first reaction is that the article focuses on the lack of examples of "*I them see" as proof that there's not a problem, but doesn't comment on the presence or absence of examples of pronounless renderings (i.e. "I see", with no them). My observation from my own pupils was that several of them had learned not to place the pronoun before the verb, but if the verb in Spanish would be the last word of a sentence, they'd just stop without including the pronoun at all. I'm now left second-guessing my own recollection here, though, as recently I only recall hearing this error with Spanish people saying "I like" for "me gusta", and of course there's no explicit "it" in the Spanish, so that's a different issue (but still cross-linguistic).

This is an issue that intrigues me, and I hope to revisit it during the year when I'm working on cross-linguistic issues as part of my masters. For now, though, I just wanted to get my thoughts jotted down for future reference.

24 September 2016

The master approaches...

So I've just embarked on a new phase in my career, beginning a masters degree programme in TESOL. After Christmas I get the opportunity to specialise, and the plan at the moment is to specialise in computer-assisted language learning, which really is my kind of thing.

I figure it's time to dust off this old blog and start using it as a scratchpad to reflect on the sort of issues that I'm dealing with on the course, and to comment on the materials I come across in my reading.

It's also an opportunity for me to break the habit of a lifetime and start using proper citations and referencing on the blog, something which I hope to stick to in the future so that things I post here are better informed and therefore more useful to others.