Monday, October 17, 2011

Trial and error and trial again

It wasn't until the late 1960's that we changed our paradigm of ESL students as producers of faulty English to intelligent, creative thinkers who are working through the progression.  A progression to produce closer and closer approximations of the complicated linguistic system that native speakers use with ease.

We started to look not just at the errors that the students were making but at the creative brilliance behind their successful hypothesizing and testing routines.  Encouraging good habits of hypothesizing and testing, encouraging students to make the errors and learn from them and providing an environment where the students feel not just safe but enthusiastic about doing this is simply the hallmark of a strong ESL educator.

But how do you measure up with your consistency in confirming or refuting these hypotheses?  In his book Teach like a champion, Doug Lemov gives some great tips on how to establish a standard for right and wrong answers and states that it is important to uphold the standard.  Giving a response that does not confirm the correctness or incorrectness of the answer in the students' minds is not doing them any justice.
And therein lies the balance of being a strict judge and a lenient peacemaker.  The greatest skill that a teacher can have is the ability to constantly monitor and correct the troops and yet maintain the morale to keep them marching.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Writing imperfectly

When I teach writing in class, the first thing I do is ask students to write a letter so that I can see what they can do.  I analyze all the mistakes in that letter and from that point on, I know what to teach.  What you have to understand with this is that I am never trying to completely eliminate their mistakes.
You see, if they make no mistakes, it is probably because they are reproducing the same material that they have already learned and are not stretching themselves.  So, I focus on eliminating the punctuation and spelling mistakes, and I am trying to eliminate the grammatical mistakes that they are making now and help them to make more complex mistakes in the future. 
When the mistakes they make are the same as a native speaker would make then I know that I have taught them well.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Correcting or nagging?

Studies have actually failed to show that explicit error correction causes a permanent improvement in production for learners of a second language.  Lightbown (1985) and others have then come to the conclusion that isolated error correction is usually ineffective in changing behaviour.

If you think about it, direct error correction usually relies on the student having an understanding of the correct form, they just mispoke because they are in the habit of mispeaking having never been successfully corrected before. 

If they do not have this underlying understanding of the correct form, they must be exposed to it in order for the language to make sense to them before they will reliably produce it correctly.  Surely, this will take multiple exposures and in the few hours that most ESL students spend in the classroom with many other students, a reoccurrance of the same error will take some time.

Point of this being that if you really want to correct behaviour, the best way to do this is to correct the belief that underlies the behaviour.

Lightbown, P. (1985).  Great expectations: Second language acquisition research and classroom teaching.  Applied Linguistics, 6, 173-189.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Authentic modelling means authentic production

When we do pronunciation work with students, I find that it helps to cover the word that you are practicing first. Correcting pronunciation is about the sounds and you should eliminate the distraction of the letters and the expected sounds first and focus solely on the phonological side.  When the student has mastered the sound, then it is important to show how we represent that with letters and discuss differences between expected sounds and real sounds.

When you are doing pronunciation practice on a sentence level, never get students to read the sentence from the board.  This is where back-chaining comes in.  Back-chaining is where you start with the last word/words and add words to it to form a sentence from the end.  This stops the student from jumping ahead.

  • Beach.
  • To the beach.
  • I went to the beach.

I am not a big fan of students reading aloud as it creates an unnatural, monotonous rhythm that is not how we speak.  When I do choral work, it is always with natural intonation which means it should be led by the teacher not by written material.  If you do reading aloud, try to focus on getting the students to read in a natural intonation which is not always possible as written material was designed to be consumed silently by the mind.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

James Pennebaker and Molly E. Ireland are two psychology professors at the University of Texas. In the September edition of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [1]they talk about Language Style Matching or LSM.  This is the where you take on characteristics of the person that you are speaking with in order to ensure a favorable conversation will result.  It is also observed after watching movies and reading books.[2]

So, one evening, I read about their study on Stumbleupon [3] (a website I recommend BTW) and then I get back to my readings for uni and I read about Bakhtin (1981) [4].  For Bakhtin, speakers learning a new language take words from other people.  They take them to be used for their own purposes.  And the more they bend the utterances of others for their own intentions, the more they enter the communicative chain.  This is the way that they gain confidence and find their own voice.

Are we underestimating the reliance that students have on mirroring?  We understand only too well that students need to have a language-rich environment in order to pick up the language but are we really making the most of the language-rich environment when we provide it?  Is there some way of encouraging students to mirror more?

Have you ever watched a child who is acquiring their first language, their imitations are almost enough to drive their parents up the wall.  Perhaps the greatest limitation we have in learning another language is our pride.

“Language and culture are no longer scripts to be acquired, as much as they are conversations in which people can participate.  The question of who is learning what and how much is essentially a question of what conversations they are a part of, and this is a subset of the more powerful question of what conversations are around to be had in a given culture.”  (McDermott, 1993[5])

[4] Bakhtin, M. M. (1981).  The dialogic imagination: Four essays.  Austin: University of Texas Press.
[5] McDermott, R. (1993).  The acquisition of a child by a learning disability.  In J. Lave & S. Chaiklin (Ed.), Understanding Practice: Perspectives on activity and context.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On the path to the most efficient way to learn languages

I think that the secret to understanding the most efficient way to learn a foreign language is in watching children.  There are differences between learning your second language and learning your first not the least being that you tend to do the latter with an adult brain which has more life experience and cognitive capabilities. But understanding the way that children do it may just give us the way that is most easily digestible for the brain.

My daughter turned 2 years old yesterday and I have noticed many things that have changed the way that I think about how languages are learnt.  First, I must mention that my daughter is being raised bilingually (English and Thai) which they say means that her first utterances will come later but she will have cognitive benefits in the long run (being able to explain the world in two different languages).  And I have to admit, this has been the case.  My daughter has a cousin who is one week different in age (being raised in a monolingual New Zealand family) and when I compare the two, she did start off behind as her little brain sorted through two very different sets of sounds.

Imagine learning a language just from watching DVDs in that language.  Not easy right?  Now imagine learning two languages just from watching DVDs but the languages switch and you never know which language you are listening to at any one time.  Sure you get used to the sounds of the two languages eventually and distinguish them but it takes a little longer.

Having said that, at the two year old point, she is not particularly suffering.  She can communicate ideas as well as any two year old.  She has developed the strategies for communication failure and seems to be more used to it than a monolingual two year old.  She does not get frustrated but quickly tries substituting for other words that she knows.  Often this means substituting the word in English for the Thai word or vice versa.

  • She does tend to use the language that is most preferred by the speaker.  She speaks mostly English to me and mostly Thai to her grandmother (who speaks no English). 
  • The words that she knows seem to be mostly labels and verbs that she can demonstrate (jump, eat, sit here, brush your teeth as apposed to drive, think etc).  She has very few social phrases and is reluctant to greet (shyness?). 
  • Her sentences are telegraphic in nature; she has recently started to string together 3-4 words to convey more meaning but most tend to be the typical 2 word (subject-predicate type) utterances. 
  • She can say many adjectives but is reluctant to put adjectives and nouns together for whatever reason.  She says red and car but does not use the two together.
  • She is definitely creating combinations of words that she has never heard (e.g. she said "pink up" when she wanted me to throw the pink balloon into the air) showing creative use of the language.
  • Correction tends to be very effective on a lexical level but not on a behavioral level.  If she says blue and it is purple, she can be corrected with the simple words "that is purple".  This might suggest that she is aware of the fact that she is experimenting to some degree and is not heavily invested in the idea of using one word over another.  Trying to stop her from doing something that she wants to do however, totally different story.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this?  I think that at this age, she is learning by creating.  She tries new combinations of parts that she knows and has learnt from her environment but the combinations are entirely hers.  Later, she will start to learn bigger chunks in the form of phrases, idioms, proverbs etc.

I believe that the advantage that children have is partly biological (learning the language at the time that the brain is creating the synapses (the connections).  And perhaps it is partly due to the simultaneous development between language and cognitive ability (you see the thing for the first time and you learn a new name-that's easier to remember than trying to attach a new label to a common everyday item that you already have a label for).

The environment as behaviorists suggest does provide guidance and I am sure that later in life, she will see the world through the limitations of the language(s) that she is speaking.  But this will always be at odds with the need to speak creatively and express unique ideas and problems and above all think in a way that only she can.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Are we being loyal to our methodology?

  It seems to me that if you look at the theories that existed in the past about how we learn languages, we   see a lot of how we are teaching today.

In the 50’s and 60’s the leading line of thought was behaviorism.  Behaviorism was focused on what we could record.  The utterance was all that counted and researchers were not interested in the cognitive process that brought that utterance into being.

Derived from experiments on dogs and other animals, behaviorism said that children start with a blank slate and they get everything from their environment.  They learn their patterns of behavior, their personality and even their knowledge through conditioning (this had a good result, do it again; this had a bad result, avoid it next time).

Journal CoverThis is what we are doing with correction.  There is still so much of this going on in the classroom and the results on the affective factors of each student should not be underestimated.  We try and we learn on the results of that attempt.  This school of thinking was unable to explain how students learned to be so creative with the language but it did have a huge effect on how we teach.

In 1964, Jenkins and Palermo[1] timidly put forward a theory that children learn through creating language frames and learning to substitute.  They said that imitation is essential in learning to put together authentic-sounding utterances in this way.

Doesn’t this sound like such a big part of what goes on in the classroom?  We teach a grammar structure and the students practice substituting the verbs and the nouns into the sentence to make it mean what they want it to mean. 

When they published this theory, they admitted their statements to be speculative and premature (p. 143).  I think that their hesitation comes from the fact that they are not describing how children learn their first language but they are putting forward a methodology that is commonly-used in classrooms and textbooks around the world.

Now we are faced with a multitude of approaches and methodologies which are grouped together as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).  CLT is about helping people to discover the language through communication not through memorization and getting students to enjoy being creative and focusing on competence in communication (performance).

But still the aspects of behaviorism and substituting into frameworks remain in every classroom.  Are these remnants of past ways or just practical differences that remind us that there are differences between first language(s) acquisition and second language acquisition?

[1] Jenkins, J. & Palermo, D. (1964). Mediation processes and the acquisition of linguistic structure.  In U. Bellugi & R. Brown, The Acquisition of Language.  Monographs of the society for research in child development, 29 (Serial no. 92).

Friday, July 15, 2011

The most common verbs

"Here are the ten most heavily used verbs in the English language: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. Do you notice what they have in common? They are all irregular.
There are around 180 irregular verbs in English – a small fraction of the many thousands of regular ones. They punch above their weight*, however, making up 70% of the verbs in everyday use."
                                                                 Kieran McGovern 
An interesting fact from an interesting article on Oxford's site.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Keep It Simple

One thing that I always wonder about when I see traditional ESL classrooms is whether we are making the task of speaking English way more complicated than it has to be.

We learned to speak English in a very natural way.  We learned through listening and repeating and playfully experimenting with the sounds and the language.  Yet when we help others to learn, we force them to remember grammatical formulae and sometimes even a whole new script.  Now, I am not a big fan of using phonemic transcription in class.  I think that except for the advanced students, it is very confusing not to mention demotivating to see what a pitiful job our alphabet does of representing our spoken language.

My second language is Japanese.  A language with three scripts (including the pictoral Kanji) so my objection is not that it is too difficult just that it is not necessary.  Like the grammatical formulae, it adds an extra step to the process of producing utterances (or written texts) which slows down the students ability to produce fluently.

I think that phonemic transcriptions and grammatical formulae should be included in teacher trainings but I also think that the teacher need not pass on all information they receive.  Instead, they should use that information to find the way that is easiest for the student to absorb.

Keep it simple.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Multimedia lessons vs Traditional ESL classes

Having worked for a language school that blended multimedia learning with real-life classroom teachers into a system that I think is one of the most, at least theoretically, efficient learning systems out there, I recently did my CELTA course.

It was an interesting experience going from a very modern way of teaching to using an OHP (which I had thought  were all wiped out by a large meteorite millions of years ago).  I couldn't help but contrast the traditional classroom with what I had been doing in the blended learning system and here are the conclusions that I drew from the experience.

  • The blended learning system has many pragmatic advantages.  You can study when you are free (a very commercially-pleasing characteristic when so many people want to learn English without giving up their income). 
  • You are studying individually so your level is tailored to your skills and not the average (or lowest) of the 30 people in your class.  
  • You can repeat material until you understand it so the class doesn't move on without you.
These are all fantastic advantages but every system has disadvantages too.  The glaringly obvious disadvantage here is less time with the teacher.  If you spend the majority of your time going through the presentation and practice stages with the multimedia system, you spend less time with the native-English teacher.  Of course, most blended learning schools realize this and add extra classes but still the students in this style of learning do not get the attention from the teacher that they would in a traditional school.

But this is where I have to question whether the mentality of the consumer is actually detrimental to their progress.  It is so ingrained in the mentality of the consumer (at least in the markets that I have worked in) that the way to learn English is by spending as much time as possible with native-English teachers.  Even though most ESL teachers are not particularly qualified (most of the Thai ESL workforce have at most one month of teacher training in the form of a CELTA or TESOL certification).

The reason for this demand for ESL teachers is exposure to authentic accents is seen as the fastest way to an impressive level of fluency.  Blended learning systems actually give more exposure as the time spent with the multimedia is comparable to private tuition in terms of the amount of time spent listening and speaking.  That means more time spent listening to recorded authentic accents and less time listening to classmates.

I would encourage prospective students however to look at only systems that blend interactive components not simple video.  This is not engaging and you will find yourself zoning out in a way that is not possible in front of a decent teacher (Cameron Diaz aside).  Assuming that you are using an interactive multimedia system, the disadvantage now becomes the lack of teacher correction.  Because voice analyzing technology is not so far advanced as to be able to correct a multitude of different voices, tones, accents etc, most systems rely on self correction.  Students speak, listen and compare.  Assistance is usually provided to help if you detect something that needs correction.

The moral of the story is this students need to be able to make informed decisions about which type of school is best for them.  Students who need more motivating to learn might do well to have a teacher to push them.  Students who are self-motivated and independent learners might do better with more exposure to learn faster.  As educators, the best thing we can do for our students is to be honest and forthcoming with a realistic presentation of what our system is like but as business people, we are also interested in attracting as many students as possible.  And therein lies the challenge...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why does the pronoun you break all the rules?

Imagine you see one jovial-looking chap.  You might say:
He is happy.   (singular, 3rd person)
And if there are two, you might even say:
They are happy.  (plural, 3rd person)

When you are talking to them, you would say:
You are happy.        (singular, 2nd person)
You are happy.        (plural, 2nd person)
Why not you is?

If you were back in the 1400's, you might have said:
Thou art happy.         (singular, subject, 2nd person)
Ye be happy.              (plural, subject, 2nd person)
I love thee.                (singular, object, 2nd person)
I love you.                  (plural, object, 2nd person)

So, you was actually for multiple objects.  As the language changed, it became the formal form for all of the above cases and then eventually consumed them all.
These days, we do not use thou, thee or ye.  And you has become the pronoun for both subject and object positions.

It also holds the title for addressing both one person and crowds.  Many languages have two seperate words and colloquially, we fill this missing lexis with you guys or y'all for the plural form to make it clear that we are speaking to everyone not just one person.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is bilinguism becoming the norm or are we just starting to notice it?

Just a quick thought for the day:

With only 212 countries in the world, but about 6000 languages.  It seems that bilingualism and multilingualism are actually the norm.  When I was growing up it seemed that everyone I knew only spoke one language but these days monolingualism seems to be the unusual state.
The number of languages is decreasing at a rate of one every 14 days but those that remain are becoming more and more spliced together through borrowing and exposure.  With English being the complex language that it is, is it really the best candidate for the one language?  Especially given that more people speak Mandarin?
Or will we see a slow process of fusing the languages together into one composite language? 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What kind of language do you speak?

So we often think that texts are broken into paragraphs which are broken into sentences and then into words.  But what are words broken into?
We know that a word can be broken into syllables but that is a practice for dividing the sounds up; if we are looking at meaning, we need to break it up into meaningful chunks where the word unbreakable for example becomes un (not), break and able (possible).

These are morphemes
A word is broken up into the chunks that add meaning to the word.  Now we can understand a way that linguists use to classify languages.

Isolating languages
These languages add the meaning to the word by surrounding it with other words.

Polysynthetic languages
These languages use affixes to add on to the base word.

So which one is English?  Neither.  And both.
Actually, we need to think of it more as a spectrum into which most languages fall in the middle or tending toward one extreme or the other.

Take the word "sing".  If I want to show my ability to do this, I add "can".  This is a separate word.  But then if I want to show that this is my profession, I add -er to make "singer".  This is a bound morpheme (the -er cannot stand alone).

It is an interesting difference to note when you are learning a new language or trying to understand the errors of someone else.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What kind of learner are you?

When we are thinking about the differences in each student's learning style, it is useful to look at the E & L framework (from Ehrman and Leaver (1997, 2003)).  It provides 10 spectra on which we can place a student to get a better idea of how they will absorb information.

Think about each dichotomy as a seesaw.  How far and in which direction is the imbalance?

1) Analogue/Digital scale
Do you tend to absorb information easier through metaphors and analogies (analogue) or through cold facts (digital).

2) Concrete/Abstract scale
Do you prefer hands-on, experimental learning (concrete) or are you a book-learner?  Preferring to learn through lectures and concepts (abstract)?

3) Field Independent/Field Dependent scale
Can you focus on one small part of the whole quickly and easily?  Can you zero in on a small unit of language and focus on just that.  (Field independence is tested by finding a shape in a field of other shapes.  If you can do this quickly, you are field independent.)

4) Field Sensitive/Insensitive scale
Do you use the language environment for your learning (field sensitive) or do you focus on individual units of language out of context (field insensitive)?

5) Global/Particular scale
Do you see the forest for the trees?  Do you focus on overall meaning at the expense of the details?  If you do, you are a global processor.

6) Impulsive/Reflective scale
Impulsive learners think and respond quickly.  Reflective learners think first and then respond.

7) Inductive/Deductive learners
Do you like to create your own hypotheses and test them in the environment in order to learn (inductive) or do you prefer to draw conclusions from reliable sources to apply (deductive)?

8) Leveling/Sharpening scale
When you are looking at two things that are mostly similar, do you look for the similarities (leveling) or the differences (sharpening)?  Do you have trouble remembering the differences or can you recall them easily (sharpening)?

9) Random/Sequential scale
Do you like to work through the material in a sequential way or do you like to read random sections depending on what is interesting to you at the time?

10) Synthetic/Analytic scale
Synthesizers create something new with the pieces that they have.  Analyzers take to take apart words to see the parts that they are made up of.

Keep in mind that each one is a spectrum.  I am usually sequential but at times I will skip a chapter and head into one that interests me more, knowing that I will go back and finish later.

Each student is a different combination of these variables, each class is an average of each of these components.  Teaching is not an easy job if you are teaching right.

Source: Leaver, B.L., Ehrman, M. & Shekhtman, B. (2005).  Achieving success in second language acquisition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pidgin English- Helpful or harmful?

This is always a big debate in the teachers' room when you get some pragmatic teachers with ingrained habits who swear that students won't understand enough otherwise and the teachers who base their style on theories who swear that we should only provide authentic English.

I can see both sides of the argument although I never seem to agree with the way that it is being argued.  Intuitively, I believe that pidgin English is probably not doing the harm that people would have you believe.  Children have learner languages through which they develop on the way to fluency in the first language.  They have no issues with these intermediate steps becoming fossilized.  If you think of it that way, as a tool on the way to more correct discourse, I think the only danger is the teacher developing habits that they cannot break when the students are ready to develop beyond it.

I also believe that although it is not doing damage, it is probably a much more efficient use of classroom time to provide exposure to the entire language as soon as possible.  Grading the language should be done not through unnatural speed or grammatical simplification but through simplification of the idea.  If you keep the idea simple, you can make simple sentences that are correct and convey most of what you say.  It is simply up to the teacher's skill in conveying ideas at the right level for the student.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to and how not to learn a language

When I arrived in Japan, I had no contacts or friends in the city I was assigned to and I was lucky. I was lucky to be living in an environment where I felt anonymous.  For it was that feeling of anonymity that led me to feel truly free to make mistakes.  It was a very different feeling to the university classrooms that I had studied in previously and I felt all of the inhibitions fade.  That is why I understand the negative impact that peer pressures can have in the classroom. 
The pressure to speak the first language often comes from the need to deliver respectful tones that a speaker feels can only be delivered in the first language. In Thai, to show respect to elders, you end sentences in Krab/Kaa.  This is difficult for my students to drop because they feel that without this honorific, they are not showing due respect.  The result is sentences like, “That’s right krab”.

Often, things just don’t sound polite enough because of our internal translation system.  I find it difficult to say “mai ow krab” to my mother-in-law.  It is a perfectly correct and polite response to an offer but in my head it sounds like, “don’t want it!” (The word for word translation is not want + Thai honourific.)

For me, the affective factors restricting me from freedom to play with the language came not so much from my peers but from my own beliefs.  I believed that there should be a switch.  I believed that I should only ever use and think in one language at a time.  I saw code-switching as a slippery slope.  Believing that mixing languages would lead to confusion and attrition of my first language, I felt that I had to learn Japanese from scratch in Japanese.

Now, I realize that I deprived myself of key learning strategies such as extension.  Sure, extension leads to errors (over-extension) but that is part of the learning process.  We notice a similarity (e.g. played, worked) and we make an assumption (add –ed to talk about the past).  We overextend (goed, doed) and then we learn the exceptions.  The benefit of this is that we apply one rule and straight away learn 80% (for example) of cases and then we learn the other 20% individually.  Makes sense to learn one rule and 20% individually than to learn 100% individually doesn’t it?

The fear of fossilization also slowed down my learning process.  I tried to learn everything 100% because the fear of learning something wrong, developing a habit and then not being able to change it later lead me to overanalyze simple input and think too much before I attempted a response. 

When we apply assumptions, we make mistakes.  Whether these assumptions are based on our first language (interlingual[1]) or based on what we already know of the target language (intralingual), they will lead us to errors which are really just signs of progression.  These errors show us that we are in progress from L1 to L2 (interlanguage[2]).  That is why we need to encourage students to make errors and to correct them not to avoid making them.

[1] Brown, D.H (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall. PP 263-264
[2] A coin termed by Selinker.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209-231.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The top 5 books for ESL teachers

If you are starting your career in ESL, here are the top five books that I think you need to know about:

1) Practical English Usage
Michael Swan
This is the go-to grammar book for most new teachers.  If you need a reference that is easy-to-use and complete enough to all of your grammar questions, this is it.  Keep it around when doing your lessons plans.

2) English Grammar In Use with Answers and CD ROM: A Self-study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Students of English
Raymond Murphy
If you need to recommend a practice book for students, this is the one most often chosen.   This book does teach spoken style over academic style in some parts but it is a very clear and concise way to introduce your students to over 100 different grammar points.

3) Learner English: A Teacher's Guide to Interference and other Problems (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers)
Michael Swan, Bernard Smith
This is my recommendation for those of you who are travelling overseas to teach in a country that you have never been.  This book talks about the learner language of 20 different languages.  It is a good way to quickly get accustomed to the differences between the learner’s language and English. 

4) Second Language Learning Theories
Mitchell, R. & Myles, F.
A book that looks at the various different theories in ESL.  It is often used as a text for post-graduate university courses.  It is a tough read but well worth it.

5) Games for Language Learning (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers)
Andrew Wright, David Betteridge, Michael Buckby
This is a book that I haven’t used myself but I know that it is quite popular and everyone I speak to swears by it.  Let me know your opinion if you have used it (or read it).

Friday, May 6, 2011

The alphabet - an inadequate tool

I think that it helps a lot of teachers to realise just what a sad job the English alphabet does of approximating the sounds that come out of our mouths.

In a perfect world, the same symbol word make the same sound every time.  That would make reading easier to learn for children and ESL students.  But this is certainly not the case in English is it?
Think about the letters ough.
Now, say these words:  
  1. through
  2. cough
  3. brought
  4. enough
  5. although
  6. borough
  7. bough (when the bough breaks the baby will fall).
Is it any wonder that our students have trouble getting their heads around spelling?
Of course, there is something that works better than the alphabet.  You see, a group of linguists got together and created an alphabet based on the sounds that we actually use.  Those crazy-looking letters that show you how to pronounce words in the dictionary.  This is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  It shows not just all the English sounds but all the sounds in all languages.
It may be a bit tough to learn initially but what if all countries moved to using this as their primary alphabet?  Would that help us to understand each other better?  One step closer to a universal language?
Remember, a language dies every 14 days anyway.  Will it really come down to survival of the most entrenched language?  Or would this be a proactive step in accumulating the benefits of all languages?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A couple of steps that should not be forgotten

Okay, so in the 50’s we had Contrastive analysis.  This is where a bunch of geniuses sat around and said, “If we compare L1 and L2, we can see where the students are gonna go off track and we can focus on these areas”.
These guys were debunked by the younger, hipper crowd in the 70’s who said, “yeah, but a lot of errors that we expect to occur under contrastive analysis don’t eventuate.  Maybe what we should be looking at are the errors that the students actually make.” 
This was the birth of error analysis.  Now, what kind of teacher doesn’t try to help students by looking at the mistakes that they are making?  We would be remiss to ignore such vital indications of our individual student’s understanding.  But to base your entire approach on errors now seems to be a little negative doesn’t it?  Don’t forget the positive reinforcement.
But that was a step that our scientist friends needed to take in order to get to the theory of interlanguage.  “What if these errors are not just random occurrences?” they mused as they poured over their sample of errors.  “What if there was some linear progression from one language to another language that we could plot our learners on?  We already know that L1 is learnt in roughly the same order by all children who learn under comparable circumstances, perhaps there is a similar correlation here.”
The part that I find interesting is that sometimes, a progression appears to be a regression.  Children learn words like played, did, went and use them perfectly fine as individual lexical units.  Then, they learn the rule; add -ed if you are talking about the past.  Suddenly, they start using words like doed and goed even though they were using the correct form last week.  They progress from using individual lexical parts to understanding the rule but applying it blindly to applying the rule and understanding the exceptions.
I don’t like to think of the old theories as debunk.  I prefer to think that they are a step that we had to go through to get where we are now and each step contributed something to a fuller understanding of how people learn to communicate.  So look back at your contrastive analysis and error analysis and see what they can offer to what you do in the classroom today.

Speech acts

We often think that the purpose of a language is to pass meaning but sometimes we use language to commit an act.
  •  I have a cat.  (this gives the listener information)
  •  I promise to do better.  (this is an act of promising)
  •  Go away!  (this is used to elicit action)
Here is a simple breakdown of the three groups of speech acts:


This is the actual passing of information from one person to another.

Illocutionary acts

By saying something, we do something[1].
Warnings, promises, challenges, request, greetings
“Searle (1975)[2] has set up the following classification of illocutionary speech acts:
  • assertive = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
  • directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
  • commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
  • expressives = speech acts that express the speaker's attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
  • declarations = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife”[3]

Perlocutionary acts

This is the result of the speech act.  Convincing, scaring, inspiring and making you laugh are all examples of this.

[1] John L. Austin (1962), How to Do Things with Words
[2] John Searle (1969), Speech Acts, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-09626-X.
[3] Excerpt from