Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stepping outside the comfort zone

When I was learning Japanese, I made a huge leap forward when one day, I decided to not take it all so seriously.  I was sitting at a “kotatsu(1) table on a mountain in Nagano, Japan.  I was surrounded by Japanese colleagues and was a little bit frustrated when they corrected my pronunciation.  So I imitated them. 

In the beginning, I did it in a slightly malicious way which I am not proud of but my colleagues’ reaction was very positive. So, I continued doing it in a joking and less malicious way.  Soon, I was building up my courage to use this new voice in serious situations.  I stopped hearing “your Japanese is so good” (which is only heard to encourage beginners in Japanese, when it actually is good, it goes unnoticed).

When I look back on this now, I believe that what I had done was childish in more than one way.  I had lost my inhibitions and gotten a little playful with the language.  And it helped me to create a whole new identity from which I was speaking with much better pronunciation . 

The identity that I had created was like me but he was Japanese.  No longer was I approaching problems with the disposition of a foreigner learning English, no longer did I resort to using my “outsider” status as an excuse for not understanding or doing things the way that Japanese people did them.  I started taking off my shoes when I entered my own apartment instead of thinking that this is a “Kiwi” household.

Complete adoption of Japanese culture helped me to learn the things which did not translate easily.  A “kotatsu” was now just a kotatsu, not an unwieldy explanation of what it is because there is no direct translation. We do not have “kotatsu” tables in New Zealand so we have no word for them.  The Japanese culture is rich and built on a long history so there are many such examples of things and concepts that only exist in Japanese.

Taking the language less seriously also meant that I was filtering less (from Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, 1982).  I was happy to make mistakes and laugh about them rather than slow the conversation down by over-using my filter.  I started to use grammar as an autopsy tool instead of a construction tool.  I didn’t use grammar to build a sentence, only to examine it afterwards.  If it was not correct, I would correct it and try to remember for next time.  I would make sure that there were plenty of “next times”.

If I were asked now if adults can learn languages well, I would have to say that the limitations we face as adults are self-imposed because of how we think we are expected to act in society.   Our inhibitions are from our own fears and learning a language means conquering your doubts.  Children are just lucky enough to learn before the pressures of society’s influence have taken hold.  As a second language teacher it is my hope and belief that the biological benefits that children have in learning during the peak acquisition time are outweighed by the cognitive benefits of learning as an adult. 

My challenge as a teacher now is how we get people to understand that in order to learn a language you may need to not just take in vast amounts of information but also assume a new identity .  Seeing yourself as a native-speaker is the first step to being a native-like speaker.

(1) A knee-high table covered in a blanket with a heat-lamp underneath

Krashen, Stephen D. (1981). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. English Language Teaching series. London: Prentice-Hall International (UK) Ltd. 202 pages.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

One for the parents

This post is about how you learn your first language as a child.  This a good one for parents to read.

Exercise your articulatory muscles
You do this by babbling.  Note that all cultures babble and it is not only normal, it is a necessary part of language development. 
Even if the child's first language will be sign language, they will babble; they babble with their hands.  In their case, the articulatory muscles are in their hands and fingers.

Copy the sounds
Keep in mind here that children understand more than they can express.  This is proven with kids who can use signs to express their requests before they can ask for milk and the amount of gesturing that kids use in general.  My daughter used a hand and sound gesture to point out planes well before she could articulate the word "plane".

Kids learn nasals and voiced stops (see the IPA chart here) first.  These are the "b", "g", and "d" sounds. 
The fricatives and liquids come last.  "s", "z" and "y" sounds, for example.

What is interesting is that if you get to know the IPA chart, you see that children are actually approximating words using the sounds that they are familiar with first and you can translate these approximations.
Can't say Zebra?  Says Debra
Can't say see?  Says Dee

Understanding how kids approximate words they hear using the sounds that they can already use may just help a lot of frustrated parents out there figure out just want the screaming toddler is upset about.

What about correction?
There is a lot of evidence that correction does not play a big part in First Language Acquisition as adults tend to correct kids on factual not grammatical errors:
Child:  There is five chairs!
Adult:  There are SIX chairs
Not:  There ARE six chairs.

And, children can be oblivious to correction anyway, at least to some extent:
"Child: Nobody don't like me.
Mother: No, say "nobody likes me"
Child: Nobody don't like me.
(eight repetitions of this exchange)
Mother: No, now listen carefully; say "nobody likes me"
Child: Oh! Nobody don't likes me."
McNeill, D (1966). Developmental psycholinguistics. in F. Smith & G. Miller (Eds.), The genesis of language: A psycholinguistic approach (pp., 69-73). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

And yet children still learn to speak despite our terrible teaching.  The human brain is a truly amazing thing!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Think of the patient when you name the disorder!

1.       The fear of long words is apparently called "hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia"
2.       People with a lisp can’t pronounce sibilants like the letter “s”.  Like the one in liSp.
3.       Spanish people don’t start words with consonant clusters starting with s – like SPanish
(not that being Spanish is any kind of disorder)
No point, just came across these three things in one day and thought it was strange.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Correcting our student's writing

We can divide correction into Direct and Indirect CorrectionIndirect Correction is where the teacher does not correct the mistake; they just indicate where the mistake is and let the student correct the language themselves. 
Studies have shown that because of the cognitive processes in play when the student has to identify and then correct the error for themselves, the long term benefits of Indirect Correction are clearly superior. 
Interestingly enough, studies have also shown no significant difference between Coded and Uncoded Correction in the long term.  Coded Correction is where the teacher gives the student the reason the language is incorrect (such as “sp” for spelling).  Students were 75% as successful (Ferris et al, 2000) at self-correcting when no codes were given yet the long term results were the same.
We also make a distinction between Global and Local ErrorsGlobal Errors interfere with the understandability of the text where Local Errors are minor errors that do not.  There is no evidence to suggest that treating the two kinds of errors differently have any impact on student writing.
Treatable and Untreatable ErrorsTreatable errors are errors that the student can find a rule for to help them to correct it.  Examples include tense errors, subject-verb agreement errors and plural errors.  Untreatable Errors are idiosyncratic and they need to have met this language before to correct it.  Examples include using the wrong word and idiomatic expressions.
Obviously, focusing on Treatable Errors of both the Global and Local variety using Indirect Correction in either Coded or Uncoded fashion is the way to go.  Hopefully, understanding these distinctions will help us to correct our students’ writing in a way that provides long-term benefits.
For verbal correction see here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Language acquisition research in action

I have read about such experiments and always wondered just effective it is to measure the attention span of children as a way of evaluating their interest in sounds.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The learners outnumber the teachers!

“According to David Graddol's extensive survey for the British Council, the number of non-native or second language speakers of English now out numbers those of primary or native speakers”

Tips for language learning

Studies show that students display improved performance when we raise their awareness of how they should acquire a language.

Here are some points we can give our students to help raise this kind awareness:

1) Be self-reliant. Know your own strengths and weaknesses and be in control of your own learning.
2) Listen first. Start with listening and then move on to speaking and leave the reading and writing to when you feel comfortable with the language.
3) Be intuitive. Be creative with the language in order to get a “feel” for the language. Getting bogged down with too many rules will not help fluency.
4) Be proactive. Seek out opportunities to use newly acquired language both inside and outside the classroom.
5) Don’t fear the unknown. You don’t have to understand every word get used to just understanding the “gist” and gaining from the context of the language.
6) Make mistakes. Every error that you make gets you closer to speaking correctly.
7) Use extension but realize its limitations. Use what you know about your first language and what you know about the target language to make intelligent guesses about how you might say something.
8) Be a conversationalist. Learn how to keep the conversation moving. You are learning to communicate not code.
Read about my experience learning a second language here
9) Learn different ways to say things. Learn the polite, casual, passive way to speak, learn written forms. Do not limit yourself.
10) Have fun with learning a language. Find a way to keep yourself engaged in learning and be aware of your motivations so that you can remind yourself of them when motivation is low.
Read about my learning strategies here.

What kind of learner are you?  Read about learning styles here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Keeping students on the right track

People who are undertaking the impressive task of learning to communicate in a language that is not their own are going to make mistakes and it is important that they do.  A lot of language acquisition is simple application of what you think may be the correct way to say it based on what you know of the target language and what you transfer from your own.  But this needs to be refined through feedback about whether or not the assumptions that we have made are correct.
So, correction is important.
It is up to the teacher to apply correction given the type of activity, the personality of the student etc.  But a general understanding of correction is important.
Point One: Try to focus correction on the current material to avoid overcorrection.  But do not consistently ignore a recurring error as the student will build a habit that will be difficult to break later.  There is a balance to be struck here.
There are two kinds of correction.
1)      Correcting material that has already been taught. 
Here, you are assuming that the material is familiar to the student and that they have the ability to make the correct utterance if they put more thought into the sentence. The purpose of correction here is to simply highlight the error so that the student can self-correct.  It should not be necessary to give the correct form.
2)      New material
If the error that has been made is because the student has not learnt the correct form, it is probably best not to dwell on this one.  Here is an opportunity to input new language that could help the student but if you are working from a set curriculum, this language is probably better off coming up in due course.
Point Two: Correction is best done during the practice stage (Presentation, Practice and Production).  So that when you get to the production stage, the student can use it with confidence.  If not, go back to practice and build that confidence again before moving back to production.
When we correct:
Intrusive Correction: Correction that interrupts the production of language.  This kind of correction should be as close to the error as possible.  If you are going to interrupt the conversation to correct, best not to let them get 3 more thoughts down the road before you stop them. 
Reflective Correction: This is correction that looks back on language that was produced.  For this kind of correction, we need to remind the student of what they said before correcting it.  Sometimes, simply asking them to produce it again will bring the correct result.
Points Three and Four: They will remember what was said last so always make sure that the last thing that is said is the correct one.  Never fall into the trap of using inauthentic English or repeating incorrect language because when this comes from the teacher, the student takes it as confirmation.

For correction of written work see here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A language dies every 14 days

Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.

More about languages here.

Learning L1 vs learning L2

Why are the processes of learning first languages so different to learning second? 
Obviously, the brain is a bit different.  The child’s brain is built to act like a sponge for the purpose of taking in so much information in the first few years of a child’s life.  (the brain goes through a process of making connections called Synaptogenesis which is particularly prevalent during the “critical period” when children learn language).
But consider this, unless there is a physical disability, people learn languages.  According to the Universal Grammar theory (Chomsky 1965), a brain is not only designed with the capability of learning a language, it has been pre-programmed to do that.  A child’s brain just needs to be configured.
So what language do you want to learn?  One which puts the subject first? CHECK.  One that conjugates the verbs? CHECK. Do the verbs conjugate differently depending on the subject? Yes, CHECK.
Throw in some vocabulary and that is why children learn complete languages in the first 5 years of their life.  (On top of learning all that other stuff like who this "Mum" person is and what that hairy thing that eats from the bowl on the floor is).
But people need to be taught to write.  It seems that you cannot stop a person from naturally learning to speak but without the correct stimulation, children won’t learn to read.  Could just be because trying to read takes effort but your ears are always taking in input. Or it could be because speaking is just one of those things we do naturally like walking, we don’t need someone to teach us we are pre-programmed to do it.  But writing is a human invention.
What does this mean?  In my opinion, it means that if you are learning a language it is better to focus on the language first and not the method of recording the language. Focusing first on developing fluency and then moving onto writing to consolidate will ensure that you don’t become dependant on the written word or abuse your Monitor (see Krashen's Monitor Hypothesis).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is a language?

"A language is a dialect with an army and navy"
An aphorism popularised by Max Weinreich

How many languages are there? and other questions answered

For the answer to this question and questions like it, turn to:

An encyclopedic reference work cataloging all of the world’s 6,909 known living languages

Here are some facts from this website
  • 58,100,000 in United Kingdom speak English
  • 215,000,000 in United States (2000 census)
  • 328,008,138 people in the world speak English
Note: It is claimed that more people speak English in China than in America.  I haven't found any conclusive evidence of this yet.  If you see some, please comment below)

Which language has the most speakers in the world?
For an easy to understand answer to this question, see Wikipedia

According to Wiki, English is number 3.  Behind Mandarin and Spanish.
Please note though, this only counts native English speakers.
If you take those who speak English as a second language into consideration, then it gets hairy.  Because it is difficult to classify.  Do you count only those who are fluent?  Do you count those who only speak a few words?  How do you measure fluency?  Get everyone in the world to take a test?

So, if you really need to know how many people speak English (not just native-speakers), check out the estimates listed on this page.

Why should I study English?
Three-quarters of the world's mail, telexes and cables are in English.

More than half of the world's technical and scientific periodicals are in English

English is the medium for 80% of the information stored in the world's computers
Over 700 million people, speak English, as a foreign language.
 It does appear that the number one reason that people should study English is not that it is the most used language in the world but because it does give you access to more information than any language in the world.

Monday, April 11, 2011

In the beginning

Let's start with understanding what we are talking about.  Understanding the terms is the first step, so let's take it one step at a time. 

ESL - English as a Second Language
EFL - English as a Foriegn (not first) Language

What is the difference?  I come from New Zealand.  We have two official languages in New Zealand.  English and Maori.  If my brother learned Maori now, it would be his second language.  But could you say it is a foreign language?

In most cases, these two terms overlap.  But not always.
Your first language could be a foriegn language.

If you put a "T" for teaching in front, we get the terms TEFL and TESL.  There is also TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).

This is what I do for a living.  I Teach English as a second, foreign language to students who are speakers of other languages.  As I study this topic PostGrad through a New Zealand university, I will be using this blog to consolidate my thoughts on the subject and to get feedback and opinions from readers so if you have any comments, please feel free to leave them below and let the journey begin.....