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...