E is for English

21 05 2017

 

Salvador Sobral

Salvador Sobral and his sister Luisa, who wrote the winning song (AFP)

The fact that the winner of this year’s Eurovision contest sang his sister’s song in his native Portuguese, and not – like the majority of contestants – solely or partly in English, has attracted comment in the European press. In fact (according to a Guardian article that appeared in advance of the final) only four of the total 42 songs in the Eurovision final were sung entirely in a language other than English: as well as the Portuguese entry, these were the Belarusian, Hungarian and Italian entries. Of the rest, 35 were sung entirely in English. ‘That’s over 83%, and the highest-ever proportion in the history of the competition,’ notes The Guardian. The fact that the contest’s slogan was ‘Celebrate Diversity’ seems not to have impacted on the choice of language.

Eurovision stats

The rise and rise of Euro-English – as sung in the Eurovision Song Contest (from The Guardian)

 

That the successful Portuguese song bucked this trend has given grim satisfaction to those who (like me) suspect that the dominance of English may be experiencing the first signs of a reversal, especially in Europe. Only a week or so before Eurovision, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commision, is reported to have opted to make a speech in French rather than in English, on the grounds that, in his words, “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.” As The Guardian noted, his snub was received with applause.

Of course, the negative perception of English has been fuelled by Brexit, but also, I would guess, by the election of Trump in the US. As I commented a few months ago, on the TEFL Equity blog, in response to a post that argued that these events will hasten the demise of ‘native speakerism’:

The ideology that underpins the Brexit and Trump ‘debacles’ threatens – not the hegemony of native-speaker teachers or native speaker models of English – but the very survival of English as a global language itself. When two of the countries that are (still) most closely identified with English succumb to antiglobalizing, protectionist and xenophobic political discourses, the ‘symbolic capital’ of the language is devalued. With fewer students studying in the US or UK, and fewer companies trading there – even with fewer tourists – the incentive to learn English will weaken. Maybe not by much, but maybe by enough for another global language – e.g. Spanish or Russian (don’t laugh!) – to edge it off first base – or maybe the increasing sophistication of translation software will render the notion of a lingua franca redundant in any case. Either way, we can’t simply shrug off the effect that Brexit/Trump will have on global perceptions of English. Maybe we should rebrand it ‘Canadian’, and teach that!

As we know, even lingua francas (linguae francae?) are not immune to language change and even language death. Latin, after all, was kept alive (in ‘a state of suspended animation’, as one writer puts it [Coleman 1990, p. 181]) mainly because of its liturgical function, long after it had ceased to be the lingua franca of what had once been the Roman Empire.

english-next.jpgMore than decade ago, David Graddoll (2006, p. 62) made the point that ‘English is no longer the “only show in town”. Other languages now challenge the dominance of English in some regions. Mandarin and Spanish, especially, have become sufficiently important to be influencing national policy priorities in some countries.’

More recently, writing about language and globalization, Ammon (2013, p. 120) notes that ‘it appears likely that other languages besides English will gain, or maintain, international or global function. The gist of their use will probably be bilateral, but the possibility of multilateral usage, including as a lingua franca in special situations, remains, irrespective of the role of English as the predominant world lingua franca.’

And even within the English-speaking world, English is subject to hybridizing influences that threaten its uniformity and which suggest it could go the way of Latin, metamorphosing into a proliferation of mutually unintelligble varieties. Romaine (2009, p. 604) writes of demographic shifts ‘within the US and Europe which may have a dramatic effect on the future position of English. Immigration and migration have brought about increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in both these regions.’ And she adds, ‘unprecedented mobility the world over is creating new hybridised identities. This is no less evident in the English language itself, with its multiple varieties’ (p. 605).

Meanwhile, back in the UK, The Independent reports that a video has been released that ‘shows a British man hitting 27-year-old Tomás Gil, from Valencia, in the face with a wooden plank after shouting at him to “speak English”’.

Great language. Great future.English only t-shirt

 

References

Ammon, U. (2013) ‘World languages: trends and futures,’ In Coupland, N. (ed.) The Handbook Of Language and Globalisation, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Coleman, R.G.G. (1990) ‘Latin and the Italic languages’ in Comrie, B. (ed.) The World’s Major Languages, Oxford University Press.

Graddol, D. (2006) English Next: Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a foreign language’. British Council.

Romaine, S. (2009) ‘Global English: from island tongue to world language’. In van Kemenade A. & Los, B. (eds) The Handbook of the History of English. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

 





E is for Esperanto

14 05 2017

teach yourself esperantoTry this thought experiment:

A couple learn an invented language and use it with their child who picks it up naturally. The child eventually meets another person who has the same artificial mother tongue. To what extent will they be able to communicate? That is to say, to what extent will the two linguistic systems be aligned?

Or this one:

Two people, each with different L1s, learn to communicate in a lingua franca for which there are no prescribed rules of suprasegmental phonology, such as rhythm and intonation. Will they be mutually intelligible?

Or this one:

An artificial language has been developed that has its own grammar and vocabulary, but not a codified phraseology, e.g. of collocations, idioms, etc. Will a phraseology develop naturally through use? And to what extent will this cause communication breakdown between speakers of the language who have learned and used it in different settings?

As it happens, these ‘experiments’ are regularly put to the test whenever speakers of artificial languages, such as Esperanto, interact. Designed to be an international lingua franca, Esperanto never quite fulfilled its utopian promise, but (according to Wikipedia) ‘up to two million people worldwide, to varying degrees, speak Esperanto, including about 1,000 to 2,000 native speakers who learned Esperanto from birth.’  This last fact must surely excite researchers of second language acquisition and of sociolinguistics, specifically that aspect of sociolinguistics that deals with generational language change. It’s surprising, therefore, that there is little or no mention of Esperanto in the literature of either SLA or sociolinguistics.

The second generation speakers of Esperanto (I would have thought) would provide interesting data for those who are concerned with how language acquisition emerges, especially in conditions where opportunities for input and output are restricted  – which is often the case, not only for speakers of Esperanto, but also for learners of EFL. And it might provide insights into how languages evolve over time within particular speech communities.

For example, it has been shown (Bergen 2001) that children who grow up speaking Esperanto tend not to use the accusative case. (The accusative case is the marking of nouns and adjectives as objects of the verb. In English, the accusative survives in only a handful of pronouns, e.g. who vs whom). Native speakers of Esperanto also ignore a number of complex tense and aspect distinctions that are marked with affixes.

How does one account for these divergences from ‘proper’ Esperanto (i.e. the language learned by their parents) and the language spoken by second generation Esperanto speakers? Are the differences attributable simply to L1 transfer – given the fact that native Esperanto speakers are invariably bilingual? Or is the ‘nativization’ process determined by general (i.e. not language-specific) learning strategies, such as a tendency to overgeneralize rules or to eliminate redundancy? Or is the failure to adopt features of the target grammar, as prescribed by its grammarians, simply an effect of incomplete learning, due, perhaps, to limited exposure and opportunities for use – what SLA researchers might call the premature stabilization of the interlanguage? Indeed, can we talk about ‘interlanguage’ at all, given that there is no agreed ‘end state’ in the acquisition of Esperanto, i.e. there is no native speaker model that has been codified over generations of users?

Or can second generation Esperanto be explained only by recourse to an innate, language-learning faculty, such as argued by proponents of Universal Grammar (UG)? Could it be that second-generation Esperanto offers evidence of universalizing principles? Which also raises the interesting question as to whether any of the features of Esperanto grammar contravene UG, and, if so, have they been shed in the process of nativization? (Another thought experiment: a language is devised which contravenes UG – e.g. has ‘postpositions’, rather than prepositions (‘the bus on’, not on the bus), but has adjectives before rather than after the noun, i.e. a red bus, not a bus red. It is taught to one generation and then acquired by a second. Would the word order discrepancies resolve themselves? If so, in which direction?)

 

Zamenhof

L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), architect of Esperanto

The accusative case, incidentally, has an interesting history in Esperanto: Zamenhof – Esperanto’s designer – believed that the presence of accusative forms of nouns and adjectives would allow a more flexible word order. Thus, with accusative markings, the difference between The dog bit the girl (‘La hundo mordis la knabinon’) and The girl bit the dog (‘La hundon morbis la knabino’) requires no change in word order. But, as early as 1895, there was a heated discussion as to its usefulness. So Zamenhof put it to the vote. The ‘accusativists’ won, triggering a separatist movement within Esperanto, and the formation of a breakaway language called Ido, which abandoned the accusative altogether. As we have seen, nativized Esperanto speakers have tended to follow suit.

 

Esperanto also offers a suggestive precedent for other (theorized) lingua francas, such as ELF (English as a lingua franca), which have no associated culture and few if any native speakers. Thus, the phonetician, John Wells, an accomplished Esperantist himself, has used the case of Esperanto to argue that speakers of a lingua franca for which there is no codified system of intonation (like Esperanto, like ELF) will simply adopt and adapt the intonation of their L1, with little or no prejudice to intelligibility. This is an argument against the explicit teaching of intonation, especially in the teaching of ELF (see the discussion in I for Intonation). On the other hand, transferring idiomatic expressions from an L1 into a lingua franca (such as Esperanto or ELF) should probably be avoided, since these are unlikely to be transparent to one’s interlocutors – a case against teaching phrasal verbs, for example.

In short, Esperanto, even if not the success its original proponents had envisioned, offers suggestive material for re-imagining the acquisition and teaching of English.

Reference

Bergen, B. K. (2001) ‘Nativization processes in L1 Esperanto.’ Journal of Child Language, 28.

 

 





S is for Speaking (2)

7 05 2017

 

setting up speaking activity

photo by Ahed Izhiman

Following on from last week, here are five more of my favourite speaking activities that I included (or planned to include) in my talks in Palestine. As in the last batch, they require minimal materials, promote a good deal of productive language use, and have elements of task rehearsal and repetition built in.

 

Find someone who… This is a classic and hardly needs describing, but there are some interesting variations. It involves learners walking around (space permitting), asking all the other learners questions with a view to completing a survey or finding someone whose answers most closely match theirs. For example, in order to find out how adventurous the class is, learners (either singly or in small groups) first prepare three or four questions that fit this frame:

Have you ever …?  Would you ever…?

For example, Have you ever been sailing? (And, if the answer is No) Would you ever do it? Have you ever eaten insects? Would you ever eat them?) etc. They then survey the rest of the class, making a note of the number of affirmative answers. This will involve the repeated asking of the question(s), but in a context that requires that learners pay attention, not only to asking the right questions, but also to the answers. It is this requirement, the enforced re-allocation of attentional resources, that – in theory – encourages memorization of the forms. Reporting to the class the results of the milling activity (e.g. Maxim said he would never dive off the high board; Olga said …) is also another way of providing repetitive practice where attention is not only on meaning, but, because of the public nature of the reporting, also on form – i.e. on getting it right. Variants involve choosing items from a grid – e.g. holiday destinations, hotels, and months – and asking questions in order to find someone who is going to the same destination, staying in the same hotel, and in the same month.

Show and tell. Another classic: in successive lessons, learners take turns to make a short (two to five-minute) presentation to the rest of the class, e.g. about an interest they have, a hobby, a favourite object, a book they have read or movie they have seen. It is important than the presentation is spoken – not simply written down and read aloud. This requirement, along with the public nature of the task, encourages preparation and rehearsal. A question-and-answer session at the end ensures spontaneous language use. Ideally, learners should have a chance to repeat the presentation, either immediately or at a later date, in order to incorporate any feedback. An alternative organization is to put the students into small groups to share their ‘news’, while the teacher circulates and assists. One person from each group then reports some of the more interesting findings to the class. This is a great way to begin a lesson, and, if done regularly, trains learners to prepare in advance.

Discussion cards. Students in small groups have a set of statements or questions about a specific topic on cards. These can be prepared by the teacher, but, better still, by the students themselves, whose discussion cards can then be exchanged with another group. One student takes the first card, reads it aloud, and the group then discuss it for as long as they need, before taking the next card, and so on. If a particular statement doesn’t interest them, they can move on to the next one. The object is not necessarily to discuss all the statements: the teacher should decide at what point to end the activity. Groups who have finished early can prepare a summary of the main points that have come up. These summaries can be used to open up the discussion to the whole class.

Describe-and-draw race. The teacher pre-teaches or revises nouns relating to geometrical shapes, such as line, square, circle, triangle, and rectangle, as well as prepositional phrases such as on the left, on the right, above, below, outside, inside, so that learners can describe a simple arrangement of shapes. (Alternatively, they could be easy-to-draw objects, such as fruit, items of clothing or of furniture).

To practise, the teacher describes an arrangement so that the learners can draw it correctly. The learners do the same to each other in pairs, and/or ‘dictate’ a picture to the teacher.

communicative activity

photo by Tamar Hazam

 

Now the game element is introduced. The class is divided into two teams, and the blackboard is divided in two by a line down the middle. Each team has a representative at the board, each with a piece of chalk, or boardmarker. In advance of the game the teacher should have prepared a dozen or so different designs incorporating the geometrical shapes, large enough to be seen by all the class. The teacher ensures that the two team representatives at the board can’t see the designs, and then selects one and shows it to the two teams. Each team attempts to describe the design to its representative at the board, and the first team to do this successfully, so that the design is replicated on the board, is the winner of that round. The teacher then selects another design and the game continues, with new ‘drawers’ at the board.

Paper conversations. Not strictly a speaking activity, but one that simulates the real-time and non-predictable nature of spoken interaction, and therefore is useful preparation for it. Learners have a ‘conversation’ with their classmates, but instead of speaking, they write the conversation onto a shared sheet of paper. While the students are writing, the teacher can monitor their written ‘conversations’ and make corrections or improvements more easily than when students are actually speaking. The conversations can then be read aloud, using the ‘heads up’ procedure described in the previous post.

All these activities, and more, can be found in my book How to Teach Speaking (Pearson 2005).

 

 

 





S is for Speaking (1)

30 04 2017

 

reading aloud

Reading aloud becomes speaking

Last week I gave a workshop to two groups of teachers in Ramallah and Gaza City – teachers who are working in fairly tough conditions, with large classes and few resources. I needed to be able to demo some practical hands-on activities that they could use in their classes on Monday morning. Activities, moreover, that would provide plenty of opportunities for speaking. Hence, the title of the talk: My ten favourite speaking activities. There were no PowerPoint slides, so the following will serve as a summary of five of the activities that I workshopped (with more to come), and of the principles that we extrapolated from them. I ought to add that none of these activities I invented myself – they are all in the ‘public domain’ as it were. And have been for a long time. Which is proof of their worth.

  1. What animal am I? Or any number of guessing games involving yes/no questions. After the teacher demoes it, individual learners take the hot seat. Great for practicing really useful questions like ‘Do you lay eggs?’ Other variations include the well-known ‘What’s my line?’ (i.e. ‘What’s my job?’ ).
  2. Spot the lie. Tell three short anecdotes about yourself, two of which are 100% true and one of which is 100% false. Students have to spot the lie – they can ask questions to try and catch you out. They then do the same in pairs or small groups. Travel stories are good material, or minor mishaps, such as things you lost.
  3. Reading aloud (heads up): Reading aloud can be the most turgid classroom activity, as students mouth words without any hint of understanding, and mouth them badly to boot. However as Michael West realized, as long ago as 1955: ‘With a slight modification… Reading Aloud can be made one of the most valuable exercises in the early stages of teaching pupils to speak a foreign language. The pupil should be made to look up when they read aloud. The teacher says, “Don’t read to the book! Read to me. Look up at me.” He makes them read a phrase or short sentence silently then, looking up, say it to someone – to the teacher, or to another pupil, or to the class. In doing this the reader must look up during the speaking of the whole sentence; he must not just look up for a second and then look down again.’ West argues that the effect of this is that the reader must hold the material in the mind in such a way that its meaning is processed, and then recall it meaningfully. Moreover, meaningless reading becomes meaningful speaking because there is an audience: ‘The pupil is speaking to someone – not to the book or the empty air; and the more realistic recall is, the more vivid and effective as the learning.’
  4. Carousel: This is less an activity than a way of organizing speaking activities so that there is built-in repetition. It takes its name from the fact that carousels go round, stop, pick up new passengers, and continue the ride. So, one half of the class stand in a circle, e.g. around the walls of the rooms, while the ‘carousel’ consists of the other half of the class, so that individuals in each circle face one another. They then do the speaking task and, at a signal form the teacher, the inner circle moves around one, and the task is repeated, this time with new partners. When the inner circle has ‘revolved’ one complete turn, the two circles change places. An easy task might be for each student to draw their family tree (brothers, sisters, uncles. aunts etc) and attach it to the wall. They stand next to their picture and answer questions about it. Another one is the headlines activity, where students write, and post up, a catchy headline to describe their recent activities, e.g. JOYFUL WEDDING PARTY; FRUSTRATING SHOPPING TRIP, etc.

    carousel task

    The carousel in operation

  5. Dialogue build: I was taught this technique on my pre-service course, and I couldn’t have survived my first year of teaching without it. Very simply, the teacher uses a picture prompt (e.g. two people on the phone or in a hotel reception) to elicit and drill, line by line, a dialogue of anything between four and a dozen turns. Students practice it, first with the teacher, then with each other, changing partners frequently, and then perform it – perhaps with variations – to the class.

Principles of good speaking tasks that underlie these activities include:

  • repetition – e.g. of the same questions in What animal am I? or of the answers, in Carousel, or of both questions and answers, as in Dialogue build.
  • interaction – students not only have to speak but they have to listen and respond to one another – as in Spot the lie and Carousel.
  • support – activities are supported in a secure framework, e.g. a script or a text, so that the anxiety often associated with spontaneous speaking is reduced, e.g. Reading aloud, Dialogue build.

Reference

West, M. 1955. Learning to read a foreign language and other essays on language-teaching. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Thanks to Ahed Izhiman for the photos.





M is for Mediation

23 04 2017
county agent 02

The county agent (North Carolina State University)

“Teachers don’t read research.”

This would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial claim, but it generated a fair bit of heat on social media when I made it at last month’s IATEFL conference – see for example, the Dynamite ELT blog.

Why don’t teachers read research, as I claimed? Simon Borg (2009) reports that lack of time and accessibility, combined with a perceived lack of relevance, are often cited as reasons. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the researchers don’t write with teachers in mind. As Tom Farrell (2016, p. 352) suggests:

When the word “research” is used in any publication, readers have particular expectations about what they will read in terms of the language that is used in the publication. In most cases, such publications in education are written with a particular audience in mind that for the most part is academics.

Mark Clarke (1994, pp 12-13) goes further, in suggesting that what underpins the ‘dysfunctional discourse’ between researchers and practitioners is an issue of power: ‘Given the hierarchical nature of the profession and the higher status of theorists […] the voices of teachers are subordinated to the voices of others who are less centrally involved in language teaching.’

In sum, as Nat Bartels (2003, p. 737) concludes, ‘studies of teachers’ consumption of and attitudes towards academic research articles show that such articles do not seem to function well as a mechanism for communicating information for teachers.’

So, how is information communicated to teachers?

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

It is the same question that John Carroll engaged with, as long ago as 1966 (p. 98): ‘How is the researcher going to communicate with the consumer of his [sic] research? Does he even know what his audience is and what his audience wants?’

Carroll answers his own question by arguing that the researcher is unqualified to ‘speak’ directly to practitioners. Instead, mediators are needed to ‘translate’ research into its practical applications – or to ‘particularize’ it, in Clarke’s (1994) terms.  Carroll likens this mediating role to that of the ‘county agents’ who functioned in the US as a bridge between agricultural scientists and actual farmers in their fields. ‘There could be an analogue of the county agent in education: the individual who makes a specialty of communicating the findings of research to the potential consumer, the teacher, teacher trainer, educational policymaker, or prepare of instructional material.’ And he adds, ‘the major problem that would be encountered… is the shortage of persons qualified to do this kind of educational liaison.’County-agent-Ammons-Ruth-O-Kelly-1925

What would qualify a person to take on this mediating role? And what qualifies me? In attempting to answer that question, I approached four other ‘county agents’ in our field – i.e. writers of well-known, globally marketed methodology texts —  and asked them a number of questions about the way they achieve ‘educational liaison’, including this one:

  • How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?

Interestingly, their answers varied considerably:

A. Imperative! Teachers need to ground their teaching in research-based findings and assumptions. And, more importantly, teachers themselves should not shrink from engaging in their own classroom-based “action research.” It’s an all-important interaction.
B. I simply fail to understand people who deny the role of research in helping us understand our practice and improve it. Research is, after all, what all good teachers would do if they had the chance.
C. It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
D. I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.  … I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

Which raises the question: Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? And would you expect the writers of such texts to be established researchers in their own right?

References

Bartels, N. (2003) ‘How teachers and researchers read academic articles’. Teacher & Teacher Education, 19.

Borg, S. (2009) ‘English language teachers conceptions of research.’ Applied Linguistics, 30/3.

Carroll, J. (1966) ‘The contributions of psychological theory and educational research to the teaching of foreign languages.’ In Valdman, A. (ed.) Trends in Language Teaching. New York. McGraw-Hill.

Clarke, M. A. (1994) ‘The dysfunctions of the theory/practice discourse.’ TESOL Quarterly, 28/1.

Farrell, T. (2016) Review of Teacher-Researchers in Action, by Dikilitaş et al (eds.) ELT Journal, 70/3.





N is for New edition

16 04 2017

New A-Z of ELT

I started this blog not long after the publication of An A to Z of ELT, with the express purpose of gathering feedback, amendments, corrections and additions for a possible second edition (and as a not-so-subtle way of putting pressure on my publishers to produce such an edition). I’m pleased to say that, just over 10 years down the line, including several periods of concentrated blogging, the second edition is now out – called The New A –Z of ELT. Outwardly resembling the first edition, but running to a hefty 320+ pages, compared to the first edition’s 256, the new edition is – in the words of soap powder marketing – 30% new and improved!

So, what’s different?

First of all there are many new entries, reflecting developments in linguistic theory, language education and, especially, technology over the decade since the first edition appeared. Many of these topics were dealt with in blog posts, especially those – such as othering, imitation, rapport, and coursebook – that attracted a lot of hits; some of them are old topics re-labelled (such as English as an international language, now subsumed under English as a lingua franca, rather than the other way round, and homework re-labelled as self-study). Some topics were just unaccountably missing, even from the index, of the first edition, like language, teacher knowledge, creativity and research. Still others reflect my recent interest in embodied cognition and dynamic systems theories, e.g. gesture, emergence, cognitive grammar and alignment.  And, of course, on-going technological developments prompted entries on adaptive learning, gamification, the flipped classroom, blended learning, mobile learning, and webinar, as well as revisions of entries on computer-assisted language learning, and computer-mediated communication, and a whole new entry simply called educational technology.30%

Other topics that are extensively revised in the light of my own reading and thinking, as well as feedback on the blog, are accuracy, fluency, bilingualism, method, communicative activities, and syllabus. Many of the entries dealing with phonology have been expanded to include more reference to American English (reflecting my own professional relocation).

Some former entries, such as ARC and self-access centre, were deleted from the new edition, on the grounds that they had reached their sell-by date.  By contrast, Demand high and reading aloud are allowed in.

One significant theme that emerged in the re-write was the steady seepage of the language of neoliberalism into the discourse of language teaching: witness outcomes, competencies, life skills, and benchmarking. My discomfort at this development is only thinly disguised. Witness:

Because ‘outcomes’ is a term borrowed from the world of business, it has negative associations for many educationalists, since it conjures up images of the school as a kind of factory, producing undifferentiated learners to order. On the other hand, it satisfies the perception by many stakeholders that educational institutions should be accountable, and meet externally imposed standards.

So, why blog again? For similar reasons as first time round: to encourage the same kind of rich and diverse conversation that informed the writing of the 2nd edition – with a view to a possible 3rd edition – who knows?  And, of course, for shameless self-promotion. (An overtly promotional talk I gave at the IATEFL conference two weeks ago was criticized in some quarters for being – erm – too promotional. As if writers weren’t allowed to promote their own books.)

As in the past, new posts will appear every Sunday morning (European time). All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my publisher. Comments are moderated, so mind your language. I don’t make money from this site: in fact, I pay WordPress to keep the blog ad-free. As recompense, you could, of course, buy the book – available in both print and e-book versions at the end of the month.

 





P is for Poverty of the stimulus

7 06 2015

plato_bustThe case for humans being innately and uniquely endowed with a ‘language instinct’ rests largely on the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument, or what is sometimes called ‘Plato’s problem’: How do we know so much when the evidence available to us is so meagre?

As Harris (1993: 57-8) elaborates:

‘One of the most remarkable facts about human languages – which are highly abstract, very complex, infinite phenomena – is that children acquire them in an astonishingly short period of time, despite haphazard and degenerate data (the “stimulus”). Children hear relatively few examples of most sentence types, they get little or no correction beyond pronunciation (not even that), and they are exposed to a bewildering array of false starts, unlabelled mistakes, half sentences and the like.’

Is this really true? Is the stimulus really so impoverished?

The quantity of the stimulus – i.e. the input available to a child –  is certainly not impoverished: it has been estimated (Cameron-Faulkner et al. 2003) that children hear around 7,000 utterances a day, of which 2,000 are questions (cited in Scheffler 2015). This suggests that in their first five years children are exposed to 12.5m meaningful utterances. At an average of, say, ten words an utterance this is larger than the entire British National Corpus (100m words), from which several hefty grammars and dictionaries have been derived.

What about the quality? While it’s true that the speech between adults often includes ‘disfluencies’ of the type mentioned by Harris above, studies suggest that ‘motherese’ (i.e. the variety that caregivers typically use when interacting with their children) ‘is unswervingly well formed’ (Newport et al. 1977, cited in Sampson 2005). In one study ‘only one utterance out of 1500 spoken to the children was a disfluency’ (ibid.).

Chomsky and his followers would argue that, even if this were true, the child will have little or no exposure to certain rare structures that, in a short time, she will nevertheless know are grammatical. Ergo, this knowledge must derive from the deep structures of universal grammar.

One much-cited example is the question-form of the sentence with two auxiliaries, e.g. The boy who was crying is sleeping now. How does the child know that the question form requires fronting of the second of the two auxiliaries (Is the boy who was crying sleeping now?), and not the first: *Was the boy who crying is sleeping now?, especially if, as Chomsky insists, the number of naturally-occurring examples is ‘vanishingly small’: ‘A person might go through much or all of his life without ever having been exposed to relevant evidence’ (Chomsky 1980: 40). The explanation must be that the child is drawing on their inborn knowledge that grammatical transformations are structure-dependent.

The_mother_of_JohnA quick scroll through a corpus, however, reveals that the stimulus is not as impoverished as Chomsky claims. Pullum & Scholz (2002, cited in Sampson op. cit), using a corpus of newspaper texts, found that 12% of the yes/no questions in the corpus were of the type that would refute the ‘invert the first auxiliary’ hypothesis. (It is significant that Chomsky impatiently dismisses the need to consult corpus data, on the grounds that, as a native speaker, he intuitively knows what is grammatical and what is not. Unsurprisingly, therefore, generative linguists are constantly, even obsessively, fiddling around with implausible but supposedly grammatically well-formed sentences such as John is too stubborn to expect anyone to talk to and What did you wonder how to do? [cited in Macaulay 2011]).

But even if it were the case that the (spoken) input might be deficient in certain complex syntactic structures, you do not need to hypothesize ‘deep structure’ to account for the fact that a question of the type *Was the boy who crying is sleeping now? is simply not an option.

Why not? Because language is not, as Chomsky views it, a formal system of abstract symbols whose units (such as its words) are subject to mathematical operations, a perspective that ‘assumes that syntax can be separated from meaning’ (Evans 2014: 172).  Rather, language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).  Children do not process sentences from left to right looking for an available auxiliary to move. (They don’t even think of sentences as having a left and a right). They process utterances in terms of the meanings they encode. And meaning ‘isn’t just abstract mental symbols; it’s a creative process, in which people construct virtual experiences – embodied simulations – in their mind’s eye’ (Bergen 2012: 16).

Thus, the child who is exposed to noun phrase constructions of the type the little boy who lives down the lane or the house that Jack built understands (from the way they are used in context) that these are coherent, semantic units that can’t be spliced and re-joined at will.  Is the little boy sleeping? and Is the little boy who lives down the lane sleeping? are composed of analogous chunks and hence obey the same kind of syntactic constraints.

What’s more, experiments on adults using invented syntactic constructions suggest that patterns can be learned on the basis of relatively little input. Boyd et al. (2009: 84) report that ‘even small amounts of exposure were enough (a) to build representations that persisted significantly beyond the exposure event, and (b) to support production.’  A little stimulus goes a long way.

daniel-everett-dont-sleep-there-are-snakes-life-and-langauge-in-the-amazonian-jungleIn the end, we may never know if the poverty of the stimulus argument is right or not – not, at least, until computer models of neural networks are demonstrably able to learn a language without being syntactically preprogrammed to do so. As Daniel Everett (2012: 101) writes, ‘No one has proven that the poverty of the stimulus argument, or Plato’s Problem, is wrong. But nor has anyone shown that it is correct either. The task is daunting if anyone ever takes it up. One would have to show that language cannot be learned from available data. No one has done this. But until someone does, talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation.’

References

Bergen, B.K.(2012) Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Boyd, J.K., Gottschalk, E.A., & Goldberg, A.E. (2009) ‘Linking rule acquisition in novel phrasal constructions.’ In Ellis, N.C. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds) Language as a complex adaptive system. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Cameron-Faulkner, T., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2003) ‘A construction based analysis of child directed speech.’ Cognitive Science 27/6.

Chomsky, N. (1980) various contributions to the Royaumont Symposium, Piatelli-Palmarini (ed.) Language and Learning: The debate between Jean Piajet and Noam Chomsky. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Everett, D. (2012) Language: The cultural tool. London: Profile Books.

Harris, R.A. (1993) The Linguistics Wars. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macaulay, K.S. (2011) Seven Ways of Looking at Language. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pullum, G.K. & Scholz, B.C. (2002) ‘Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments.’ Linguistic Review, 19.

Sampson, G. (2005) The Language Instinct Debate (Revised edition). London: Continuum.

Scheffler, P. (2015) ‘Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction.’ ELT Journal, 69/1.

 PS: There will be no more new posts until the end of summer and things calm down again.