R is for Repetition (again)

19 05 2013

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’.

It’s spring and the male blackbirds are in full throat. I was listening to one for a good while the other morning, trying to track the way his little tune (what Wikipedia calls a ‘varied and melodious low-pitched fluted warble’) subtly changes with each iteration. Are these variations accidental? Is he perhaps not very good at holding a tune? Or are they intentional – improvisations on a theme, so to speak? Could these different inflections be the bird’s accent, as it were – the distinguishing characteristics that identify him to other (territorial) blackbirds?


Improvisation on a theme is, of course, a musical reference, and musicians have often been drawn to birdsong.  Preeminent among these is Olivier Messiaen.  ‘Birds are my first and greatest masters’, he is alleged to have said. According to the sleeve notes of an album of works inspired by birdsong (Samuel, n.d.), ‘as an ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen has always loved and studied birds’ lives and songs. Not only in a poetical way but very scientifically too: “They are the best musicians living on our planet”. With a pencil and a score and the musical tools of the western composer, he directly transcribes their songs or the spontaneous combinations of the songs and rhythms.’

Here is the man himself describing some of his musical renditions of birdsong:

And here is his blackbird:

But it’s less the spontaneity of birdsong that I am curious about than the repetition.  Hence, the musical connection, because, as Philip Ball (2010: 124) reminds us: ‘Music is extraordinarily repetitive. ….Around ninety-four per cent of any material lasting longer than a few seconds that appears in musical pieces of cultures ranging from Inuit throat-singing to Norwegian polkas to Navajo war dances recurs more than once – and that is only taking account of verbatim repeats.’ (Those of a musical bent might like to do the math on the Messiaen piece!)

But, of course – and this is the point – no repetition is ever the same: Ball goes on to quote the musicologist Leonard Meyer, to the effect that ‘repetition in music “never exists psychologically” – that we never quite hear the same thing twice. It’s clearly a different experience, for example, to hear a theme for the first time and then to find it returning sometime later.’

OK. So what’s the connection with language?  Repetitive practice is good for musicians and language learners alike? That would seem to be self-evident. But I’ve already blogged about task repetition here, and about drilling here, and about controlled practice here.

No, my current interest is in how ‘we never quite hear the same thing twice’, and, indeed, we never quite say the same thing twice. As Pennycook (2010: 43) puts it: ‘Repetition, even of the “same thing”, always produces something new, so that when we repeat an idea, a word, a phrase or an event, it is always renewed’. And rather grandly, he adds, ‘these ideas can be traced back to Heraclitus (540-475 BC), who insisted that change was real and stability only illusory, famously proclaiming that … “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”‘ (ibid: 42).

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

This was in fact the very point that Diane Larsen-Freeman, along with Sandra Silberstein, forcibly made in a spell-binding talk at the recent TESOL Convention in Dallas. After reviewing the history of repetition in language learning (pattern practice drills, rote learning, automaticity, and so on) she argued that the problem with this kind of repetition is its dogged obsession with form. As she points out in her contribution to Meaningful Action (Larsen-Freeman 2013: 194), ‘The major problem with repetition in audiolingualism … was that it didn’t necessarily require students to use language meaningfully. Repeating the form as precisely as possible was seen to be sufficient.’ Coming from the perspective of complex systems theory, she goes on to argue:

By way of contrast, there is another term, iteration, which I think merits closer attention. Iteration makes explicit the claim that the act of repeating results in a change to a procedure or system. In other words, what results from iteration is “a mutable state”‘ (2013:195).

Elsewhere (2012: 202) she explains: ‘In a complex system, what results from one iteration is used as the starting point for the next iteration. Thus, the starting point or initial condition is always different’.

If this sounds abstruse, think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. This is what Larsen-Freeman describes as repetition’s capacity to generate innovation. ‘When we entertain a view of language as a complex adaptive system, we recognise that every meaningful use of language changes the language resources of the learner/user, and the changed resources are then potentially available to the user and members of the speech community (2013: 195). Or, as Pennycook (2010: 47) puts it, repetition is ‘a form of renewal that creates the illusion of systematicity.’ (1)

By means of this illusion of systematicity, iteration equips us with the wherewithal to cope with, and exploit, the inherent variability of real language use.  ‘What is learned through iteration are not simply meaningful patterns, but the process of shaping them appropriately to fit the present context’ (Larsen-Freeman 2012: 204).  Thus, ‘learning takes place not by repeating forms of a closed, static system, but by meaningfully playing the game while revisiting the same territory again and again’ (ibid: 206).

Like the blackbird: revisiting the same territory again and again.  But how can we do this in class?

Stevick coverReferences:

Ball, P. (2010) The Music Instinct: How music works and why we can’t do without it, London: The Bodley Head.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2012) ‘On the roles of repetition in language teaching and learning’, Applied Linguistics Review, 3/2, 195–210.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013) ‘Complex systems and technemes: learning as iterative adaptations’, in Arnold, J., & Murphey, T. (eds.) Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as  a Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Samuel, C. (n.d.) ‘The message of  Olivier Messiaen’ (translated by Julie de La Bardonnie), sleeve notes to  ‘Homage to Olivier Messiaen: the 80th birthday concert’. Disques Montaigne.

(Thanks to Ben Goldstein for getting me hooked on Messiaen!)

___

(1) The same idea is beautifully captured in these lines from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (also about birdsong!):

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.





T is for Turning point

28 04 2013
natalies journal

from ‘Some Writings: December 1946 – December 1947’ by Natalie Luethi Peterson (click to enlarge)

This was written by a young American woman, visiting Europe for the first time, and speaking the German she had learned at school. It describes an experience many second language speakers will attest to: the turning point – that moment when suddenly the language that had been so long a struggle, suddenly grows wings and takes flight.

For the writer Alice Kaplan (1993: 55), the turning point in her learning of French was triggered by her mastering of the elusive French ‘r’ sound:

It happened over months but it felt like it happened in one class. I opened my mouth and I opened up; it slid out, smooth and plush, a French ‘r.’ It was the sound my cat makes when she wants to go out: between a purr and a meouw, a gurgling deep in the throat. It wasn’t loud, it didn’t interrupt the other sounds. It was smooth, and suave. It felt — relaxed. It felt normal! I had it. With this ‘r’ I could speak French, I wouldn’t be screaming my Americanness every time I spoke. ‘R’ was my passport…. The ‘r’ was the biggest hurdle; my system was now in place.

For other learners, the process is less dramatic, but there is often the sense that a qualitative change has occurred. Dick Schmidt (in Schmidt and Frota 1986: 247) records this moment in his learning of Brazilian Portuguese:

Journal entry, week 18

Last night I was really up, self-confident, feeling fluent…. At one point, M said to F that she should speak more slowly for me, but I said no, please don’t, I don’t need it any more.

Natalie Lüthi Peterson 1946

Natalie Luethi Peterson in 1946

In information-processing models of language acquisition, these ‘great leaps forward’ were explained in terms of restructuring, i.e. the qualitative changes that result when information is reorganized into new categories.  As McLaughlin (1987: 138) explains it: ”Whereas some learning is seen to occur continuously by accretion … other learning is thought to occur in a discontinuous fashion, by restructuring. This discontinuity would account for second-language learners’ perceptions of sudden moments of insight or “clicks of comprehension”.  … Often learners report that this experience is followed by rapid progress, as old linguistic information and skills are fitted into this new way of understanding’ .

More recently, and according to complex systems theory, these turning points represent what are called phase shifts in the system.  Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 45) use the example of a horse changing gait from walking to trotting, or from trotting to cantering, and so on: ‘Dramatic and sudden changes of this kind are called phase shifts…. The states of the system before and after a phase shift are very different.’  And they add (2008: 59), ‘what emerges as a result of a phase shift is something different from before: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts and that cannot be explained reductively through the activity of the component parts.’

Unlike the concept of restructuring, where the system ‘yields’ to external inputs and accommodates them accordingly, a phase shift is the result of self-organization: ‘it is the dynamic properties of the system that lead it to happen, not some external organizing force’ (p. 58). Nevertheless, certain conditions seem to be conducive to phase shifts, notably a period of instability, when the system is ‘teetering on the brink of chaos’ (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008: 148) – what’s otherwise known as ‘the tipping point.’

Phase shifts would seem to account for the fact that, in first language acquisition, lexical ‘spurts’ typically precede the onset of grammatical development: it seems that a critical mass of vocabulary is necessary before the grammar ‘coalesces’, as it were. Likewise, the acquisition of literacy is often experienced as a breakthrough or turning point, nicely captured in this quote from the writer Penelope Fitzgerald: ‘I began to read just after I was four. The letters on the page suddenly gave in and admitted what they stood for. They obliged me completely and all at once’ (quoted in Wolf 2010: 96).

Eadweard-Muybridge-horse-gallopingApart from these anecdotal accounts, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of literature on turning points. Under what circumstances do they tend to occur, for example, and what triggers them?  The answer to this question must be of key interest to teachers, often frustrated at learners’ lack of progress, yet aware of the possibility that a well-timed intervention on their part might be sufficient to tip the balance.

The lack of research into turning points must owe, in part, to their capricious nature: they are, almost by definition, spontaneous, swift, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, as Ke and Holland (2006: 712) observe:

Nonlinearity has two significant implications: (i) in order to understand how learning progresses, we have to pay special attention to capturing such abrupt transitions, and find out if there are particular conditions or prompts that trigger such transitions; (ii) we will expect plateau periods, and provide continuing support to learners even though at times there seems to be no significant progress.

And they quote Larsen-Freeman (2003: 112) to this effect: ‘Of course, since the language development process is non-linear, interaction may be followed by more interaction with little obvious lasting change in learners’ interlanguage. Then, one day, for any given learner, the penny will drop. All we can say for sure is that it is a very lucky teacher who is there to witness its happening.’

Have you experienced or witnessed a turning point?

References:

Kaplan, A. (1993). French lessons: A memoir, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ke, J. & Holland, J.H. (2006) ‘Language origin from an emergentist perspective,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching Language: From grammar to grammaring, Boston, Thomson Heinle.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-Language Learning, London: Arnold.

Schmidt. R., and Frota, S. (1986) ‘Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner,’ in Day, R. (ed.). Talking to Learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Wolf, M. (2010) Proust and the squid: the story of the reading brain, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Thanks to the Luethi family for permission to quote from Natalie’s archive.





L is for Language

31 03 2013

fayruzAt Easter it’s our custom (more out of nostalgia than out of any sense of religiosity, it has to be said) to listen to the Lebanese singer Fayrouz singing traditional Easter songs from that region.

Here’s a taster:

http://youtu.be/mmr1KR9kDUc

What language is she singing in, though?

Reading the comments thread on the YouTube site is revealing:

Fayrouz comments 01Fayrouz comment 02Fayrouz comment 03Fayrouz comment 04

In a new book, Suresh Canagarajah (2013) reminds us that this blending, mixing and meshing of languages, rather than being the exception, is the norm. Quoting Pattanayak (1984), he cites the example of south Asia, to the effect that, ‘if one draws a straight line between Kashmir and Kanyakumari and marks, say, every five or ten miles, then one will find that there is no break in communication between any two consecutive points.’ That is to say, a message passed down the line would reach its destination, irrespective of all the languages it traverses.

Nor is this linguistic intermingling and hybridization a purely Asian or Middle Eastern phenomenon. ‘All spaces are contact zones’ says Canagarajah (2013: 26), a view echoed in a recent article by Sewell (2013: 6):

It is important to appreciate that all language use – among whatever combination or grouping of native and non-native speakers – is situated, variable, and subject to hybridizing influences.

This has never been more true than now, where immigration, tourism, and globalization, among other influences, coerce communication between speakers of different languages, with all the blendings, fusions, pidgins and macaronics that result. However much the ‘language police’ struggle to enforce the integrity of languages like (to choose a local example) Catalan, their efforts are foredoomed.

It’s not just that languages vary from region to region; they vary from person to person – and even within one person. As Labov (1969, 2003: 234) long ago pointed out:  ‘One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as: There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking.’

The fact of the matter is that none of us speaks the same language. Nor even a language. As Pennycook (2012: 98) argues,  ‘None of us speaks “a language” as if this were an undifferentiated whole. We do not learn languages as if these were discrete listings of syntax and lexicon (despite what years of schooling and tests may try to tell us). Rather, we learn how to do certain things with words, and with varying success.’

And, from a psycholinguistic view, too, as Block (2003: 39) argues, all is flux:

Linguistic competence is not stored in the mind in neat compartments with clear boundaries; rather, a more appropriate image is that of a mass with no clear divisions among parts.  Nor is linguistic competence in different languages stable over time as there is constant bleeding between and among languages as well as additions and losses in terms of repertoires.

Thus, the idea that we are primed to speak a preordained language from birth has given way to the ‘complex systems’ view that language acquisition is the ‘soft assembly’ of meaning-making resources, or what Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 17) call ‘a “statistical ensemble” of interacting elements… constantly changing’.  They add that ‘learning is not the taking in of linguistic forms by learners, but the constant adaptation of their linguistic resources in the service of meaning-making in response to the affordances that emerge in the communicative situation, which is, in turn, affected by the learners’ adaptability’ (2008: 135).

By these accounts, is it any longer valid to talk about ‘a language’ or ‘languages’ (countable) as opposed to simply ‘language’ (uncountable)? Canagarajah (2013: 6) thinks not:

“Languages” are always in contact with and mutually influence each other. From this perspective, the separation of languages with different labels needs to be problematized. Labelling is an ideological act of demarcating certain codes in relation to certain identities and interests.

So, to fence a language off and give it a name (Aramaic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian, and so on) is less a linguistic decision than a political one, although, as Bourdieu (1992: 45) warns, linguists are often complicit:

To speak of the language, without further specification, as linguists do, is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit. This language is the one which, within the territorial limits of that unit, imposes itself on the whole population as the only legitimate language.

And, in order to legitimate it, squadrons of lexicographers and grammarians are recruited, not only to describe and prescribe the language, but to circumscribe it. But where do you set the limits? Where does one language end and another begin?  In a recent review of a history of the Oxford English Dictionary (Hitchings, 2013: 7), the reviewer notes that

When [the dictionary’s editor, James Murray] asked members of the Philological Society, ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, he drew criticism for his unwillingness to provide an exact answer. One reason for doing so was his awareness that the British Empire was expanding. Murray and his paymasters differed on the question of how this should be recognised.

The same question might well be asked of any so-called language. At which Spaniard’s speech does Spanish terminate? At which Croatian’s speech does Croatian terminate? And so on.

So, if there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? Or, as Pennycook (2010: 132) puts it, ‘The question to ask is what language education might look like if we no longer posited the existence of separate languages.’

The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. Maybe it also means that we can dispense with the need to ‘teach the grammar’ of the language: if the language does not have a fixed shape, neither does the grammar that infuses it.

Or, as Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 198-9) sum it up:

Language as a separate entity is a normative fiction…; it only exists in the fluxes of language use in a given speech community. For the language classroom this implies that what has previously been taken as the goal of learning, the “target language”, ceases to exist in any simple form…. Inside the language classroom, the dynamics of language-using by teachers and students leads to the emergence of individual learners’ growing language resources and of classroom dialects, and, beyond the classroom, to the emergence of lingua franca varieties.

No longer are we Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Rather, Teachers of Language as a Semiotic Resource, perhaps.

References:

Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, S. (2013) Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and cosmopolitan relations, London: Routledge.

Hitchings, H. (2013) ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, a review of Ogilvie, S. (2012) Words of the World: A global history of the ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’ Cambridge, in London Review of Books, 7 March 2013.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pennycook,  A. (2010) Language as Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Sewell, A (2013) ‘English as a lingua franca: ontology and ideology’, ELT Journal, 67/1.





F is for Fractal

29 04 2012

Medieval grammarians were obsessed with etymology because (according to a recent review in the London Review of Books[1]) the study of word origins ‘perfectly expresses the medieval conviction that language is a comprehensive, fully rational system, in which any part may be logically derived from the whole – just as “logic” itself derives from Logos, the all-creating word’.

The notion that ‘everything is in everything’ was a core precept of the Jacotot Method, also called ‘universal teaching’ (Rancière 1991 – I’ve blogged about it here), in which a single text (in Jacotot’s case it was a bilingual version of the 18th-century French novel Télémaque) served not only as the tool that revealed the secrets of the French language, but also the key that opened the intelligence of the learner. As Rancière (1991: 26) understands it: ‘That is what “everything is in everything” means: …  All the power of languages is in the totality of the book.  All knowledge of oneself as an intelligence is in the mastery of a book, a chapter, a sentence, a word’.

Thus every word, phrase, sentence, chapter is subject to intense scrutiny – but always as a microcosm of the whole. ‘This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it … The student must see everything for himself, compare and compare, and always respond to a three-part question: what do you see?  what do you think about it?  what do you make of it?  And so on, to infinity’ (ibid. 22-23).  In fact, as Rivière  (ibid. 27) points out, ‘the procedures used matter very little in themselves.  It could be Télémaque, or it could be something else.  One begins with a text and not with grammar, with entire words and not with syllables…’

Romanesco broccoli, showing fractal forms
(from Wikipedia)

Cut to the 21st-century and the notion that ‘any part may be derived from the whole’ is a fractal one: ‘A fractal is a geometric figure that is self-similar at different levels of scale’ (Larsen-Freeman 1997: 146). Language, like other complex systems, is fractal in nature: patterns at one level of delicacy are reproduced at every other level. It takes only a very short text to display many of the basic design principles built into language, such as text organisation, sentence structure, word formation, as well as vocabulary distribution and frequency.  In William Blake’s words, the text is ‘a world in a grain of sand’.

Take this one, chosen more or less at random from a joke book for children[2]:

Two elephants went on holiday and sat down on the beach. It was a very hot day and they fancied having a swim in the sea. Unfortunately they couldn’t: they only had one pair of trunks!

In just three sentences the text displays a classically generic story structure, involving actors (two elephants), circumstantial details (on the beach, a hot day), a sequence of past tense actions, and a complicating event. It also has a basic joke structure, consisting of a narrative and a punch-line, which here takes the form of a play on words.

The 37 words further divide up into function words (also called grammar words) and content words (also called lexical words). The former include such common (and typically short) words as a, on, of, the, and was. The latter are the ones that carry the main informational load of the text, such as elephants, beach, hot, and unfortunately. In the elephant text, the relative proportion of these two types of words is roughly 50:50, and this closely reflects the ratio of function words to content words in all texts.  Moreover, the proportion of common to relatively uncommon words in the text exactly reflects the proportions found in much larger collections of text: 30 of the 37words  (i.e. roughly 80%) are in the top 1000 words in English.  Not only that, but of the ten most frequent words in English, six are present in this text, some of them (a, and, the) occurring more than once.

The fact that this tiny text is a microcosm of all text is consistent with what is known as Zipf’s Law (Zipf 1935, 1965). This law states that if a word is nth in frequency in a given language it is likely to occupy the same ranking in any single text in that language. So, the most frequent words in the language are likely to be the most frequent words in any text in that language, and their order of frequency will also be roughly the same. Zipf also showed that there is a correlation between the length of a word and its frequency. Short words occur often. Again, this is evident in our short text.

Coursebook texts are generally rather long, in the belief (possibly mistaken) that learners need to be taught how to read, when what they actually need is the language knowledge (lexical, grammatical, and textual) to enable them to transfer their reading skills from their first language into their second.  Long texts have the disadvantage that they take quite a long time to process, leaving little classroom time for the kind of detailed language work that exploits the text’s linguistic properties. In fact, as I’ve attempted to demonstrate, even a very short text, such as the elephant joke, is packed with pedagogical potential. What’s more, Zipf’s Law relieves us of the worry that short texts might not be sufficiently representative.

As with the Jacotot Method, the choice of text is immaterial. ‘The problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself. Anything can be used. Télémaque. Or a prayer or song the child or the ignorant one knows by heart. There is always something that the ignorant one knows that can be used as a point of comparison, something to which a new thing to be learned can be related’ (Rivière 1991: 28).

Everything is in everything.

References:

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18, 2.

Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Zipf, G.K. (1935, 1965) The Psycho-biology of Language: An Introduction to Dynamic Philology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(Parts of this article were first published in the Guardian Weekly, March 18th, 2005.)


[1] Newman, B. (2012) ‘Ailments of the Tongue’, London Review of Books, 34, 6.

[2] The Great Puffin Joke Directory, by Brough Girling, Puffin Books, 1990.





P is for Problematizing

9 10 2011

‘How is Carlos?’ I once asked a friend in Spanish, referring to a mutual acquaintance. But, confusing the two verbs ‘to be’, estar and ser, what I actually said was ‘What’s Carlos like?’ – Carlos ¿cómo es ? instead of  Carlos ¿cómo está?   Mischievously, my friend replied,  Bueno, es calvo, bajito.. (‘Well, he’s bald and short…’).  Puzzled at first, I then realised my mistake, and was able to repair it. But the good-humored feedback made a lasting impression. By responding to the literal – but unintended – meaning of my question, my friend had effectively problematised a distinction that I hadn’t fully internalised. The effect (I’m guessing) was more memorable than had he simply ignored the error and answered my intended message (Carlos está bien) or had he explicitly corrected me: ¿Quieres decir “Cómo está”? (‘Do you mean: How is he?’)

Problematizing a language item means alerting learners to the fact that a distinction that they had otherwise regarded as trivial or insignificant actually matters. One way of doing this is deliberately to induce an error and then show its effect.  This is sometimes called a ‘down the garden path’ intervention, in that it lulls learners into a false sense of security and then intentionally trips them up.

R. Ellis (2008, pp. 883-84) describes it thus:  “Most production practice is directed at enabling learners to produce the correct target language forms (i.e. by avoiding errors)”.   He contrasts this with an experiment by Tomasello and Heron (1988) in which the researchers compared the effects of two kinds of instruction on errors caused by overgeneralisation (like my ser and estar error).  “In one treatment, the problems were explained and illustrated to the students (i.e. explicit instruction).  In the other, which Tomasello and Heron referred to as the ‘down the garden path’ treatment, the typical errors were induced and then immediately corrected.  The results of this study show that leading students down the garden path was more effective”.

Ellis continues: “Two explanations for the results were offered. First, Tomasello and Heron suggested that the ‘garden path’ technique encourages learners to carry out a ‘cognitive comparison’ between their own deviant utterances and the correct target-language utterances.  Second, they suggested this technique may increase motivation to learn by arousing curiosity regarding rules and their exceptions.”

A ‘garden path’ approach works best, I think, when learners are unaware of a problem until they’re suddenly confronted with it.

As Nick Ellis (2008, p. 240) puts it “”We rarely think about driving, until it breaks down; as the clutch grinds, or the child runs into the road, these are the times when we become aware of the need to escape automatized routines.  ‘The more novelty we encounter, the more conscious involvement is needed for successful learning and problem-solving” (Baars, 1997).”

One way of engineering this ‘novelty’ is through forcing a misunderstanding. As Tony Lynch (1996, p.85) puts it:

Comprehension problems are vital opportunities for learning.  If learners encountered no difficulties in understanding, they would not need to go beyond their current level.  It is by having to cope with a problem — either in understanding someone else or expressing themselves — that they may notice the gap and may learn the missing item.

As an example, here is an activity adapted from one in Uncovering Grammar (Thornbury, 2001). Ask the class to draw the following:

a room with a glass on the floor

a man buying paper

a girl with a long hair

a room with a light in it

a bowl with tomato in it

a room with glass on the floor

[At this point some students will cry: “We’ve already done that one!” Ignore them, and continue]

a bowl with a tomato in it

a man buying a paper

a girl with long hair

etc.

When students compare their drawings, they’ll discover that what at first seemed quite simple is now vastly confusing!  The feature of language that has been problematised is, of course, the indefinite article that flags countability (a paper vs paper).  For learners who are fairly dismissive about such ‘details’, the activity acts as an entertaining wake-up call!  As R. Ellis says, elsewhere (1997, p. 128):

Learning becomes possible when the learner admits responsibility for the problem and so is forced to play [sic] close attention to the input. It follows then that it is not comprehension per se that aids learning, but… lack of comprehension.

My interest in problematizing was pricked when a fellow teacher trainer once commented that he was very suspicious of observed lessons that ‘go like clockwork’: “If there are no problems, there is probably no learning”.

A complex systems view of learning (as proposed by Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2008, for example) would seem to support this view. A system that is relatively stable is resistant to change. But when a system is teetering on the brink of chaos, when it’s at its ‘tipping point’,  it doesn’t take a lot to trigger a ‘phase shift’ – that is, a qualitative restructuring of the system.  Problematizing a feature of the language that is in ‘free variation’ (like my verbs in Spanish) might just provide the necessary catalyst. N. Ellis (2008, p. 240) sums up the dynamic nature of this complex system:

L2 acquisition involves learners in a conscious dialectic tension… between the conflicting forces of their current interlanguage productions and the evidence of feedback, either linguistic, pragmatic, or metalinguistic, that allows socially scaffolded development.

Problematizing is a way both of heightening that tension and (hopefully) of resolving it.

References

Ellis, N. 2008. ‘The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 92: 232-249.

Ellis, R.  1997. SLA Research and Language Teaching.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D.,  & Cameron, L.  2008.  Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lynch, T. 1996. Communication in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan.

Tomasello, M., & Herron, C. 1988. Down the garden path: Inducing and correcting overgeneralization errors in the foreign language classroom.  Applied Psycholinguistics 9: 237-46.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.





V is for Variability

17 07 2011

“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

(Romeo & Juliet)

I have Shakespeare on the brain at the moment, having splashed out on tickets for three of the five shows that the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on in New York this summer.

And, just by chance, I came across a fascinating book on Shakespeare’s grammar, first published in 1870, which details not only the differences between Elizabethan and modern grammar, but also documents – even celebrates – the enormous variability in the former. As the author, E.A. Abbott notes, in Elizabethan English, at least on a superficial view, “any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, are allowable” (Abbott,  1870, 1966, p. 5).

He proceeds to itemise some of the inconsistencies of Shakespeare’s grammar: “Every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us. He for him, him for he; spoke and took, for spoken and taken; plural nominatives with singular verbs;  relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; … double negatives; double comparatives (‘more better,’ &c.) and superlatives; … and lastly, some verbs apparently with two nominatives, and others without any nominative at all” (p. 6).

As examples of how this variability manifests itself even within the same sentence, consider the following:

None are so surely caught when they are catch’d  (Love‘s Labour Lost)

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers? Where are thy children? (Richard III)

If thou beest not immortal, look about you (Julius Caesar)

I never loved you much; but I ha’ prais’d ye (Anthony and Cleopatra)

Makes both my body pine and soul to languish (Pericles)

Is there not wars? Is there not employment? (2 Henry IV)

Part of the RSC's summer season in NYC

Of course, we can attribute a lot of Shakespeare’s ‘errors’ to the requirements of prosody or to the negligence of typesetters. But many more may be due to what Abbott calls “the unfixed nature of the language”: “It must be remembered that the Elizabethan was a transitional period in the history of the English language” (p. 6). Hence the seemingly free variation between is and be, between thou forms and you forms, and between ye and you.  Likewise,  do-questions freeely alternate with verb inversion:

Countess. Do you love my son?
Helena. Your pardon, noble mistress!
Countess. Love you my son?
Helena. Do not you love him, madam?

(All’s Well That Ends Well)

Elizabethan English was clearly in a state of flux, but is English any less variable now than it was in Shakespeare’s time, I wonder?  Think of the way adjective + -er comparatives are yielding to more + adjective  forms (see this comment on a previous post), or of the way past conditionals are mutating (which I wrote about here), or of the way I’m loving it is just the tip of an iceberg whereby stative verbs are becoming dynamic (mentioned in passing here). Think of the way the present perfect/past simple distinction has  become elided in some registers of American English (Did you have breakfast yet?) or how like has become an all-purpose quotative (He’s like ‘Who, me?’) or how going forward has become a marker of futurity.

That variation is a fact of linguistic life has long been recognised by sociolinguists. As William Labov wrote, as long ago as 1969:

“One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking” (1969, 2003, p. 234).

More recently, as seen through the lens of complex systems theory, all language use – whether the language of a social group or the language of an individual – is subject to constant variation. “A language is not a fixed system. It varies in usage over speakers, places, and time” (Ellis, 2009, p. 139).  Shakespeare’s language was probably no more nor less variable than that of an English speaker today. As Diane Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53)  puts it: “From a Complexity Theory perspective, flux is an integral part of any system. It is not as though there was some uniform norm from which individuals deviate. Variability stems from the ongoing self-organization of systems of activity”. In other words, variability, both at the level of the social group or at the level of the individual, is not ‘noise’ or ‘error’, but is in integral part of the system as it evolves and adapts.

If language is in a constant state of flux, and if there is no such thing as ‘deviation from the norm’ – that is to say, if there is no error, as traditionally conceived – where does that leave us,  as course designers, language teachers, and language testers? Put another way, how do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? If language is like “the inconstant moon/that monthly changes in her circled orb”, how do we get the measure of it?

In attempting to provide a direction, Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53) is instructive:

“We need to take into account learners’ histories, orientations and intentions, thoughts and feelings. We need to consider the tasks that learners perform and to consider each performance anew — stable and predictable in part, but at the same time, variable, flexible, and dynamically adapted to fit the changing situation. Learners actively transform their linguistic world; they do not just conform to it”.

References:

Abbot, E.A. 1870. A Shakespearean Grammar: An attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Modern English. London: Macmillan, re-published in 1966 by Dover Publications, New York.

Ellis, N. 2009. ‘Optimizing the input: frequency and sampling in usage-based and form-focused learning.’ In Long, M. & Doughty, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2010. ‘The dynamic co-adaptation of cognitive and social views: A Complexity Theory perspective’. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.