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.