In 2009, a poll held by the United Kingdom’s Engineering & Technology magazine found that 25% of those surveyed did not believe that men landed on the Moon. Another poll gives that 25% of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed were unsure that the landings happened. There are subcultures worldwide which advocate the belief that the Moon landings were faked. By 1977 the Hare Krishna magazine Back to Godhead called the landings a hoax, claiming that, since the Sun is 93,000,000 miles away, and “according to Hindu mythology the Moon is 800,000 miles farther away than that”, the Moon would be nearly 94,000,000 miles away; to travel that span in 91 hours would require a speed of more than a million miles per hour, “a patently impossible feat even by the scientists’ calculations.”
From ‘Moon landing conspiracy theories’ , Wikipedia
Haha just for the record the Sun is nearly 400 times further from us than the Moon, but who’s counting? So now to the Apollo moon missions, and because I don’t want this exploration to extend to a fourth part, I’ll be necessarily but reluctantly brief. They began in 1961 and ended in 1975, and they included manned and unmanned space flights (none of them were womanned).
But… just one more general point. While we may treat it as inevitable that many people prefer to believe in hoaxes and gazillion-dollar deceptions, rather than accept facts that are as soundly evidence-based as their own odd existences, it seems to me a horrible offence in this case (as in many others), both to human ingenuity and to the enormous cost in terms, not only of labour spent but of lives lost. So we need to fight this offensive behaviour, and point people to the evidence, and not let them get away with their ignorance.
The Apollo program was conceived in 1960 during Eisenhower’s Presidency, well before Kennedy’s famous mission statement. It was given impetus by Soviet successes in space. It involved the largest commitment of financial and other resources in peacetime history. The first years of research, development and testing involved a number of launch vehicles, command modules and lunar modules, as well as four possible ‘mission modes’. The first of these modes was ‘direct ascent’, in which the spacecraft would be launched and operated as a single unit. Finally, after much analysis, debate and lobbying, the mode known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was adopted. The early phases of the program were dogged by technical problems, developmental delays, personal clashes and political issues, including the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy’s principal science advisor, Jerome Weisner, was solidly opposed to manned missions.
I can’t give a simple one-by-one account of the missions, as the early unmanned missions weren’t simply named Apollo 1, 2 etc. They were associated strongly with the Saturn launch vehicles, and the Apollo numbering system we now recognise was only established in April 1967. The Apollo 4 mission, for example, is also known as AS-501, and was the first unmanned test flight of the Saturn 5 launcher (later used for the Apollo 11 launch). Three Apollo/Saturn unmanned missions took place in 1966 using the Saturn 1B launch vehicle.
The manned missions had the most tragic of beginnings, as is well known. On January 27 1967 the three designated astronauts for the AS-204 spaceflight, which they themselves had renamed Apollo 1 to commemorate the first manned flight of the program, were asphyxiated when a fire broke out during a rehearsal test. No further attempt at a manned mission was made until October of 1968. In fact, the whole program was grounded after the accident for ‘review and redesign’ with an overall tightening of hazardous procedures. In early 1968, the Lunar Module was given its first unmanned flight (Apollo 5). The flight was delayed a number of times due to problems and inexperience in constructing such a module. The test run wasn’t entirely successful, but successful enough to clear the module for future manned flights. The following, final unmanned mission, Apollo 6, suffered numerous failures, but went largely unnoticed due to the assassination of Martin Luther King on the day of the launch. However, its problems helped NASA to apply fixes which improved the safety of all subsequent missions.
And so we get to the first successful manned mission, Apollo 7. Its aim was to test the Apollo CSM (Command & Service Module) in low Earth orbit, and it put American astronauts in space for the first time in almost two years. It was also the first of the three-man missions and the first to be broadcasted from within the spaceship. Things went very well in technical terms, a relief to the crew, who were only given this opportunity due to the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. There were some minor tensions between the astronauts and ground staff, due to illness and some of the onboard conditions. They spent 11 days in orbit and space food, though on the improve, was far from ideal.
Apollo 8, launched only two months later in December, was a real breakthrough, a truly bold venture, as described in Earthrise, an excellent documentary of the mission made in 2005 (the astronauts were the first to witness Earthrise from the Moon). The aim, clearly, was to create a high-profile event designed to capture the world’s attention, and to eclipse the Soviets. As the documentary points out, the Soviets had stolen the limelight in the space race – ‘the first satellite, the first man in orbit, the first long duration flight, the first dual capsule flights, the first woman in space, the first space walk’. Not to mention the first landing of a human-built craft on the Moon itself.
The original aim of the mission was to test the complete spacecraft, including the lunar module, in Earth orbit, but when the lunar module was declared unready, a radical change of plan was devised, involving an orbit of the Moon without the lunar module. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times at close quarters (110 kms above the surface) over a period of 20 hours. During the orbit they made a Christmas Eve telecast, the most watched program ever, up to that time. Do yourself a favour and watch the doco. The commentary of the astronaut’s wives are memorable, and put the moon hoaxers’ offensiveness in sharp relief.
By comparison to Apollo 8 the Apollo 9 mission (March ’69) was a modest affair, if that’s not too insulting. This time the complete spacecraft for a Moon landing was tested in low Earth orbit, and everything went off well, though space walking proved problematic, as it often had before for both American and Soviet astronauts, due to space sickness and other problems. With Apollo 10 (May ’69) the mission returned to the Moon in a full dress rehearsal of the Apollo 11 landing. The mission created some interesting records, including the fastest speed ever reached by a manned vehicle (39,900 kms/hour during the return flight from the Moon) and the greatest distance from home ever travelled by humans (due to the Moon’s elliptical orbit, and the fact that the USA was on the ‘far side of the Earth’ when the astronauts were on the far side of the Moon).
I’ll pass by the celebrated Apollo 11 mission, which I can hardly add anything to, and turn to the missions I know less – that’s to say almost nothing – about.
Apollo 12, launched in November 1969, was a highly successful mission, in spite of some hairy moments due to lightning strikes at launch. It was, inter alia, a successful exercise in precision targeting, as it landed a brief walk away from the Surveyor 3 probe, sent to the Moon two and a half years earlier. Parts of the probe were taken back to Earth.
The Apollo 13 mission has, for better or worse, come to be the second most famous of all the Apollo missions. It was the only aborted mission of those intended to land on the Moon. An oxygen tank exploded just over two days after launch in April 1970, and just before entry into the Moon’s gravitational sphere. This directly affected the Service Module, and it was decided to abort the landing. There were some well-documented hairy moments and heroics, but the crew managed to return safely. Mea culpa, I’ve not yet seen the movie!
Apollo 14, launched at the end of January 1971, also had its glitches but landed successfully. The astronauts collected quite a horde of moon rocks and did the longest moonwalk ever recorded. Alan Shepard, the mission commander, added his Moon visit to the accolade of being the first American in space ten years earlier. At 47, he’s the oldest man to have stepped on the Moon. The Apollo 15 mission was the first of the three ‘J missions’, involving a longer stay on the Moon. With each mission there were improvements in instrumentation and capability. The most well-known of these was the Lunar Roving Vehicle, first used on Apollo 15, but that mission also deployed a gamma-ray spectrometer, a mass spectrometer and a laser altimeter to study the Moon’s surface in detail from the command module. Apollo 16 was another successful mission, in which the geology of the Moon’s surface was the major focus. Almost 100kgs of rock were collected, and it was the first mission to visit the ‘lunar highlands’. The final mission, Apollo 17, was also the longest Moon stay, longest moonwalks in total, largest samples, and longest lunar orbit. And so the adventure ended, with high hopes for the future.
I’ve given an incredibly skimpy account, and I’ve mentioned very few names, but there’s a ton of material out there, particularly on the NASA site of course, and documentaries aplenty, many of them a powerful and stirring reminder of those heady days. Some 400,000 technicians, engineers, administrators and other service personnel worked on the Apollo missions, many of them working long hours, experiencing many frustrations, anxieties, and of course thrills. I have to say, as an internationalist by conviction, I’m happy to see that space exploration has become more of a collaborative affair in recent decades, and may that collaboration continue, defying the insularity and mindless nationalism we’ve been experiencing recently.
Finally, to the moon hoaxers and ‘skeptics’. What I noticed on researching this – I mean it really was obvious – was that in the comments to the various docos I watched on youtube, they had nothing to say about the science and seemed totally lacking in curiosity. It was all just parroted, and ‘arrogant’ denialism. The science buffs, on the other hand, were full of dizzy geekspeak on technical fixes, data analysis and potential for other missions, e.g. to Mars. In any case I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this little trip into the Apollo missions and the space race, in which I’ve learned a lot more than I’ve presented here.
- That such a huge number of people could seriously believe that the Moon landings were faked by a NASA conspiracy raises interesting questions – maybe more about how people think than anything about the Moon landings themselves. But still, the most obvious question is the matter of evidence.
Philip Plait, from ‘Appalled at Apollo’, Chapter 17 of Bad Astronomy
So as I wrote in part one of this article, I remember well the day of the first Moon landing. I had just turned 13, and our school, presumably along with most others, was given a half-day off to watch it. At the time I was even more amazed that I was watching the event as it happened on TV, so I’m going to start this post by exploring how this was achieved, though I’m not sure that this was part of the conspiracy theorists’ ‘issues’ about the missions. There’s a good explanation of the 1969 telecast here, but I’ll try to put it in my own words, to get my own head around it.
I also remember being confused at the time, as I watched Armstrong making his painfully slow descent down the small ladder from the lunar module, that he was being recorded doing so, sort of side-on (don’t trust my memory!), as if someone was already there on the Moon’s surface waiting for him. I knew of course that Aldrin was accompanying him, but if Aldrin had descended first, why all this drama about ‘one small step…’? – it seemed a bit anti-climactic. What I didn’t know was that the whole thing had been painstakingly planned, and that the camera recording Armstrong was lowered mechanically, operated by Armstrong himself. Wade Schmaltz gives the low-down on Quora:
The TV camera recording Neil’s first small step was mounted in the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module, aka Lunar Module]. Neil released it from its cocoon by pulling a cable to open a trap door prior to exiting the LEM that first time down the ladder.
As for the telecast, Australia played a large role. Here my information comes from Space Exploration Stack Exchange, a Q and A site for specialists as well as amateur space flight enthusiasts.
Australia was one of three continents involved in the transmissions, but it was the most essential. Australia had two tracking stations, one near Canberra and the other at the Parkes Radio Observatory west of Sydney. The others were in the Mojave Desert, California, and in Madrid, Spain. The tracking stations in Australia had a direct line on Apollo’s signal. My source quotes directly from NASA:
The 200-foot-diameter radio dish at the Parkes facility managed to withstand freak 70 mph gusts of wind and successfully captured the footage, which was converted and relayed to Houston.
And it really was pretty much ‘as it happened’, the delay being less than a minute. The Moon is only about a light-second away, but there were other small delays in relaying the signal to TV networks for us all to see.
So now to the missions and the hoax conspiracy. But really, I won’t be dealing with the hoax stuff directly, because frankly it’s boring. I want to write about the good stuff. Most of the following comes from the ever-more reliable Wikipedia – available to all!
The ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and the USA can be dated quite precisely. It began in July 1956, when the USA announced plans to launch a satellite – a craft that would orbit the Earth. Two days later, the Soviet Union announced identical plans, and was able to carry them out a little over a year later. The world was stunned when Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4 1957. Only a month later, Laika the Muscovite street-dog was sent into orbit in Sputnik 2 – a certain-death mission. The USA got its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit at the end of January 1958, and later that year the National Aeronautics and Space Administraion (NASA) was established under Eisenhower to encourage peaceful civilian developments in space science and technology. However the Soviet Union retained the initiative, launching its Luna program in late 1958, with the specific purpose of studying the Moon. The whole program, which lasted until 1976, cost some $4.5 billion and its many failures were, unsurprisingly, shrouded in secrecy. The first three Luna rockets, intended to land, or crash, on the Moon’s surface, failed on launch, and the fourth, later known as Luna 1, was given the wrong trajectory and sailed past the Moon, becoming the first human-made satellite to take up an independent heliocentric orbit. That was in early January 1959 – so the space race, with its focus on the Moon, began much earlier than many people realise, and though so much of it was about macho one-upmanship, important technological developments resulted, and vital observations were made, including measurements of energetic particles in the outer Van Allen belt. Luna 1 was the first spaceship to achieve escape velocity, the principle barrier to landing a vessel on the Moon.
After another launch failure in June 1959, the Soviets successfully launched the rocket later known as Luna 2 in September that year. Its crash landing on the Moon was a great success, which the ‘communist’ leader Khrushchev was quick to ‘capitalise’ on during his only visit to the USA immediately after the mission. He handed Eisenhower replicas of the pennants left on the Moon by Luna 2. And there’s no doubt this was an important event, the first planned impact of a human-built craft on an extra-terrestrial object, almost 10 years before the Apollo 11 landing.
The Luna 2 success was immediately followed only a month later by the tiny probe Luna 3‘s flyby of the far side of the Moon, which provided the first-ever pictures of its more mountainous terrain. However, these two missions formed the apex of the Luna enterprise, which experienced a number of years of failure until the mid-sixties. International espionage perhaps? I note that James Bond began his activities around this time.
The Luna Program wasn’t the only only one being financed by the Soviets at the time, and the Americans were also developing programs. Six months after Laika’s flight, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik 3, the fourth successful satellite after Sputnik 1 & 2 and Explorer 1. The important point to be made here is that the space race, with all its ingenious technical developments, began years before the famous Vostok 1 flight that carried a human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space for the first time, so the idea that the technology wasn’t sufficiently advanced for a moon landing many years later becomes increasingly doubtful.
Of course the successful Vostok flight in April 1961 was another public relations coup for the Soviets, and it doubtless prompted Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress a month later, in which he proposed that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
So from here on in I’ll focus solely on the USA’s moon exploration program. It really began with the Ranger missions, which were conceived (well before Kennedy’s speech and Gagarin’s flight) in three phases or ‘blocks’, each with different objectives and with increasingly sophisticated system design. However, as with the Luna missions, these met with many failures and setbacks. Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 failed on launch in the second half of 1961, and Ranger 3, the first ‘block 2 rocket’, launched in late January 1962, missed the Moon due to various malfunctions, and became the second human craft to take up a heliocentric orbit. The plan had been to ‘rough-land’ on the Moon, emulating Luna 2 but with a more sophisticated system of retrorockets to cushion the landing somewhat. The Wikipedia article on this and other missions provides far more detail than I can provide here, but the intensive development of new flight design features, as well as the use of solar cell technology, advanced telemetry and communications systems and the like really makes clear to me that both competitors in the space race were well on their way to having the right stuff for a manned moon landing.
I haven’t even started on the Apollo missions, and I try to give myself a 1500-word or so limit on posts, so I’ll have to write a part 3! Comment excitant!
The Ranger 4 spacecraft was more or less identical in design to Ranger 3, with the same impact-limiter – made of balsa wood! – atop the lunar capsule. Ranger 4 went through preliminary testing with flying colours, the first of the Rangers to do so. However the mission itself was a disaster, as the on-board computer failed, and no useful data was returned and none of the preprogrammed actions, such as solar power deployment and high-gain antenna utilisation, took place. Ranger 4 finally impacted the far side of the Moon on 26 April 1962, becoming the first US craft to land on another celestial body. Ranger 5 was launched in October 1962 at a time when NASA was under pressure due to the many failures and technical problems, not only with the Ranger missions, but with the Mariner missions, Mariner 1 (designed for a flyby mission to Venus) having been a conspicuous disaster. Unfortunately Ranger 5 didn’t improve matters, with a series of on-board and on-ground malfunctions. The craft missed the Moon by a mere 700 kilometres. Ranger 6, launched well over a year later, was another conspicuous failure, as its sole mission was to send high-quality photos of the Moon’s surface before impact. Impact occurred, and overall the flight was the smoothest one yet, but the camera system failed completely.
There were three more Ranger missions. Ranger 7, launched in July 1964, was the first completely successful mission of the series. Its mission was the same as that of Ranger 6, but this time over 4,300 photos were transmitted during the final 17 minutes of flight. These photos were subjected to much scrutiny and discussion, in terms of the feasibility of a soft landing, and the general consensus was that some areas looked suitable, though the actual hardness of the surface couldn’t be determined for sure. Miraculously enough, Ranger 8, launched in February 1965, was also completely successful. Again its sole mission was to photograph the Moon’s surface, as NASA was beginning to ready itself for the Apollo missions. Over 7,000 good quality photos were transmitted in the final 23 minutes of flight. The overall performance of the spacecraft was hailed as ‘excellent’, and its impact crater was photographed two years later by Lunar Orbiter 4. And finally Ranger 9 made it three successes in a row, and this time the camera’s 6,000 images were broadcast live to viewers across the United States. The date was March 24, 1965. The next step would be that giant one.
I’ve just had my first ever conversation with someone who at least appears to be sceptical of the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 – and, I can only suppose, the five subsequent successful moon landings. Altogether, twelve men walked on the moon between 20 July 1969 and December 10 1972, when the crew members of Apollo 17 left the moon’s surface. Or so the story goes.
This conversation began when I said that perhaps the most exciting world event I’ve experienced was that first moon landing, watching Neil Armstrong possibly muffing the lines about one small step for a man, and marvelling that it could be televised. I was asked how I knew that it really happened. How could I be so sure?
Of course I had no immediate answer. Like any normal person, I have no immediate, or easy, answer to a billion questions that might be put to me. We take most things on trust, otherwise it would be a very very painstaking existence. I didn’t mention that, only a few months before, I’d read Phil Plait’s excellent book Bad Astronomy, subtitled Misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing ‘hoax’. Plait is a professional astronomer who maintains the Bad Astronomy blog and he’s much better equipped to handle issues astronomical than I am, but I suppose I could’ve made a fair fist of countering this person’s doubts if I hadn’t been so flabbergasted. As I said, I’d never actually met someone who doubted these events before. In any case I don’t think the person was in any mood to listen to me.
Only one reason for these doubts was offered. How could the lunar module have taken off from the moon’s surface? Of course I couldn’t answer, never having been an aeronautical engineer employed by NASA, or even a lay person nerdy enough to be up on such matters, but I did say that the moon’s minimal gravity would presumably make a take-off less problematic than, say, a rocket launch from Mother Earth, and this was readily agreed to. I should also add that the difficulties, whatever they might be, of relaunching the relatively lightweight lunar modules – don’t forget there were six of them – didn’t feature in Plait’s list of problems identified by moon landing skeptics which lead them to believe that the whole Apollo adventure was a grand hoax.
So, no further evidence was proffered in support of the hoax thesis. And let’s be quite clear, the claim, or suggestion, that the six moon landings didn’t occur, must of necessity be a suggestion that there was a grand hoax, a conspiracy to defraud the general public, one involving tens of thousands of individuals, all of whom have apparently maintained this fraud over the past 50 years. A fraud perpetrated by whom, exactly?
My conversation with my adversary was cut short by a third person, thankfully, but after the third person’s departure I was asked this question, or something like it: Are you prepared to be open-minded enough to entertain the possibility that the moon landing didn’t happen, or are you completely closed-minded on the issue?
Another way of putting this would be: Why aren’t you as open-minded as I am?
So it’s this question that I need to reflect on.
I’ve been reading science magazines on an almost daily basis for the past thirty-five years. Why?
But it didn’t start with science. When I was kid, I loved to read my parents’ encyclopaedias. I would mostly read history, learning all about the English kings and queens and the battles and intrigues, etc, but basically I would stop at any article that took my fancy – Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton as well as Hitler, Ivan the Terrible and Cardinal Richelieu. Again, why? I suppose it was curiosity. I wanted to know about stuff. And I don’t think it was a desire to show off my knowledge, or not entirely. I didn’t have anyone to show off to – though I’m sure I wished that I had. In any case, this hunger to find things out, to learn about my world – it can hardly be associated with closed-mindedness.
The point is, it’s not science that’s interesting, it’s the world. And the big questions. The question – How did I come to be who and where I am? – quickly becomes – How did life itself come to be? – and that extends out to – How did matter come to be? The big bang doesn’t seem to explain it adequately, but that doesn’t lead me to imagine that scientists are trying to trick us. I understand, from a lifetime of reading, that the big bang theory is mathematically sound and rigorous, and I also know that I’m far from alone in doubting that the big bang explains life, the universe and everything. Astrophysicists, like other scientists, are a curious and sceptical lot and no ‘ultimate explanation’ is likely to satisfy them. The excitement of science is that it always raises more questions than answers, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we have human ingenuity to thank for that, as we’re the creators of science, the most amazing tool we’ve ever developed.
But let me return to open-mindedness and closed-mindedness. During the conversation described above, it was suggested that the USA simply didn’t have the technology to land people on the moon in the sixties. So, ok, I forgot this one: two reasons put forward – 1, the USA didn’t have the technological nous; 2, the modules couldn’t take off from the moon (later acknowledged to be not so much of an issue). I pretty well knew this first reason to be false. Of course I’ve read, over the years, about the Apollo missions, the rivalry with the USSR, the hero-worship of Yuri Gagarin and so forth. I’ve also absorbed, in my reading, much about spaceflight and scientific and technological development over the years. Of course, I’ve forgotten most of it, and that’s normal, because that’s how our brains work – something I’ve also read a lot about! Even the most brilliant scientists are unlikely to be knowledgeable outside their own often narrow fields, because neurons that fire together wire together, and it’s really hands-on work that gets those neurons firing.
But here’s an interesting point. I have in front of me the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, issue 75. I haven’t read it yet, but I will do. On my shelves are the previous 74 issues, each of which I’ve read, from cover to cover. I’ve also read more than a hundred issues of the excellent British mag, New Scientist. The first science mag I ever read was the monthly Scientific American, which I consumed with great eagerness for several years in the eighties, and I still buy their special issues sometimes. Again, the details of most of this reading are long forgotten, though of course I learned a great deal about scientific methods and the scientific mind-set. The interesting point, though, is this. In none of these magazines, and in none of the books, blogs and podcasts I’ve consumed in about forty years of interest in matters scientific, have I ever read the claim, put forward seriously, that the moon landings were faked. Never. I’m not counting of course, books like Bad Astronomy and podcasts like the magnificent Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, in which such claims are comprehensively debunked.
Scientists are a skeptical and largely independent lot, no doubt about it, and I’ve stated many times that scepticism and curiosity are the twin pillars of all scientific enquiry. So the idea that scientists could be persuaded, or cowed into participating in a conspiracy (at whose instigation?) to hoodwink the public about these landings is – well let’s just call it mildly implausible.
But of course, it could explain the US government’s massive deficit. That’s it! All those billions spent on hush money to astronauts, engineers, technicians (or were they all just actors?), not to mention nosey reporters, science writers and assorted geeks – thank god fatty Frump is here to make America great again and lift the lid on this sordid scenario, like the great crusader against fake news that he is.
But for now let’s leave the conspiracy aspect of this matter aside, and return to the question of whether these moon landings could ever have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. I have to say, when it was put to me, during this conversation, that the technology of the time wasn’t up to putting people on the moon, my immediate mental response was to turn this statement into a question. Was the technology of the time up to it? And this question then turns into a research project. In other words, let’s find out, let’s do the research. Yay! That way, we’ll learn lots of interesting things about aeronautics and rocket fuel and gravitational constraints and astronaut training etc, etc – only to forget most of it after a few years. Yet, with all due respect, I’m quite sure my ‘adversary’ in this matter would never consider engaging in such a research project. She would prefer to remain ‘open-minded’. And if you believe that the whole Apollo project was faked, why not believe that all that’s been written about it before and since has been faked too? Why believe that the Russians managed to get an astronaut into orbit in the early sixties? Why believe that the whole Sputnik enterprise was anything but complete fakery? Why believe anything that any scientist ever says? Such radical ‘skepticism’ eliminates the need to do any research on anything.
But I’m not so open-minded as that, so in my dogmatic and doctrinaire fashion I will do some – very limited – research on that very exciting early period in the history of space exploration. I’ll report on it next time.
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Canto: Okay, so now we’re getting into phonetics, is it? I’ve heard recently that some consonants are voiced, some unvoiced. Can you tell me what that means?
Jacinta: I think phonemics is the word. Or maybe phonology. Or maybe it is phonetics. Anyway don’t worry about the terminology, let’s look at your question. If I tell you that these five consonants are unvoiced: t, s, f, p, k, and that these five consonants are voiced: d, z, v, b, g, play around with those consonants in your mouth, that magnificent musical instrument, and see if you can work out the difference.
Canto: Okay, wow, I’ve noticed something. When I put my hand in front of my mouth and utter the first five, the unvoiced, I feel a blast of air hitting my hand. It doesn’t happen with the voiced consonants, or not nearly so much. Well, actually, no, ‘s’ isn’t like that, but the other four are. So that’s not it, though it’s an interesting thing to observe. But thinking voiced and unvoiced, that gets me somewhere. The voiced consonants all seem to be louder. Compare ‘z’ to ‘s’ for example. I seem to be forcing a sound out of my mouth, a kind of vibration, whereas ‘s’ is just a ‘ssss’. A vibration too, of course, but softer. Unvoiced, I get that. ‘t’ seems to be just a mere touching of mouth parts and pushing air past them to make this very soft sound, ‘whereas ‘g’, ‘d’ and ‘b’ are more forceful, louder. And ‘v’, like ‘z’, makes a loud vibration. It’s funny, though – even as I make the sounds, and focus on how they’re made in my mouth, I’m damned if I can work out clearly the mechanics of those sounds. But of course researchers have got them thoroughly sorted out, right?
Jacinta: Well you’ve got the distinction between voiced and unvoiced pretty right. The key is that in a voiced consonant the vocal chords vibrate (actually, they’re vocal folds – they were mis-described way back in the day, actually as vocal cords, and the n
ame has stuck, with a musical embellishment). Here’s a trick: take the pair of consonants you mentioned, ‘s’ and ‘z’, and sound them out, while putting your hand to your throat, where the voice-box is…
Canto: But it’s not really a box?
Jacinta: The larynx, responsible for sound production among other things. A housing for the vocal folds. So what do you fee?
Canto: Yes I feel a strong vibration with ‘z’, and nothing, or the faintest shadow of a vibration with ‘s’.
Jacinta: So now try ‘f’ and ‘v’. Then t/d, p/b and k/g.
Canto: Got it, and never to be forgotten. So that’s all we need to know about voiced and unvoiced consonants?
Jacinta: It’s something that could be done with learners – without overdoing it. I’d only point it out to learners who are having trouble with those consonants. And it’s intrinsically interesting, of course.
Canto: So this raises questions about speech generally, and that great musical instrument you mentioned. Is the regular patterning of sound by our lips, our tongues and so on to make speech, is that very different for different languages, and is this a barrier for some people from different language backgrounds to learning English?
Jacinta: Well you know that there different ways of speaking in English, what we call accents and dialects, so there are different ways of saying English. For L2 learners, especially if they take up their L2 – in this case English – later rather than sooner, it’s unlikely that they’ll lose their L1 accent, but this is unlikely to affect comprehension if they can get the syntax right.
Canto: I’ve noticed that Vietnamese speakers in particular have trouble producing some English word endings. What’s that about?
Jacinta: The Viet language, like a lot of Asian languages, doesn’t have consonantal word endings. So that’s why they ‘miss’ plurals in speech (s,z), as well as saying ‘I lie’ for ‘I like’, and the like. They have the same problem with t, v, j and other consonants. They also have trouble with consonantal combos in the middle of words. And according to the ESLAN website, they ‘struggle greatly with the concept of combining purely alveolar sounds with post palatal ones’.
Jacinta: Okay let’s learn this together. An alveolar consonant is one that employs the tongue against or close to the superior or upper alveolar ridge. That’s on the roof of the mouth getting close to the upper teeth, and it’s called alveolar because this is where the sockets of the teeth – the alveoli – are. You can feel a ridge there. English generally uses the tongue tip to produce apical consonants while French and Spanish, for example, uses the flat or blade of the tongue to produce laminal consonants.
Canto: So can you give me an example of an apical alveolar consonant?
Jacinta: Yes, the letter n is called an alveolar nasal consonant. Try it, an
d note that the tongue tip rests on the alveolar ridge and sound is produced largely through the nasal cavity. The letter t is a voiceless alveolar stop consonant. It’s called a stop because it stops the airflow in the oral cavity, and it’s voiceless as there’s no vibration of the vocal folds. On the other hand the letter d is a voiced alveolar stop, differing from t in that it involves a vibration of the vocal folds, a ‘voicing’.
Canto: Mmm, but I notice that with d the tongue is a little less forward in where it hits the upper palate – behind the alveolar ridge, whereas with t you’re almost at the base of the upper teeth.
Jacinta: Well, there are four specific variants of d. Your specific variant is postalveolar, whereas the other three are more forward – dental, denti-alveolar and alveolar.
Canto: So there’s this complex combinations of stops – stopping the airflow – voiced and unvoiced, where the vocal folds come into play (or not), nasalisation and other soundings, all of it pretty well unconscious, and delivered with various levels of stress (in both senses of the term). It’s all pretty amazing, and it’s no wonder that those interested in AI and robotics have realised that embodied consciousness is where it’s at, because we’re surely a long long way from developing a robot that can manage anything equivalent to human speech. And that’s just in terms of phonology, never mind syntax and morphology. But I’ve got a few other ‘sound’ terms knocking around in my head that I’d like explained. Tell me, what are fricatives and plosives?
Jacinta: Okay, well this is all about consonants. The letters p,t,k (unvoiced) and b,d,g (voiced) are all plosives in that ‘air flow from the lungs is interrupted by a complete closure being made in the mouth’. With fricatives – unvoiced f and s, voiced v and z – ‘the air passes through a narrow constriction that causes the air to flow turbulently and thus create a noisy sound’. I’m quoting from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). So for example, the difference between rice and rise is that the former uses an unvoiced fricative and rise uses a voiced one – very peculiar because rise uses ‘s’ which sounds like ‘z’ and ‘rice’ uses ‘c’ which can lead learners astray with the ‘k’ sound. If you’re interested in learning more…
Canto: We both are.
Jacinta: WALS online is a great database with 151 chapters describing the structural features of the world’s languages – phonological, grammatical and lexical. It’s published by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and should be a gr
eat starting place for an all-round knowledge of human language.
Canto: Just another of those must-reads…
“SLA history is not 2,000 years old but almost as old as human history and that throughout this long period, people have acquired rather than learned L2s, considering the rather short history of linguistic sciences.”
– Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008
So Minna Kirjavainen ended her talk by emphasising the similarities between L1 and L2 learning. It’s a long hard slog, and we all make plenty of embarrassing faux pas along the way. Marjo Mitsutomi then began her elaborations on L2 learning by mentioning in passing the host of theories and approaches to SLA over the past few years – behaviourism, Chomsky’s universal grammar, Krashen’s hypotheses etc – before listing what they all generally agree on, and that is, firstly, that the first stage of L2 is necessarily different from that of L1, due to L1 influence; secondly that L2 learning generally starts later, and the critical period hypothesis might play a role, along with other biological or neurological constraints, and thirdly that there’s generally an issue of ‘interlanguage’, the sort of make-do syntax that’s neither quite L1 or L2.
Mitsutomi then introduced the ‘newest theory’ (and it’s new to me) in the field, chaos theory. As the name suggests, it proposes that language and its acquisition is multi-faceted and enormously complex. She quotes a proponent of the theory, A J van Lier, describing language as a complex adaptive system involving endless and multiform interactions between individual and environment. Another proponent describes it as dynamic, non-linear, adaptive and feedback-sensitive, self-organising and emergent. No doubt each of those terms could be fleshed out at great length, though whether it all amounts to a theory might be questionable. In any case Mitsutoni makes the obviously correct point that there are many many factors, with different loadings for each individual learner, that make SLA a very difficult long-term task. And of course it makes the task of the teacher difficult too, because every learner is in a different place with different issues. Nevertheless Mitsutomi identifies some key concepts:
- negotiation for meaning – try to get learners to say something original and unrehearsed, to produce language that’s owned by the learner
- noticing a gap – being aware, as a learner, of the gap between what you want/need to do and what you can do (the next step, which you should be taking in an encouraging environment, with the expectation that mistakes will be made again and again and gently corrected)
- variables – for the educator, trying to take account of the many variables among learners, such as motivation, anxiety, production experience (many learners come from Asian ‘school English’ backgrounds where their production of English has been very limited, practically non-existent), L1 competence, etc, is a monumental task, and fossilisation is likely to always be a problem
- rate and type of input, control of learning, and many other internal and external factors contribute to a sense of ‘chaos’ in the class with every learner varying in what they allow in, and what effort they expend.
Control of learning is a key issue Mitsutomi focuses upon, by emphasising how L2 ‘learners’ can control for not learning, in a way that L1 learners can’t, because learning L1 is learning language itself, and without that skill we’d be lost in the human world. So the L2 learner, safely aware of her full humanity as an effective L1 user, can and generally does choose how much effort to put into L2 acquisition.
So how can we motivate them to focus on L2 learning, considering the many distractions they’re dealing with? Mitsutomi employs a quote from one of the early proposers of chaos theory, Vera Menezes:
… the edge of chaos will be reached if students can get rich input, interact with proficient speakers, and if they can use the second language for social purposes, dealing with different oral, written or digital genres in formal and informal contexts.
So we need to provide learners with rich, stimulating, relevant content in a motivating environment. And the most motivating environment of all is one that’s embodied, that connects with feeling and action. And Mitsutomi emphasises authenticity, the creation of original thoughts in the L2, and the deciphering of meaning in unpredictable contexts – where, again, embodied clues will help.
So what are some examples of embodied teaching? Well one way is to recognise language that’s difficult for students and to see if there’s an embodied way of teaching it, of acting it out. Take the preposition ‘into’. I’ve noticed that EGP and EAPP students almost invariably don’t think of this in tests where prepositions are specifically asked for, they often write ‘in’ and get a half-mark, but ‘into’ is a kind of action preposition, which almost always goes with an action verb, specifically ‘go’ and ‘come’, but also ‘put’, so it’s perfect for a bit of embodied teaching. It’s a word containing two morphemes obviously, and its opposite is two words, ‘out of’, and these opposites might best be taught together. Ask students to take a pencil out of the pencil-case, and then to put the pencil into the case. Go out of the room, through the door, and come into the room, through the door. Ask the students what they’ve just done. Hopefully the actions will reinforce the language. If nothing else, they tend to be more stimulated, more engaged, when combining action with words in this way.
Some expressions used, and often abused, by learners in argument and comparative essays can often benefit from being taught in an embodied way. ‘On the one hand/on the other hand’ is a notorious example. Ask students to put something slightly heavy on one hand, and then to think of something equally heavy that might be put on the other hand to balance the argument. This might work wonders but then again maybe not, no harm in trying. Similar tricks might be tried with ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘on balance’ and any terms which have a physical sense of distance or weight or proportion to them. Of course there are limits, and abstract connecting words (conjunctions) such as ‘although’ and ‘whereas’ and their differentiation are fiendishly difficult to illustrate or adequately explain (though we should always try to have explanations handy). Alternatively, we should be actively discouraging the use of these kinds of terms – ‘whereas’ ‘although, ‘despite’, ‘in spite of’, because these are the sorts of terms that L1 users only get a handle on later. You won’t find too many five or six-year-old L1 speakers using them, yet in EAP classes we cram them in, or try to, when learners are still getting a handle on basic grammar and trying to build their basic vocabulary. In most cases ‘whereas’ can be replaced with ‘but’ in a straight swap. Words like ‘despite’ can be avoided through rearranging the sentence, and then only slightly. Let’s look at an example:
Despite having lived in Norway for ten years, he never got used to the cold.
He had lived in Norway for ten years but had never got used to the cold.
The word ‘but’ could be replaced with ‘yet’, but using ‘yet’ in this way is also too abstract, and too confusing. Keep it simple – they will learn this through input in their own time. Advice to learners would be to use the simpler conjunctions, unless they’re quite certain about how to use the more abstract ones.
In the last paragraph I slipped in the word input. This is a key term in second language acquisition, according to the linguist Bill van Patten of Michigan State University. In this lecture van Patten claims that ‘after four decades of L2 research what has become crystal clear is language in the mind and brain is not built up from practice but from constant and consistent exposure to input’. He goes on to define input as ‘what readers hear or read in a communicative context’. He then makes a further, perhaps shocking claim that this language that they hear or read in these contexts is responded to ‘for its meaning not for its form or structure’. Meaningful input is essential for SLA, – that’s to say for the language to begin to exist inside the learner, as a mental thing, sensed and felt – and practice is not a substitute. Of course this raises issues for teaching, especially as van Patten argues that role-playing within class is no substitute for real communication where meaning is negotiated. If it’s all about input and meaning, can L2 be taught in a classroom at all?
This raises questions about whether there is a difference between classroom learning and immersive acquisition, or rather (because there’s obviously a difference) whether classroom learning can ever substitute for the immersive circumstances of L1-type learning. In order to explore this further I want to engage with some of the highly influential ideas of Stephen Krashen, who apparently takes a dim view of much conventional second language teaching. Is what we’re doing a complete waste of time, or can we do it better? How should we be doing our job, considering the constraints and the expectations of ‘English for academic purposes’ in which we’re supposed to be transforming relatively low-level English users into potential university essayists in English?
adventures in second language acquisition – an intro to the usage-based hypothesis of language learning
So now I’m going to describe and reflect on a rather more interesting video by two academics and teachers, Marjo Mitsutomi, a specialist in SLA, and Minna Kirjavainen, who researches first language acquisition. They’re working in the teaching of English in Osaka, and they’re describing the uni course they’ve just set up there. Kirjavainen, the first speaker, describes her research as being on ‘the acquisition of syntax and morphology in monolingual, typically developing children, from about the ages two to six’. So now for some definitions. How does syntax differ from grammar, and what is morphology? A rough answer is that a grammar involves everything about how a language works, which includes syntax, which is essentially about how words are ordered in sentences. Morphology is often described as the corollary of syntax. Grammar can be divided into syntax, the external economy of words (i.e. in sentences), and morphology, the internal economy of words (i.e. from morphemes). For example, ‘robbed’ contains the verb ‘rob’ plus the unit of meaning ‘-ed’, or ‘-bed’, which means ‘in the past’. But presumably ‘went’ is made up of two morphemes, ‘go’ and ‘in the past’, both of which are in a sense hidden in the word?
Kirjavainen describes herself as coming from the ‘usage-based, constructivist view-point’, and says
‘this means that I don’t assume there’s innate syntactic components in the child’s mind like many first language and second language acquisition researchers do. Instead, the usage-based viewpoint assumes that language exposure and general cognitive processes result in language acquisition in children.’
A slide accompanying this anouncement indicated that Michael Tomasello is one of the major developers of this approach. So I’ll need to familiarise myself with Tomasello’s work, especially as I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s The language instinct, which appears to be an attempt to popularise Chomsky’s universal grammar theories. Chomsky and Pinker argue that there is something innate about grammar, though just what it is is hard to capture.
Kirjavainen is of the view that a child’s general cognitive processes (e.g. pattern finding, analogy-making and categorisation) together with exposure to language, lead to competent language acquisition. She argues that these processes are effective for non-linguistic tasks, so the same mechanisms are sufficient for decoding the language they hear and want to use. She divides her inquiry into first language acquisition into three questions:
- how do children learn to speak their native language?
- what kind of things do children pay attention to when they learn their native language?
- how do caregivers talk to children? What effect does it have on children’s language development?
Firstly, children pay a lot of attention to language input, and apparently research is starting to show that it’s not just lexical items but grammatical structures that children mirror from caregivers. The most frequently used grammatical structures of caregivers are the ones used earliest by children, and they then become the most used by children. So the ambient language heavily influences the child’s language development. The constructivists also argue that syntactic constructions are built on the language that children already know. So they chunk things together and try them out for effective communication with those around them, they absorb responses and corrections and adjust their language accordingly. Examples are ‘Mummy’, ‘I want mummy’, ‘Mummy do it’ ‘I want mummy do it’, ‘I want mummy to do it’.
All of this makes a lot of sense to me prima facie. Mitsotomi, who next takes up the talk, is of Finnish background like Kirjavainen, but with a more pronounced accent, having learned English later in life. She begins by mentioning the critical period hypothesis for SLA, which might be the subject of a future post. Her concern is in how SLA is affected not only by the towering presence of the learner’s L1, but by many other life experiences. So given these influences and possible constraints how do we create a space and an atmosphere conducive to SLA? Also, what does SLA mean to the identity of learners, and how is it that some acquire an L2 more quickly and effectively than others?
Kirjavainen then continues by introducing what might be seen as the obstacles to a collaboration between first and second language theorists. First, some linguists argue that there are inherent differences between first and second language learning. She lists three (out of many) common assumptions about these differences:
- all (typically developing) children learn to speak their L1 natively, whereas most people (with normal cognitive skills) don’t learn their L2 to a native-like standard
- children learn their L1 very quickly whereas it takes L2 learners years to master their target language
- L1 learners make few errors in comparison to L2 learners, i.e. children find it easier to learn the grammatical rules of their language, whereas L2 learners find it difficult to learn these rules
Kirjavainen questions the first assumption, first on the basis of vocabulary – a child’s L1 vocab will depend on her socio-economic background, the level of education, experience and language competence of those she’s learning from and other such factors. These factors also affect syntax, and she described a study of native speakers’ knowledge of and proficiency in the passive construction. The study compared the proficiency of university teaching staff (academics) with non-teaching staff. They were tested on their understanding of active and passive sentences based on pictures, a fairly easy test, and it was found that while both teaching and non-teaching staff had full understanding of the active constructions, only the academics had full understanding of the passive construction. The non-teaching staff were significantly below full understanding. The general point here is that not all native speakers know all the grammatical rules of their L1, and that it depends more on regular usage than is sometimes admitted.
Next Kirjavainen gets stuck into the claim that children learn their native language quickly. She points out that an average 5 year old is quite a competent L1 user, but far from having adult proficiency. She then does a breakdown of how many hours a day children have spent, up to the age of five, exposed to and using the L1. That’s 5 years@6-14 hours a day of exposure, and about 3.5 years@8-14 hours a day in using the language. Conclusion: it takes children years to reach a relatively high level of L1 proficiency.
All of this strikes me as really thought-provoking stuff, and some of the thoughts provoked in me are memories of my callow youth – for example an occasion when as a 15 year-old or so I found myself at a party full of uni students types, all a few years my senior, and was awed by their vocabulary and language proficiency, and fearful that I’d get roped into conversation and be mocked for my verbal incompetence. So, again, I’m finding Kirjavainen’s arguments persuasive here at first blush.
The third assumption is more or less demolished by Kirjavainen as she cites research by herself and others to show that children make lots of errors, especially between the ages of 18 months and 4 years – these include pronoun errors, omission of infinitival to, agreement errors, subject omissions and verb inflection errors. Even at five and upwards there are mistakes with past tense, relative clauses and complement clause constructions. A complement clause? I’ve only just heard of them, but let me explain.
Here are two examples of complement clauses, taken from Kidd et al, 2007.
(1) That Rufus was late angered his boss.
(2) Rufus could see that he had angered his boss.
The complement clauses are underlined. The first here functions as the subject of an ‘argument’ sentence, the second as the object. The second sentence is described as an unmarked case, in which the complementiser that is optional and generally not used in naturalistic speech. There are many other forms of complement clause construction, so I won’t get bogged down by exploring them here.
So this has been an enlightening post for me, and an enlightening view of a new (to me) usage-based constructivist view of language acquisition. Next time I’ll report on the latter part of this talk, which will focus more on the implications for SLA.
Some 35 years ago a new science was born. Now called cognitive science, it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since.
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct 1994.
The above words, from over 20 years ago, now seem a little overblown. My experience as a general absorber of sciency stuff suggests that it’s still a bit premature to speak of a science of language, but of course we know more about it than ever before. My hope is to bring whatever knowledge I can glean from some of the fields mentioned above to my understanding of language in general, and second language acquisition in particular, with a view to helping others to acquire the English language, which is my job.
My method is to start in medias res, as an innocent little fish dropped into the vast ocean of knowledge about the subject that I hope and expect to find online and elsewhere.
My first encounter as I bob about in this ocean, is this video, which introduces me to what the speaker calls ‘the zone of proximal development’, and the ‘five stages of second language acquisition’. On a slide, the zone of proximal development (ZPD, in case I need to refer to it again) is defined as ‘the difference between what a student can do without help and what a student can do with help’. The speaker, Jane Hill, a Managing Consultant for English Language Learner Effectiveness, starts by telling SLA educators that they would benefit their students by teaching not only content but ‘the academic language of the content’, and presumably this ZPD is part of that academic language, as will be the five stages, not yet enunciated.
I have to say that in my fifteen years or so of teaching ESOL I’ve never mentioned the ZPD, nor any 5 stages, to learners. I do have a vague memory of coming across this ZPD concept years ago, but it obviously didn’t stick particularly well. Not surprisingly, if the definition given above is a generally accepted one, for it makes little sense to me – but I won’t dwell on that for now, except to say that I might look up this ZPG notion elsewhere to see if a better definition or elaboration of it can be found. Hill herself does elaborate further, by saying that we should know ‘where students are, and where they’re capable of working to with the help of a knowledgeable other’, and I find this more comprehensible but still problematic. We try to find out where learners are by listening to and reading (and assessing) their productions, and testing their reception of our productions and the productions of others (e.g. English texts). This isn’t always an easy process as their production and reception can vary from day to day and between tasks. And surely it’s even harder to find out ‘where they’re capable of working to’. This is partly because learners are in our class for only a matter of weeks and it’s hard to measure or even to discern progress. The better students seem uniformly and constantly to be at a higher level than the strugglers who seem constantly and uniformly struggling. Test scores aren’t a straightforward indication of progress as each test is different and some, such as essay tests, have a strong element of subjectivity in assessment. SLA, for most adult learners, is a long, slow and partial process, it seems to me.
So, with these doubts and uncertainties in mind I’ll continue with Hill’s slightly annoying presentation of the five stages of SLA. Annoying because of the condescending infant-teacherly tone and because she’s clearly presenting them as facts to be poured into us rather than as someone’s theory. Anyway, she begins with what she describes as a modelling of good teaching. She introduces the five stages of SLA (concepts which we as learners aren’t aware of) by connecting them to the five stages of first language acquisition, concepts which we are apparently familiar with (though I for one have never heard of this breakdown of my language acquisition into five stages – but I’m keen to learn!).
Hill starts by gushingly asking us to remember how our kids acquire their first language. I’ve never had kids, but I’ve certainly observed them, and with great interest, so I can cheerfully concur with her slide-supported enumeration:
- preproduction – about 9 months (no verbalisation, minimal comprehension, some yes & no head movements, some pointing and gesturing)
- early production – about 12-14 months (limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of keywords & familiar phrases, present tense only)
- speech emergence – age?? (good comprehension, simple sentence production, grammar and pronunciation errors, misunderstands jokes)
- intermediate fluency – age? (excellent comprehension, few grammatical errors)
- advanced fluency – (near-native usage)
However, no linguistic prizes for guessing this is just a handful of post stages picked out in the continuous process from no language to full language production, with 5 being a more or less arbitrary number. The ZPG seems too vague a concept to be of much practical use, and in all my years of teaching I’ve never heard a colleague fretting over how to get a learner over the early production stage into speech emergence, say. Another problem is that this admittedly bare-bones presentation says nothing about the difference between SLA and learning the L1, except to say that the stages are similar, but not exactly the same. But it seems to me the differences are very significant.
The difficulty I’m becoming aware of here is a very scary one. I don’t think I’ll be able to make much headway in understanding SLA without understanding language itself and how we acquire it. And I suspect that nobody fully understands that.
Pinker has argued that language is an instinct, something innate, which we don’t learn, or not in any straightforward way, from our parents, or by mimesis. Yet it’s surely clear that without an environment of language speakers we’d get nowhere. A child brought up by wolves, if there ever was one, would not be able to speak a language, because she hasn’t had the opportunity to learn one, and I’ve heard that children deprived of that opportunity during a certain crucial period in childhood are unlikely to become effective language users thereafter. The near-miraculous thing is that children become sophisticated language users very quickly, and I’m interested in the neurological processes involved, as well as whether our understanding of those neurological processes can help with developing effective SLA.
So language is certainly something learned, but there’s something about us that makes us primed, so to speak, to pick up one of the 7000 or so fully grammarised (if there’s such a word) languages. We also learn to walk, but I wonder how we’d go if we weren’t surrounded from earliest childhood by fully adept walkers whose ambulatory achievements and successes we’re naturally keen to emulate. And in a way, I’m answering my own query – we learn language because we hear it all around us, and we want to share in that human experience, to be like them, because we see clearly, though in a sense unconsciously, the obvious advantages of that communication system. It gets us somewhere in the human world.
I’m also interested in this whole concept of grammar. I’ve read, though without quite grasping it, that children can create grammar out of non-grammatical (or perhaps partially grammatical) pidgin, a collection of keywords cobbled together in the intersection of two languages for the purpose of needful communication. ‘Research’ has found that the children of pidgin users are able to create from these fragments a full-blown grammatical creole, as if by magic. This has been cited by Pinker and others as evidence for an innate faculty. I need, obviously, to learn more about such research and the various interpretations of it.
I don’t want to forget embodiment either. I’ve been very encouraged in my practice lately, teaching EGP, the lowest level of academic English (actually pre-pre-academic English), by responses to certain simple tasks. I’ve asked learners to come out the front and act out simple sentences, with gestures and facial expressions. These are students who generally have difficulty in forming complete grammatical sentences. So they come out and try saying, for example, ‘Hello class, I want to tell you about a really funny movie I saw on the weekend’, accompanied by laughter, hand-on-chest gestures and what-not. Humour, sadness, fear, anger and so on can all be acted out to the accompaniment of a simple sentence, and what I’ve found is that, after a few practice runs, they become more articulate and confident when they express themselves this way. The words come out with less effort, it seems, when they’re concentrating on the emotion, and I get the impression that they’ve taken some sort of ownership of some English speech acts. I’d be interested to find if there is any work being done to confirm these impressions I have of embodied SLA. It’s not much, perhaps, in the mountainous task of facilitating SLA, but it’s something positive.