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adventures in second language acquisition – input matters

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“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.

Change to:

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?

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Written by stewart henderson

February 6, 2017 at 11:33 pm

adventures in second language acquisition – my first gleanings

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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:

  1. preproduction –  about 9 months (no verbalisation, minimal comprehension, some yes & no head movements, some pointing and gesturing)
  2. early production – about 12-14 months (limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of keywords & familiar phrases, present tense only)
  3. speech emergence – age?? (good comprehension, simple sentence production, grammar and pronunciation errors, misunderstands jokes)
  4. intermediate fluency – age? (excellent comprehension, few grammatical errors)
  5. 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.

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2017 at 8:23 am