Say WHAT? Run that by me again…

Archive for the category “Beyond the Ear Book”

Burning Patterns into the Brain (Class Eleven)

“Alright–I want all of you to listen to the recording of today’s dialogue for homework and have it memorized and ready for recitation by Thursday. Yes, I know it was three pages long, but that’s beside the point. Your intonation must be exactly as you hear on the recording, and that means repeated practice. Each passage should be played and recited 30-50 times until you’ve mastered every line. If I find you have not done this, your parents will be notified.”

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Shuku loved the dictionary!

As a student, how would you respond to this assignment? The three Chinese EFL learners discussed in Monday’s article by Yanren Ding worked long and hard throughout their secondary school years to follow their teachers’ hard-lined approach and memorize most of their English textbooks. Not surprisingly, they resisted at first, but all three grew to appreciate the intense focus on recitation and the strict pedagogy. In fact, they credited their later success as winners of national speech and debate tournaments to the hours spent memorizing and reciting textbook dialogues and later memorizing scenes from English movies, line by line. Today’s blog post is devoted to these three learners, and to the topic of language memorization. I will also dedicate this post to my husband, and to my classmate Shuku, who both willingly memorized English dictionaries, one definition at a time. 

Here’s the gist of the article: Ding chose three mainland Chinese college students who had demonstrated high levels of achievement in English in order to learn what strategies they had used to achieve success. The learners were interviewed in detail, each describing years of memorization on a daily basis–a road on which they all, at first, traveled unwillingly. They spoke of the pressure they felt and the difficulty of memorizing lengthy passages of text. They did what they were told to do, however, in spite of the fact that many of their classmates, unable to imitate the L2 accent properly, resisted the practices of memorization and recitation. Ding reports that teachers simply gave up on those students, devoting themselves to others who were willing to put in the time (Ding, 2007, pp. 273-4). And, along the way, each of the learners found themselves becoming motivated not just by the teacher’s exhortations (they were praised and encouraged, as well as scolded), but by the English language itself.

Here is where it gets really interesting for me because I, too, am motivated by the love of words as well as the ideas they represent. In a previous post, I referred to psychologists Amabile and Hennessey’s definition of  intrinsic motivation, as characterized by “The drive to do something for the sheer enjoyment, interest, and personal challenge of the task itself (rather than for some external goal).” (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010, p. 581) Although Ding does not explore this issue at length, I believe that his learners H, W, and Z were unusual in their degree of intrinsic motivation, which gradually took root and flourished while they busily memorized passages of language. As they spent long hours at home listening and attempting to precisely imitate native speakers’ inflections, class time recitations and discussions grew easier; the students came to discover their own aptitude for English and to find pleasure in the sound of the words themselves.

Mind you, all three were modest about their English ability. Neither Z not W believed they had any aptitude, and although H originally mentioned her “natural gift” for language, she later changed the wording of the interview notes to reflect a more neutral stance. (Ding, p. 273).  However Z reported noticing that there were “…things that I could do but others couldn’t do,” (Ding, p. 277) and I am certain that all three learners were secretly proud of their ability to manipulate a second language. In short, they knew they were good at something, and though their ability must have made them stand out in class (a big faux pas for Asian students), they forged ahead, driven by the desire to perfect their language skills. They became intrinsically motivated.


Sherlock can be seen in China, too.

After graduating from high school, the students’ drive to memorize English continued through their college years, in the form of fanatic movie watching in English. Textbook memorization enforced by the teacher was replaced by out-of-class learning, as the three memorized dialogues from English language films, line by line, making a long train trip home once a week since television was off-limits in their dormitories. A combination of work and play? Absolutely! As Ding says, “…their purpose was not just to enjoy the stories; rather, their goal was to enjoy the language, imitate it, and memorize it.” (Ding, 2007, p. 227) 

So what exactly did years of memorization enable these devoted students to achieve? They learned patterns and formulaic chunks of language. They practiced diligently and learned them so well that they could easily retrieve and use them both in the classroom, in interviews, and on stage in debates. They learned to recognize and acquire prosodic features of language, practicing their own rhythm and intonation on a daily basis, constantly comparing it to that of native speakers. Most impressive to me is that the students mastered details of the English language that would not be interesting to more meaning-focused communicative L2 students. They listened for and learned to use collocations, function words, and inflections without worrying about grammar and apart from their desire to understand the meaning. H, especially, spoke enthusiastically of the enjoyment of listening for new and unusual usages and intonations that she might add to her own repertoire. The three also learned to hear their own voices and to take control of their own learning process. My guess is that the years of imitation and critical feedback from teachers enabled the students to be good judges of their own pronunciation and keen strategic learners. They knew what the standard was, and they knew how to achieve it. Lastly, they became producers of language, able to spontaneously and appropriately produce chunks of language to communicate, to persuade, to argue, and to expound. 

“Oh, yes,” you might say. “But was their language natural? ” Well, the answer is not a simple one, and before answering it, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. 

To begin with, how do we really feel about this kind of learning? Are we unknowingly condescending toward those raised in a culture where rote memorization of large bodies of knowledge is acceptable and preferred? Do we (speaking for myself and fellow westerners) feel a bit superior in our perceived ability to think critically and use language creatively? I’ll raise my hand and admit that I thought my husband was nothing short of pitiful when he first spoke of his dictionary memorizing days. Fast forward twenty years to the day when he scored higher than me on the Qualitative portion of the GRE exams, and ask me if I still think that. Go ahead–and you can also ask me if I regret being too high and mighty in high school to memorize algebraic formulas and chemical compounds…or better yet, don’t ask since I’m already properly humbled just by the writing of this post.

Now back to the question of “natural” and “creative” English. I only know learners H, W, and Z through Ding’s analysis of their statements, but my guess is that no, their use of English was not always natural or “native-like”.  After all, it is hard to find the perfect chance to use a line from a movie or a textbook dialogue in spontaneous conversation. Yet they were always concerned with context and alert for opportunities to make use of what they had struggled to remember. We can presume their English was not notably creative since much of it was lifted word for word from dialogues and scripts. They probably did not string elements of language together, but instead relied on formulaic chunks they had memorized. I have no doubt, however, that their language was appropriate (they were, again, very concerned with context), grammatically accurate, and spoken with native-like intonation and pronunciation. And because their heads were literally full of patterns and chunks of language that had been “burned into their brains” they were rarely at a loss for words. In short, their secondary school learning environment had demanded complete accuracy of language use. And–here is the amazing thing–they were able to achieve this because of their dedication to memorization, most of which occurred outside of any communicative context. Ding writes, and I agree, that freedom from the pressure of real-time conversation enabled the three learners to perfect their language skills. Taking all this into consideration, I see no reason to treat their achievement with condescension, or to bemoan a lack of creativity and naturalness, both of which would undoubtedly emerge with time spent abroad in an immersion situation. 

It is conceivable, of course, that such intense focus on form could have the adverse effect of inhibiting students from engaging in face-to-face conversation, but Ding writes that his subjects embraced the chance to converse and discuss in class as well. And their story reveals a different twist to what we know about how language is acquired. Scholars have repeatedly proven that learners’ noticing of the gap between an L1 speaker’s language and their own imperfect interlanguage is the key to real acquisition. Yet in many cases the gap remains unnoticed, and L2 errors become habitual. Perhaps those learners are the ones who can’t be bothered to memorize and recite? No matter how distasteful the idea might seem, Ding believes that this is so: memorization and repetition are an important part of the noticing process. He writes, “Passion for the language leads to noticing and rehearsal, which in turn lead to acquisition. Good language learners are superior to other learners in the two aspects of noticing and rehearsal.” and, even more directly, “…text memorization and imitation have a legitimate place in second language education.” (Ding, p. 279)

Lastly, I’d like to return to the subject of intrinsic motivation, which is what enabled learners H, W, and Z to memorize such a massive amount of input, thoughtfully process it, and finally make it their own for productive use. My guess is that many highly motivated Asian students are bored with communicative classrooms and with task-based learning in particular. Shuku, Alan, and I discussed this in our small group and Shuku admitted as much. “I was never task-oriented,” she said. “There was never enough speaking involved, and I wanted more direct feedback from my teachers instead. In class, I pretended to be an average student like everyone else, but at home, I did what those Chinese students did: I spoke in English out loud, and I tried to imitate my English teachers exactly.” And there you have it: those who love language for its own sake will not necessarily be happy task-based learners since they are intrinsically motivated by the language itself rather than in the task, which is assumed to be the motivating factor. And just as music lovers accept that memorization of several movements of a sonata is necessary to perform on stage, language lovers realize and accept that memorization is not only part of the process, but can be highly motivating in and of itself.

In the end, I’m proud to be married to a language-loving man and proud to be the friend of Shuku, who imitated her teachers and slept with a dictionary by her pillow. I hope that learners H, W, and Z are living productive lives, using their English regularly and with enthusiasm, and able to travel abroad to polish their already formidable language skills, which I suspect are already becoming more natural and native-like. 



Ding, Y. (2007). Text memorization and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System, 35(2), pp.271-280. doi:10.1016/j.system.2006.12.005

Hennessey, B.& Amabile, T. (2010). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology, 61(1),pp. 569-598. doi:10.1146/1nnurev.psych.093008.100416





Intrinsic Motivation and Thoughtful Corrections (Class Ten)

Last night’s listening and speaking class with Dr. Jim was lively, in spite of the fact that Chunmei had not slept a wink, Hiroko had walked over 20,000 steps across Tokyo during the day, and Paul and I had spent an exhausting weekend attending a two-day vocabulary acquisition seminar with Batia Laufer. There were three presenters, and the topic was a continuation of the Task-Based Learning theme, with a twist. I’d like to talk about two of the articles presented, one of which I had engaged with since reading the title, and another which looked to be uninspiring, but proved to be surprisingly useful and enlightening.

Steven Sadow

Steven Sadow

I’ll begin with the article we all thought sounded appealing: “Concoctions”, by Stephen Sadow, a professor of romance languages and literature at Northeastern University. It’s not often that we get to read an article written by someone outside of the field, and I viewed it as a treat rather than an assignment from the first. Happily, the article–found in Foreign Language Annuals 27(2) did not disappoint.

By Sadow’s own definition, “concoctions” are tasks that students find absorbing because they stimulate intrinsic motivation. But ho-hum, that definition is yawn-inducing, so let me go a bit further. Psychologist Teresa Amabile, whom Sadow quotes, defines intrinsic motivation as, 1) having love for and even an obsession with the task at hand, 2) having a sense of dedication to the work over time, 3) having a view of the project as combining work and play (are you waking up yet?) and 4) marked by a concentration on the activity itself.  Dr. Jim’s study sheet for the article had asked us to recall an intrinsically motivating projectand I knew the answer: this blog, of course. It’s a requirement, but it’s also an obsession, and these blog posts get written before reading or writing assignments for other courses. I am one of those women who do not hesitate to indulge in dessert before a meal. 

So more about concoctions. They are tasks which are performed not just for the sake of the outcome (which had been my impression so far from reading Willis and Skehan), but for the sake of the process itself. These are tasks involving ambiguity, open-endedness, and instability. They make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. They involve unexpected, unusual, or even startling associations, and curiosity is the key. If students are not intensely curious–if they are not driven to think in new and different ways–Sadow would not consider the task a proper concoction. He also goes so far as to speculate that, “…the ability to grab and hold student attention may be more important than the practice of specific language points.” In designing a concoction, Sadow suggests: Avoid problems that have already been solved and design new problems. Let students brainstorm for solutions and re-arrange their existing schema (he calls this “breaking frames”).

In discussing the Dada and Surrealist influences on Sadow’s thinking, Chunmei showed us a clip of a Luis Bunuel film involving the juxtaposition of an eyeball and a razor as an example of a “frame-breaking” experience. Having been through three laser surgery operations on my eyes (and lasers and razors are one and the same in Japanese), I could not watch, but I did lift my head up in time to enjoy Chunmei’s final slide, entitled “Stairway to Heaven” by Jim Warren. “It’s Surreal, but it’s also romantic, and I just like it,” she pronounced, and we were able to forget the eyeball clip and end the presentation on a positive note.

Well. After Chunmei’s presentation, there were a few awkward minutes where we tried to picture ourselves as creators and implementors of such ambiguous and appealing tasks, with our intrinsically motivated students begging for more class time to finish the project, please! Some of us ventured to say that this was all very exciting, but not realistic or practical for our teaching situations. And I’m sure that many of us felt, at that point, about as interesting as dishrags. What bearing could this article by a crazy Harvard-educated literature scholar possibly have on our daily working lives as teachers of shy Asian EFL students?

Then Doug, who teaches classes for Japanese businessmen, spoke up. “You’d think that guys in suits are really serious,” he said, “but we do some crazy things in our lessons. I’m basically mocking the textbook dialogues a lot of the time, and those businessmen love it. If I tried to teach everything straight from the book, we’d all die of boredom and no-one would learn anything.” Aha. Then I remembered, “Yeah, I do something similar with my kids’ classes. I have to teach endless chunks of language and phrases using these cute little Kumon cards showing boring well-behaved children. So I always re-arrange the order of the cards to purposely put the boring, predictable children in interesting or unexpected predicaments.” And from there, most of us could think of ways that we tweaked tasks or drills to give them unexpected or humorous outcomes. And Dr. Jim wrapped things up by reminding us that challenging learners to “think differently” can be as simple as changing the perspective. Trees, eyeglasses, shoes–even objects can have a perspective or a voice (said the professor whose doctoral dissertation involved puppets) and students can willingly suspend their disbelief to imagine the world seen through different eyes. Ha! As I wrote that, an image flashed through my head of shoes with eyes, alert to impediments or obstacles that their near-sighted owner might not have noticed. “Look out for the snail!” “Whooooa, that’s dog poop!”  Maybe an idea for a concoction-influenced task? I believe I will file it away for future reference.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the last presentation, on an article entitled Teaching Speaking: Suggestions for the Classroom (found in The Language Teacher 21-1) by Robert S. Brown and Paul Nation. This was the article I wasn’t overly excited about; it had a mundane title that did not sound like an alcoholic beverage, and I was in the mood to talk more about concoctions. The presenter was Robert, who began, as many of us have thus far, with an apology: “I’m really sorry, but my presentation’s going to be straightforward and boring. I’m just not good at this stuff.” …….and then he went on to speak confidently, smoothly, engagingly and enthusiastically, as most of us do. After all, we’re teachers, and performing is part of our job on a daily basis. Perhaps the tendency to apologise before beginning our presentations reflects our comfortableness in speaking in front of peers; in front of our own students, any little anxieties are instantly repressed, and bright smiles belie none of the worries that make us human. Whatever the reason, Robert’s modesty was soon tossed aside as he launched into the heart of the presentation and became teacherly in the best sense.

Paul Nation

Paul Nation

The first half of the article covered speaking: how to encourage students to do more and how to improve their fluency and accuracy. Okay–pretty good stuff, and Robert was interesting. Then my ears really perked up near the end when the subject of error correction was introduced. We’ve discussed the subject often, in different classes and different contexts, but there are always new angles to consider. I thought that Brown and Nation (as represented by Robert) did an excellent and thoughtful job of analysing why L2 learners make errors and how we as teachers can respond both effectively and sensitively. For those of you who are familiar with these principles, it’s probably worthwhile to read them again, and for those of you who haven’t yet encountered them, here they are:

If your learner makes an error because they have not yet come into contact with the correct language form.…….don’t correct. Show them the correct form and give them chances to practice.

If your learner errs because they have not observed the form correctly………correct by showing the difference.

If your learner errs because of nervousness…….do NOT correct. Lighten the mood, relieve the tension!

If your learner is suffering from cognitive overload due to task difficulty, do not correct. Make the task easier, or give more chances to practice.

If your learner is confused due to task difficulty (tongue-twisters are the example given), do not correct. Again, tweak the task to make it easier.

If your learner’s error is based on the transfer of a pattern from their first language, do correct, or learners may continue to make the same error, leading to what some linguists call “fossilization”. If the learner’s error has not yet become a habit, it’s time for “consciousness-raising” to help make them aware of correct patterns.

If your learner has copied an incorrect model (which can happen when L2 learners use their interlanguage together without a L1 interlocutor), do point out the correct model.

In short, EFL and ESL teachers should be wary of rushing in to correct learner errors. In some cases, correction can do more harm than good, and often it would simply be a waste of time. On the other hand, it’s also a waste to let a potential consciousness-raising opportunity slip by, so when the circumstances are right, we need to find a way to make learners aware of the much-discussed gap between the target phrase and their developing interlanguage.

“And don’t forget,” said Dr. Jim at the close of the class, “that error correction often works over time. While you may think a simple re-cast of the learner’s error goes unnoticed, that might not be the case And sometimes, learners do the re-cast themselves….. Ruthie! Ask me a question!” Startled, I opened my mouth and said what was uppermost in my mind: “Don’t you think it’s time for a little haircut, Dr. Jim?”

Dr, Jim

Dr, Jim

The good Dr. looked a bit startled, his hand flew to his head, and Hiroko sitting next to me scolded, “Ruthie!! That’s not a QUESTION! That’s a hidden request!” Hahaha—never mind that mentioning the state of your professor’s hair is not an appropriate topic, Hiroko was remembering the article by Zoltan Dornyei, urging teachers to train their students to recognize all manner of complex “questions”. She immediately substituted, “What did you do last weekend?”, while both Dr. Jim and I recovered our composure (to be honest, I had startled myself by saying what I was thinking). And then Dr. J. showed us what he meant. “What did you do last weekend?” he repeated in a small voice to himself thoughtfully. “See?” he said. “The learner is repeating the phrase, thinking about it and re-casting it for himself. That happens!” We all said, “aaaaah! yes!” then put away our pens and notebooks, unplugged our iPhone chargers, and called it a night. Another Listening and Speaking class checked off the syllabus, and–as always–some good things to ponder before next Monday when we meet again.

Rickety Roller-Coasters and Task-Based Teaching (Class nine)

Tonight I’d like to talk about tasks. Those of you familiar with TESOL terminology will know exactly what I’m talking about, but what about the rest of the world? What words does the average Joe associate with the word “task”? I don’t consider my husband to be in any way average, but his academic field is very different than mine, so I took a shot in the dark and asked him: “What do you think of when you hear the word task?”

“Mmmmm….” he said reluctantly, eyeing his yet-untouched hamburg steak and knowing that I would persist until he produced an acceptable answer. Within 30 seconds, he came up with: “Difficult”. “Arduous”. “Thankless”. “Heavy”. “Taxing”… Just as I suspected, all negative words.

My hypothesis was correct, and I was pleased. Heavy and taxing are words that would not necessary be chosen as collocates by native speakers (his first language is Japanese), but they definitely carry negative implications; the rest of his choices were spot on, so I let him dig into his dinner. I myself had never had a positive reaction to the word task, most often associating it with words like….. Monotonous. Repetitious. Unpleasant. Onerous. Laborious. Impossible. Remember Rumplestiltskin? If you’re familiar with the Grimm brothers’ grim fairy tales, you know that the lovely maiden of the story was given a task: “Spin this straw into gold by morning. If you do, you shall marry the King.” And children instinctively know the flip side: “If you cannot…. Death.” Then there’s the oppressive image of a Taskmaster, one who drives workers to the point of exhaustion, probably carrying a whip, sneering an evil sneer and using language my grandmother would not approve of. As conscientious adults, we feel we really should make a task list and check things off, but that’s an unpleasant task in itself, isn’t it?

Now push all those negative images aside and imagine a positive task, in the context of classroom learning. Rather than giving a definition, I will tell a story from this Monday’s Task-Based Teaching lesson in Dr. Jim’s class. One of our study questions was to recall and reflect on a task-based learning experience we ourselves had participated in, and my seat partner Cynthia had the best story. Here it is:

“When I was in high school, we did an extended project with my English teacher that went on for weeks–and the focus of the project was a single word. It had to be a ‘concept word’, and we had to have an attachment to it or a reason for choosing it. Then each week, we explored a different aspect of the word; one week we had to search for a poem including the word, and another week we had to find the word mentioned in a work by Shakespeare. The next week, we had to research the word’s history, and so on. Every week we had to find an example of the word used in a different context in a different medium, and in the end, we wrote a research paper—all about a single word. It was really motivating and made a huge impression on me.”

Cynthia’s enthusiasm as she recounted her memory made an impression on me as well, and we agreed that her high school teacher was the best kind of taskmaster. On my part, I recalled a particularly memorable culture festival at my son’s high school, featuring a terrifying but workable roller-coaster, constructed by students and supervised by the homeroom teacher. This brave and intrepid soul had organized students into groups, overseen the planning and construction, and let them go at it, offering advice and monitoring the process up until its successful completion, just minutes before the festival’s scheduled opening time. On that day, I held my breath as my very tiny twelve year old daughter–I swear she weighed next to nothing–hopped fearlessly into the makeshift contraption (she was first in line to test it out) and was pushed up and over a mountain of chairs held together with duct tape, coming careening down into a sea of sofa cushions. There were cheers from the sweaty high school boys and big sighs of relief from myself and the homeroom teacher.

“WOW,” said Cynthia when I finished my story. “That would SO not happen in the U.S. ! Lawsuits! Injuries! Damages!” But we also agreed that it was pretty cool.

So here’s what Cynthia’s word project and the brakeless plywood roller coaster have in common: they were motivating tasks. They were engaging. They had meaning for the learners. They involved positive, tangible outcomes. The teachers monitored and supported learners, rather than directing and leading. In Cynthia’s case, many of the tasks were assigned at school and completed at home, and the work was not collaborative. In my son’s case, most of the tasks were completed at school in the classroom and the entire project depended on co-operation and collaboration. Although both are good examples of task-based learning, the roller coaster example is probably closer to the way TBL functions in a language classroom…..let me talk about this in a little more detail, and you will see why.

Task basked learning is an approach to English language learning that encourages students to learn language by using it in order to achieve an outcomeIt’s not about accuracy, it’s about the task itself, which must be a task in the good sense: something that students want to achieve and something that means something to them. In Cynthia’s case, students worked on their tasks individually, but in the EFL classroom, tasks are usually done in small groups.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Jane and Dave Willis.

Here’s a photo of Jane and Dave Willis, whose book on task-based teaching is chock full of ideas and practical advice on how to transform a traditional teacher-centered classroom into a lively convention center, with students clustered in small groups using their interlanguage to collaborate on creating a list, doing a ranking exercise, sorting or classifying word items or phrases, or attempting to solve a hypothetical dilemma. Have you got the picture in your mind? Then, as the task phase finishes, the teacher-monitor takes the opportunity to wrap things up, reviewing and clarifying the language learners have been using. Helping to smooth out the rough patches. So students work with language and use their interlanguage in the process, but not for its own sake--the end result is the motivating factor, and the sense of accomplishment when the task cycle has finished naturally leads to increased confidence, which is almost never a bad thing.

On the other hand, as my very thoughtful classmate David remarked, task-based teaching doesn’t always conform to that ideal scenario. “I wish there was a troubleshooting manual for this stuff!” was how he put it. In my own experience, a task-gone-wrong can be discouraging, but that’s still vastly preferable to the opposite scenario: me standing by the chalkboard (how I’d love to have a “magic board”) with my pointer, calling on junior high school age students individually (most would rather die than volunteer) and waiting patiently (awkwardly) for the answer that may or may not be forthcoming. Give me the swarming hub of action any day! And, as Jane Willis, the lovely Task-Mistress, says, this kind of teaching is flexible. Textbooks can be adapted by teachers to be more task-like by adding supplemental “mini-tasks” and designing outcomes. There is a standard task framework for those practitioners who want or need the scaffolding, but it is the spirit of task-based teaching and learning that’s important, so I’ll close with the same words that I used to introduce this approach in its TESOL context: motivation, meaning, engagement, and outcome. These are the all-important factors that give L2 learners the impetus to continue, to push forward, to move toward rather than away from the language they are attempting to acquire.

Mechanics and Organics: The Power of Output (Class Eight)

Last week, inspired by Levelt’s language acquisition model, I wrote about the tension between complexity, accuracy, and fluency experienced by second language learners, and about Peter Skehan’s proposition to include lexis in the trio of characteristics of a competent speaker. The topic of this week’s class with Dr. Jim was practice, and two of the three articles we read dealt with the role of output and interaction in second language acquisition. The Levelt model  of speech that I am still enamoured of re-appeared in an article by Tohoku Gakuin University’s Hitoshi Muranoi, and I will paste the model here once again for reference: recall the different roles of the Conceptualizer (conceives the utterance itself and processes it as a pre-verbal message), the Formulator (takes care of the grammatical and phonological encoding), and the Articulator (retrieves the utterance from the mind and transmits it into audible sounds). Like this:

Here's the Levelt model.

Here’s the Levelt model.

Now notice that the model is actually cyclical, with the spoken utterance (“overt speech”) proceeding to the “speech comprehension system”, and from there travelling as parsed speech straight back to the Conceptualizer. When I first saw the Levelt model, I assumed that the speech comprehension system belonged to a second participant–a

listener. But looking at it once again after yesterday’s class, I realized that no, the listener and speaker are one and the same in this model, and that’s the beauty of how it works. The speaker hears his own utterance, checks for meaning and grammatical accuracy–that’s the monitoring part–and if seems in some way incorrect, the

Willem Levelt: the man behind the model.

Willem Levelt

Conceptualizer will get back to work on re-formulating the message. Merril Swain calls that “noticing the hole” in one’s own language production. It makes perfect sense, and we do it unconsciously all the time even as native speakers, especially when faced with the challenge of putting something very difficult or delicate into words. It doesn’t sound right to us or isn’t clear enough; we stop mid-sentence, go back and try again, creating a cycle in which output influences input. I must be getting academic-nerdy, because I find that really cool.

So output influences input. By producing imperfect speech, language learners notice the holes in their own interlanguage (that special imperfect and constantly changing working model of the language being acquired) but they can’t yet do the repair work. That’s where interaction comes in. Perhaps the learner’s interlocutor (speech partner) is a native speaker, and consciously or unconsciously happens to use just the phrase that the learner has been struggling to produce. “Aha! That’s it!” says the learner to himself, assiduously comparing the correct version to his or her own imperfect one and plotting to produce the phrase correctly next time, gosh darn it. If context allows, the highly-motivated learner will bring the conversation to a screeching halt and try out the new phrase then and there, hopefully meeting with encouragement and kind words from the patient interlocutor. This, of course, is called “noticing the gap” (Schmidt, 1990), and the process is known as cognitive comparison.

 Now let’s look at another model, designed by H. Douglas Brown, Professor Emeritus at San Francisco and the author of Teaching by Principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy. Are you ready? Here it is, and there’s a world of difference:

And here’s what the author, Brown, has to say about his eco-model:

One day, in a rebellious moment of simultaneous frustration and inspiration, I was moved in a second language acquisition class I was teaching to create a different “picture” of language acquisition: one that responded not so much to rules of logic, mathmatics, and physics as to botany and ecology… a burst of wild, artistic energy, I went out on a limb to extend the flower-seed metaphor to language acquisition. (from a book chapter published as part of the Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics in 1993)

H. Douglas Brown

I’m sure that Brown’s students thought their teacher was awesome and inspired. And before I proceed any further, I’m not ashamed to admit that I too have a soft spot for this kind of model: it’s warm and nurturing, it’s visually appealing, and it’s more “likeable” than a flow chart featuring boxes with names that sound like cold, linguistic super-hero robots: Formulator smashes Conceptualizer! Articulator crushes Audition! Lexicon caught in the middle! Brown’s model, on the other hand, is mellow and groovy.

But as much as the organic model appeals to my sense of aesthetics, it’s flawed for me, because, unlike the Levelt model, it’s not cyclical. Although this was a language acquisition model and Levelt’s was a model of speech production, I would argue that both the act of speaking and the act of acquiring language are cyclical in nature.

According to Levelt, learners’ own output influences their input, and vice-versa. According to Brown, the seeds of language acquisition are sowed, watered, nurtured (and all those details are all right on the mark), and finally bear the “Fruit of Performance”, or output. What’s missing is that the leaves and fruits on the “Output Tree” need to fall to the ground, turn to compost, feed the roots of the tree, and produce still more output. That could easily be taken care of by drawing a big old compost pile off to the right of the tree, but then what about the role of interaction in language acquisition? It appears that learner’s “production” doesn’t really mature until the end of the natural cycle, with no representation of interaction along the way or of attempts to use language imperfectly (hypothesizing how language works). I tried to think of how to re-work the model to include interaction, but the best I could do was to envision a flock of birds sitting on the tree branches, doing their best to act as interlocutors and spurring the buds on to full bloom. Aviary-locutors, in constant motion.

Six short months ago, I might have been satisfied with the Brown model, so I guess that my education is progressing. That’s a good feeling: I found something cool on the internet, scrutinized it, compared it with the theories I’m learning and with another model, and found it sadly lacking. Although it’s not groovy, the Levelt model still comes out on top for me because it works so brilliantly, even as a model of first language acquisition. A bit of searching on the side reveals that it has been re-designed by Kees de Bott as a model for bilingual speakers….and I think I just may have found a good article to review in a future post. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading!

Applied Linguists and Captive Frogs (Class seven)

Yesterday’s class marked the exit of the Ear Book ( too soon! ) and the end of the listening half of Dr. Jim’s course. It also marked the abrupt entrance of the trio Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency, featuring three lengthy academic articles kicking off the speaking half of the course. Many of us were mentally unprepared for the switch, since we had spent the weekend studying for the Ear Book midterm exam rather than reading the articles. Half the class time was devoted to the test and the other half to article discussion, but since most of us had not been heroic enough to sacrifice our midterm test grade and wade through the readings, question time was short and sweet, and discussion nearly non-existent. I left class in a daze, telling myself I would read at least one of the three articles as penance, and write it up for my blog post. So now I’m bound to keep my word, and I’ve deliberately chosen the most formidable of the three: a 23 page treatise by Peter Skehan called “Modelling Second Language Performance: Integrating Complexity, Accuracy, Fluency, and Lexis”.

I'm really a famous applied linguist.

I’m really a famous applied linguist.

It’s not a catchy title and there is not a single picture in the article, which features page-long paragraphs and terms like “complexification”. The unwavering seriousness of the paper, in fact, led me on a short search, scouring the internet for photos or videos of Skehan which might reveal something about the man behind the scholar. What I came up with was this: a single video, filmed last year at the University of London, in which Peter Skehan tells a joke aobut a voluptuous blonde and a frog. He says it’s the only joke he knows, and it turns out to be an applied linguistics joke. First one I’d ever heard, and I won’t spoil it for you–take a listen for yourself, here.

Alright, now I will get down to business and wrestle this article into submission.

The article deals with the tension between three aspects of speaking performance that are constantly competing for L2 learners’ attention and straining their cognitive resources: accuracy, fluency, and complexity. Accuracy, of course, refers to correct and error-free speech. Fluency refers to smoothness, flow, and ease of communication, and complexity refers to “advanced language”. The Trade-Off Hypothesis ( Skehan’s own hypothesis, which he defends in this paper ) states that L2 learners are severely taxed ( stressed, burdened, ) by the demands of these three competing processes, and find it difficult to perform well in all three areas simultaneously. This makes sense. All three areas require attention, and when learners are focusing intently on any one of the areas, their performance in the other two may suffer as a consequence.  For instance, as a Japanese speaker, my grammar is fairly accurate and I can talk a mile a minute, but I also recognize that my general use of the language is not as complex as that of adult native Japanese speakers. If I aimed for complexity, I can easily imagine both my accuracy and my fluency suffering, along with my good humor and patience. In another often-quoted example, many serious Japanese students are sabotaged by their determination to speak accurately and to use complex words and phrases from their textbooks, leading to stop-and-start dysfluent speech.

So we’ve established the problem of tension. There are other problems going on in this article, including a rival hypothesis (which I will not touch on here) and a rival academic who apparently referred to the Trade-Off Hypothesis as “vacuous”. Aside from these two hints of drama, this is a straightforward article, intending to better define the ongoing complexity-accuracy-fluency challenge, and to re-introduce a first language acquisition model, re-interpreted by Skehan for second language learners. Skehan proposes early on, in fact, that the complexity-accuracy-fluency trio should expand to a quartet, including lexis as a fourth aspect. Although this seems unnecessary, since Skehan himself has defined complexity as “advanced language”, he argues that second language learners could benefit from considering complexity in two parts, structure and lexis. In other words, he proposes redefining the performance aspects as complexity (of structure), accuracy, fluency, and lexis (complex or low-frequency words). This, he argues, is necessary because while native speakers who use “big words” are usually masters of grammar (the two correlate), the same is not true for second language speakers. Like the serious Japanese students previously mentioned, many L2 learners who attempt to use difficult words find their grammar derailed in the process. No-one wants their grammar train to be derailed, and if a greater focus on vocabulary in general (both low and high frequency words) can free up the speaker’s resources to attend more closely to accuracy and fluency, then I have no quarrel with Skehan on this point.

Along with complexity, the concept of fluency should also be re-examined, says Skehan. And here I will include a link to something fun that arrived in my mailbox the other day from my friend Jase Levine, known as “Fluency MC”. Click on it to learn from 34 practitioners, materials developers, teacher trainers, and SLA researchers about fluency and how it can best be achieved. You’ll see that the concept of fluency is not so easily defined, and that even the experts disagree about how to become fluent. In this particular article, Skehan is interested in speech pauses (one of the most common dysfluencies), and presents evidence from his past publications showing that not only do non-native speakers pause more mid-speech, but that they pause in different places than native speakers. While native speakers naturally pause at the boundaries between clauses, L2 speakers also pause within clauses. As Skehan says, they “seem to have pauses thrust upon them” rather than initiating the pauses themselves. Interesting, eh? His point is that there are many dimensions to the aspect of fluency, and we should take care to define the concept itself thoughtfully and thoroughly. I won’t argue there, either.

As I mentioned before, this was a long and complexified article; what I did not mention was that it led to the discovery of model of language production that I’d been unaware of: The Levelt Model of first language speaking, proposed by Willem Levelt in 1989. Here’s the model, featuring the three super-heros Conceptualizer, Formulator, and Articulator.

Here's the Levelt model.

Here’s the Levelt model.

As you can see, according to Levelt, the Conceptualizer is where the language process starts, as the speaker’s message is generated. The Formulator is the “surface” of language production, where the grammar is put together (encoded) and prepared to be phonetically implemented. The Articulator, of course, is the hero who gets to actually “speak” and send the message off to be processed by the listener.

Skehan uses Levelt’s model as a means of elucidating his CAF (or CALF if you include Lexis) findings. The model, he reminds readers, was intended to represent first language acquisition, with the Conceptualizer and the Formulator engaged in parallel processing of language. However, the model ceases to function in the same way for L2 learners, since smooth simultaneous processing is hindered by those pesky cognitive demands that speaking in a second language involves. Let’s see if I can break it down into plain language using aspects of task-based learning, since that is the paradigm that Skehan promotes. Here goes:

Learners: Help, help! We have a task! We have to plan! This stuff is abstract, and the information keeps changing! We can’t deal with all the information!

Skehan’s advice: Buck up! You are dealing with complexity. Your Conceptualizers are stressed.

Learners: Help, help! We can’t remember all these big words! And we have to use them–there’s no choice!

Skehan’s advice: Well, well, now. Your Formulators are experiencing some pressure. Try to be patient.

Learners: Heeeelp! We’ve got to finish this task in five minutes! And there’s SO MUCH! And there are no fun conversations!

Skehan: Aaah, well, that would be pressure on your Formulators again. Let’s see what we can do about this….


And then Skehan offers practical advice. Here’s what can be done when learners’ Conceptualizers are under strain, and when their Formulators cease to formulate smoothly. To begin with, the goal is to decrease pressure on both the Conceptualizer (the Information Guy, whose job is to prime the Formulator so that lexis can be more easily retrieved) and the Formulator (the Planner, who accesses the words and generates the message to be articulated). A clever teacher can arrange and adjuste learners’ tasks to ease the burdens of both. To placate the Conceptualizer, then, design tasks with concrete, static information--less is more. And keep it simple, so the learner feels grounded rather than overwhelmed. For the Formulator, Skehan suggests that teachers do the basic planning so that students can limit their focus to the task itself. Dialogs, he says, are less overwhelming than monologues. With these two factors addressed, Skehan proposes that the Formulator will be able to access difficult lexis more efficiently. Lastly, the Formulator is concerned with syntax–which means grammar–which refers to the Accuracy component of the troubled CAF trio (or the quarrelling quartet if you include Lexis). Here the task-based solution would be rehearsals. And tight structure. Lastly, more dialogues and a post-task activity will allow students to polish what they have learned in the task, thus improving their accuracy.

Well. Since this is a blog post and not a literature review,  I can now bring this entry to a close in all good conscience. This is not the entirety of Skehan’s message, or even the essence of his message in a nutshell; it’s what I personally gleaned from the article, and what I hope might be interesting and inspiring to others. And if any of you reading are considering a graduate degree in TESOL, I urge you not to be afraid of Peter Skehan and his page-long paragraphs. Dig right in, break down the academic vocabulary, and find the heart of the ideas. It’ll be worth your time.

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