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Archive for the tag “EFL”

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.

Insight on the Listening Process from John Field: article review

Article title: An insight into listeners’ problems: too much bottom-up or too much top-down?

JournalSystem 32 (2004)

Author: John Field, professor at University of Leeds, UK. Teaches psycholinguistics, child language, and English grammar. His widely-used textbook, Listening in the Language Classroom, won the Ben Warren International House Trust Prize. A teacher trainer, materials writer, and syllabus designer as well as practitioner, Field travels widely lecturing on L2 listening.

Doi: 10.1016/j.system.2004.05.002

Type of Study: Empirical study based on observations gleaned from an analysis of three related experiments.

Purpose: To clarify the relationship between L2 listeners’ use of top-down and bottom-up listening strategies.

Research questions:  1) If top-down and bottom-up information are in apparent conflict, which one prevails? and 2) How do learners deal with new items of vocabulary when they crop up in a listening passage?

Procedure: 47 NNS students from a leading British EFL school were given listening tests in a classroom with good acoustics. The tests were designed to reveal learners’ listening strategies by presenting them with a series of problematic items, forcing them to choose between semantics (representing top-down listening strategy) or phonology (representing bottom-up). Each test was slightly different, and designed to explore different aspects of the research questions.

Results: The experiments produced both expected and unexpected results. Fields found that L2 learners often do re-interpret or misinterpret words to fit their own schema (relying on top-down, rather than bottom up processing), but also that they accurately perceive other words by relying on the onset sound. Lastly, he found that learners rely on a third strategy as well, which he calls a “lexical strategy”; in this case, learners bypass the top-down strategy in favor of matching an unknown word with a similar-sounding familiar word, regardless of the word’s semantic appropriateness.

My thoughts: First, let me pat myself on the back for choosing such a brilliant and easily comprehensible article to review. Now, let me see if I can elaborate a bit on the design, and its simple elegance.

Field begins with a history of the opposing views of bottom-up-influence versus top-down-influence proponents; midway into the discussion, in a section labeled “The legacy of scripted materials“, he points out an interesting connection that I hadn’t realized before: many L2 learners have developed an expectation of understanding everything in the text, since listening materials have traditionally been heavily scripted (contrived for the learner’s benefit, rather than reflecting natural spoken language) and graded according to level. Think about that: understanding everything in the text. That means doing the kind of precise and accurate bottom-up processing that is almost impossible for L2 listeners to do in a real-world context. Is it any wonder, then, that some learners panic when they’re exposed to the unpredictability of real conversation occurring at normal speed? Since the EFL world has become more “communicative”, learners must now rely more heavily on their top-down processing skills to hypothesize and compensate for the bits of language that they cannot fully process in the speech stream in real time. So while many scholars insist that L2 learners cannot focus on semantics when they’re unable to catch sounds and segment them into words, other scholars–such as Long (1989) and Field himself (1997)– counter that learners’ top-down processing ability is exactly what enables them to make sense of what they hear. This ability (they say) is what provides the support necessary to compensate for L2 learners’ imperfect decoding skills.

Moving on to the experiments themselves, I’ll briefly explain the design:

The first experiment: This test consisted of groups of four to six high-frequency words likely to be familiar to the learners ( all high elementary or low intermediate level). Sometimes the words all belonged to the same lexical field (for example, desk, chair, lamp, computer), and sometimes only the two last words had a semantic connection (e.g. sunny, excited, bumpy, hot, cold). For the target items, Field changed the onset of the last word only, making a similar word which “didn’t fit” semantically (i.e. sunny, elegant, bumpy, hot, bold). Foils, or examples where the last words were not changed, were mixed in, giving learners examples of target patterns. Fields wanted to see whether what learners expected to hear would override what they actually heard. And what he found was…….the opposite! Out of 18 example sets, listeners only “re-interpreted” one answer to fit their expectations. Well, now, that’s discouraging if you thought you had a good case in favor of top-down processing skills. Field, however, re-assessed his test design and found an important flaw: he had chosen to change the onset–rather than middle or the offset of the target words. Native speakers attach great importance to the initial sound of words, and Field (cheerfully?) proclaims that this in itself is an interesting result, since it clearly shows that L2 speakers also pay great attention to the onset of words, to their obvious advantage.

John Field

John Field

As an aside, I do hypothesize that John Field is a cheerful person. I listened to a podcast of him speaking about his reception of a prestigious award; he describes himself as “gobsmacked” upon hearing the news, which I take to mean pleased and surprised. The surprise implies a very appealing modesty and genuineness. I wouldn’t mind having tea (or a beer?) with him.

So, on to the second experiment, which produced more expected, but this time positive results. This next test consisted of semantically constrained sentences marked by “acceptable but unpredictable” final words. For instance, “I couldn’t listen to the radio because of the XXX”. One might expect an appropriate answer to be noise, but the actual spoken answer is boys. Again, Field was curious to see whether learners would choose a more predictable answer over the what they actually heard, which was less appropriate or expected. This time, results showed that words in seven out of the twenty items were substitutions of “expected” words rather than the words listeners actually heard. But once again, there were unexpected results as well: an analysis of the words chosen showed that test takers tended to change to a word whose onset was similar to the target word (for instance, Field predicted that noise would be the preferred choice in the previous example about listening to the radio; learners, however, preferred to substitute voice, which shares a similar labial onset sound). Aha–further evidence of the importance of onset sounds, concluded Field.

Finally, on to the last and most interesting experiment. This time, subjects were presented with a sentence designed to provide a meaningful context for the very last word….which was a potentially unknown low-frequency lexical item. For instance….”They’re lazy in that office; they like to shirk“. Field hypothesized that learners might be tempted to substitute a more familiar and phonetically similar word, even if the context didn’t fit. In the case of the office question, learners might choose work, a word that didn’t necessarily make sense, but that sounded similar and was associated with offices.

So what happened? Well, as Field reports, “results were striking”. He found that 33.31% of the listeners did not accept the acoustic evidence of unfamiliar words, instead deciding on familiar and phonetically similar ones that often had very little connection with the sentence context. Eliminating those listeners who left questions blank, the number went up to 42.39%. Again, words that learners chose were often not those that Field had predicted. And not only did learners often choose semantically inappropriate words, but they sometimes chose words from different word classes! The trend, he found, did not vary according to individual either, as only one of the forty-seven subjects did not use this strategy at least once. And learners chose to match heard words with known words in each of the 20 test questions. There was no case of a question where a learner had not used this particular strategy. A significant result, right?

It all depends on how you look at it. Field admits that if the data for the third test (not adjusting for those who left questions blank) were to be calculated, it would show that learners’ choice of inappropriate words was not statistically significant (i.e. it was little better than chance) by quantitative standards. But, as he makes clear, such a pronouncement does not take into account “the most striking fact about the figure–that it was achieved despite the evidence of the listener’s ears and, in many cases, to the evidence of the contrary”. Learners, it seems, can sometimes ignore both top-down (the logical contextual choice) and bottom-up (the word as heard phonetically) evidence when faced with a difficult unknown lexical item. The tendency to substitute a known for an unknown word, then, is an entirely different phenomenon which he calls a lexical strategy.

In the end, Field provides insights rather than answers, and that, for me, is the beauty of this article. He hypothesizes, considers his results accurately and honestly, revises and expands his ideas, and finally sheds some real light on the process of listening for L2 learners. A must-read for all TESOL students and language EFL/ESL practitioners, Field’s article is also an interesting and accessible read for language lovers in general. Treat yourself to an enjoyable afternoon with John Field, and you’ll come away a little wiser.

 

Multilingual Education : an open access journal

Multilingual Education photoWhile doing research for a paper in an entirely different class, I stumbled upon this journal; it’s available for perusal at www.multilingual-education.com  and well worth checking out. It’s published by Springer as one of their many “open journals”; as such, it’s freely accessible to the public with no charge to read or download articles and no registration necessary to use the site. Instead, the journal runs on a “reverse business model”, with researchers paying a rather steep fee to have their articles published. The fee, it says, may be waived for researchers based in low-income countries, and is usually footed by academic institutions or private sponsors. Articles are peer-reviewed and must meet rigorous publication standards. It’s been published since 2011 and contains 5 issues with 33 articles.

andy-kirkpatrick

A. Kirkpatrick

I’d certainly like to meet the Editor-in-Chief, Andy Kirkpatrick, a Professor of Linguistics at Griffith University in Australia. His areas of specialty are World Englishes (particularly Asian varieties) , English as a Lingua Franca, and contrastive Chinese-English discourse and pragmatics. In 2011, he, along with Merrill Swain and Jim Cummins, authored a book entitled How to Have a Guilt-Free Life. Using Cantonese in the English Classroom.  He has an amazing and prolific beard.

The Co-Editor, Bob Adamson, head of the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning at the Hong Kong Institution of Education, has an impressive list of honors and publications. Sure, I’d like to meet him too, especially since he’s written fifty-plus English textbooks for primary and secondary schools in China. Writers of childrens’ textbooks are bound to be good conversationalists. Some of his interests include Comparative Education and Curriculum Studies.

Here’s their mission statement:

Multilingual Education is a high-quality journal that publishes empirical research on education in multilingual societies. The journal publishes research findings that in addition to providing descriptions of language learning, development and use in language contact and multilingual contexts, will shape language education policy and practices in multilingual societies. Multilingual Education is highly relevant to researchers in language and education, language education professionals, and policy makers.

Who would this journal appeal to? In my opinion, a wide variety of people. As the mission statement makes clear, the articles published are empirical research, reflecting both qualitative and quantitative studies. However, an evening spent skimming through a variety of articles revealed that many of them would be approachable and appealing to academics outside the field of applied linguistics, and potentially to non-academic readers as well. Since education is a broad field encompassing sociocultural as well as academic issues, ethnographers, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians (or those with a general interest in any of those fields) would enjoy dipping into any one of the papers available for perusal. Geographers, too, might find this journal of interest; because the publication fee is waived for researchers from low-income countries, studies from places like South Sudan, Uganda, and Bangladesh are featured, which certainly whets my curiousity. One can travel to Paraguay, to Ghana, to Luxembourg, or Kenya, and get a glimpse of the context in which English is taught around the world. Since many of the studies are qualitative, readers can get an in-depth picture of the culture from scholars and practitioners living abroad doing longitudinal studies.

What I’d like to read: Hmmmm. I’ve skimmed quite a few already, and am using one for a paper in my curriculum class. I certainly can’t resist a paper entitled Emotion-Based Language Instruction (EBLI) as a new perspective in bilingual education, co-authored by Bob Adamson, the journal editor. In this widely-viewed article, the authors propose a new approach to bilingual education based on the emotional qualities that learners bring from their L1 experience; Adamson’s unabashedly humanistic approach is based on the ideas of Stanley Greenspan, famous for a “floor time” therapy approach to treating children with autism spectrum disorders. I also wouldn’t mind digging into Marching is for soldiers: Russian-born Buriat children in a Chinese bilingual school, an ethnographic study focusing on the tension experienced by Buriat Mongolian children being schooled in a school system reflecting Han Chinese ideology. This longitudinal study, supported by data from interviews, casual conversations, and questionnaires, is packed with historical and geographic detail and looks to be a great read.  

Highly relevant empirical research with a global focus, and it’s all open access; why would I not recommend this journal? Check it out for yourself!

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…..in 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.

Pragmatics and Identity: Problems in Assessment (Class six)

Dr. Jim’s speaking and listening class covered two full chapters of the Ear book this evening; discussion time was generally lively–sometimes bordering on boisterous but never actually crossing that delicate line–and marked by moments of enlightenment, when some concept was either finally understood or found to bear some personal meaning for one of the group. Tonight “my group” was Chunmei ( from Taiwan ), Alan ( from China ), Yae ( from England and Japan ) , Tokiko ( from Japan ) and me ( from the U.S. ).  Hiroko ( in the picture below ) was in the group at the next table, but I wanted to show her bright smile here anyway.

Chunmei and Hiroko keep discussion lively in Dr. Jim's class.

Chunmei and Hiroko keep discussion lively in Dr. Jim’s class.

We had been plowing through different listening-related concepts and negotiating for meaning with mixed success, when near the end of class we hit on an interesting phenomenon that was directly related to the topic of the hour: assessment.

I’d like to elaborate on the interesting conversation that ensued, but first, let me activate your schemata and talk a little bit about assessment. We encounter it on a daily basis: our health is assessed by doctors, our cars are assessed by mechanics, our financial situation is assessed by city officials ( who will tax us accordingly ), our skin type is assessed by flawlessly groomed saleswomen ( who will sell us the appropriate beauty cream ), situations are assessed, damages are assessed, our personalities are assessed,  and so on. Assessment can be objective ( hopefully your doctor will do a thorough and professional examination before he pronounces you either ill or  healthy ) or highly subjective ( say you poke your head into a restaurant, assess the atmosphere, and quickly decide it’s not for you, based on the feel of the place ), and either method of assessment can be valid, depending on the context.

So let’s talk about assessing second language learners, and why it’s such a tricky business. First of all, assessment involves judgement, and judgement implies consequences. The results of high stakes tests  ( such as SAT and GRE exams, or TOEFL and TOEIC exams )  can decide learners’ educational or career paths, and the fair and accurate assessment of the exams is a huge–I would say grave–responsibility. At least once a year in Japan, there is a testing scandal involving students who actually pass their high school or college entrance exams, but are denied admittance. After the fact, it is discovered that the tests results had been wrongly calculated ( and the average listener never learns whether this was an accident or a deliberate mistake ), apologies are extended, and appropriate punishment is meted out. Again, the average listener never learns what happened to the ill-fated student in the end.  I always wonder where they end up, and what kind of emotional baggage they’re saddled with as a result of the “mistake”.

Outright mistakes in assessment–whether deliberate or otherwise–are one thing, but the assessment tool itself ( in most cases, a test ) must be valid for it to be an accurate reflection of the learner’s proficiency. Some believe that no test can ever accurately measure a language learner’s ability. Lee Cronback, known as the “Father of Construct Validity” argued that this was the case. Still, in most formal learning situations, learners must be assessed, and tests must be both valid ( defined as accurately measuring what they purport to measure ) and reliable— ( defined by fair and consistent testing conditions )— or at least as valid and reliable as possible. The tests that Japanese learners are most familiar with are called criterion-referenced: this means that certain scores are equated with certain standards of proficiency or behavior in the subject matter being tested. For instance, a learner who scores in the 9th band ( top  level ) of the International English Language Testing System is one who “has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.”  

Think about those four components ( appropriateness, accuracy, fluency, and understanding ) and what they mean for a second language learner. Accuracy, understanding, and fluency are, to me, are more straightforward than appropriateness, since the latter involves pragmatics, which is never straightforward. Some who define fluency as not just speed and facility of production but as “natural use of language” also include an element of pragmatics there as well. Here is where the class became interesting, as our group exchanged stories and gave some thought to the issue of pragmatics and assessment.

The first story that surfaced was my own, and here it is. Eight years ago, I received a call from a friend who had a part-time job with a testing company ( to my dismay, I cannot remember the name of his employer, but perhaps that’s for the best ). His mission was to track down Japanese speakers who would potentially fit the “top band” of his company’s speaking proficiency standard chart, interview them, and submit the results for assessment. The company was in the process of re-evaluating their standards and looking to see if, in fact, those standards were realistic for Japan. “How about your husband? Do you think he’s proficient enough? Would he do an interview?” my friend asked me with some hesitation. “Well, sure!” I said confidently, with all the faith in the world that my clever husband would ace the interview. My husband, one of those rare people who likes tests, was immediately agreeable, and the three of us met at my school on the appointed day.

The first half of the test went smoothly, as the questions were fairly innocuous. My husband was in his element, speaking confidently and accurately, and I was sure he’d pass with flying colors. My clever husband, and clever me, to have found and married such a clever man!  But then–but then–my friend the tester threw a curve ball. “Here’s the situation,” he said. “I’m your co-worker and friend, and I have a smoking problem. It really bothers you. I want you to convince me to stop smoking.” And everything fell apart. My husband is Japanese. Smoking was still not politically incorrect eight years ago in Japan, and even if it had been, one’s habits in this country are one’s own business. The workplace is not where men have heart-to-heart talks about alcohol or smoking habits. Most men here don’t have those talks anyway! I knew instinctively that things were not going to go well with this question, and I was dead right. My husband very compliantly said a few words, smiled, and dropped the ball. “No, no! Pick it up again! Don’t stop there, be persuasive!!” I thought, burning inside.

The interviewer was encouraging: “Oh, you can come at me stronger than that! The smoking really bothers you–come on!” But to no avail. At that point, my husband capitulated completely, proposing ( while still smiling politely ) that if the smoker really wanted to smoke it was okay, and he wouldn’t bother him anymore. And that was that. The interview ended, we ate a box of donuts together, and talked about our respective families. My friend called some weeks later to report that my husband had not fit the criteria for the top band of proficiency. And it was because of the smoking question. “He just didn’t use the language like a native speaker,” was the way my friend explained it.  As I understood it, then, he didn’t use his English appropriately.

And yet the problem was not my husband’s English skill. The problem was that he was put in the uncomfortable position of engaging in a culturally unnatural and unfamiliar type of discourse. He was sideswiped by his cultural identity rather than his lack of vocabulary, fluency, or comprehension. Literally left tongue-tied. Too bad, I say, but at least the situation was voluntary, with no “high stakes” involved. Not counting, of course, my husband’s pride and my own high expectations.

As soon as I had finished my story, Chunmei chimed in with her own. “I can never get my students to do role plays about smoking, either!” she exclaimed. “I ask them to persuade me to stop smoking and they clam right up and give me a funny look!” We then agreed that skipping the role play ( the book lesson ) and getting students involved in a discussion about the topic would be much more valuable. And we wondered about pragmatics and assessment.

In the case of my husband, meeting the criteria for a “top level of proficiency” required him to behave in a decidedly un-Japanese way. He was judged to be a non-native level English language speaker because his reactions were Japanese. And this, of course, is the heart of the matter: is such a language proficiency assessment valid? Recall the IELTS Band 9 criteria: appropriateness, accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Again, “appropriateness” is the tricky component, and ( according to my friend ) it was a component of the test my husband took as well.  As I see it, his approach to the smoking question was perfectly appropriate within his own culture. The interviewer did not specifically say, “You’re in the U.S. Address this situation like an American!” Of course, if he had, it might not have made much difference in my husband’s answer, but at least the expectation or the context might have been clearer. And perhaps, given the ambiguity of the question and the informality of the interview in general, the problem was one of reliability rather than validity.

The Ear Book (chapter 10 ) presents a chart of assessment models that I found both interesting and enlightening. Specifically, Rost gives a visual overview of criteria for assessment according to the purpose of second language learning ( EFL vs ESL vs English for Young Learners vs English as a Lingua Franca ). According to this chart, my husband could probably get top scores in an assessment of English as a Lingua Franca, since this is the only category that specifies “expected to maintain national identity through English”. Still, if not for the pragmatic component, I believe he would qualify as a top-level speaker in an ESL assessment as well.

So what’s the moral of the story? I really don’t know. I consider my husband a native-level English speaker, but that’s my own subjective assessment. In the long run, I’m engaged in an ongoing attempt to understand the delicate balance between mastering a second language ( which means tackling the pragmatics and taking on a new identity ) and retaining the foundations of one’s own cultural identity at the same time. Happily, there’s no rush, because I think I’ll be busy with this one for some time to come.

Getting Intimate with Words (Class five)

“My child is only learning words–just words. How do I know that he or she is really learning to speak English?” I sometimes hear this concern from mothers of very young students in my private language school. Though it is hard not to feel defensive or anxious myself, I explain that their children are, in fact, doing their best to communicate in a manner that is appropriate to preschoolers. Their children know many words and chunks of language which they use to communicate in an abbreviated fashion, and this is normal. They are actually “speaking English” already. Most students will put their words together to form longer and more “correct” strings of language when they are developmentally ready, when they are motivated to do so, and when the timing is right. Some of them, unfortunately, will not. For now, they all know many, many words.

I am always patient and reassuring when dealing with parents, but sometimes what I really want to say is, “What do you mean, JUST WORDS?” Knowing words is a very big deal, and not just for me personally. In the field of linguistics, scholars have devoted their lives to and built their reputations on vocabulary acquisition research. Chapter eight of the Ear book contains a whole section on vocabulary and how absolutely essential it is for listening comprehension, so that will be the topic of today’s blog post: how knowing a word intimately can make you a better listener.

Let’s begin by considering the quantitative aspect of vocabulary acquisition: corpus linguistics studies show that to understand an everyday conversation, we need to know at least 3,000 word families. But on the other hand, and this is the most interesting part for TESOL students, there is the qualitative aspect: how deeply do you know those same words?  This is called depth of vocabulary knowledge, and it affects the saliency of words in our mind ( obviously, the deeper we know a word, the better it sticks ) and our ability to use them appropriately in their correct context ( pragmatics again ).

Let’s talk about knowing a word intimately. First, you need to recognize it when you hear it ( my four year old pre-readers are at this stage ). Some would even argue that true aural recognition would include hearing the word spoken in a variety of different accents. And then there is the problem of recognizing the same word as part of a spoken phrase, since issues like segmentation ( word boundaries ) and elision ( the omission of sounds ) come into play, adding to the learner’s already heavy cognitive load. A word may have an unfamiliar contracted version ( for instance “until” and “till” ) as well. And–just to make things trickier–there are plenty of homonyms: words with the same pronunciation but bearing a different meaning. Serious learners had better be familiar with those, too, or who knows what misunderstandings might ensue.

Enough of the aural challenges of knowing a word–let’s move onto recognizing it visually. Is that really so important for listening? I know that it is for me; there are many Japanese words that I know only “by sound”, never having seen them in writing, and I cannot seem to consistently catch them in conversation. As my friends and fellow students will tell you, I am a visually oriented person, and without seeing a word in print, it simply is not salient enough for me. While some learners might be satisfied with only an aural level of “knowing”, learners like myself realize that knowing the spelling of a word and recognizing it swiftly in print gives them a more solid foundation. And so, the formal study of spelling is part of most second language learners’ agendas. Certainly those receiving formal classroom instruction cannot avoid it.

In order to appreciate the challenge that L2 learners face, let’s begin by considering the problem of spelling from the native speaker’s perspective. While many native English speakers are actually poor spellers, they usually recognize in print the same words they cannot spell in an essay. Those native speakers who read widely as children often instinctively know how many words are spelled, simply from the hours of time spent in contact with the written language. Most second language learners, however, with no instinct to rely on or exposure to English books in their childhood, must wade into the muddy waters of orthography. Just how muddy are the waters? Look at the top half of the print below, which shows five different spelling combinations representing the same sound.

L2 learners struggle not just to spell words, but to recognize them in print. Learning words with similar spelling patterns together is one way of tackling the subject.

And then there are the aforementioned homonyms– words that sound alike but have different meanings–which must be mastered by explicitly learning the different spellings. Programs like Spellcheck or Autocorrect won’t help a learner make the right choice, since both words are spelled correctly and programs can’t advise one as to appropriateness. Those learners who are unperturbed when phonics rules don’t apply often learn to spell high frequency words fairly painlessly, and seeing similarly spelled words together in groups does help for many students. But the bottom line is hard work. As my talented former teaching assistant Satomi once told me, “I never got a bad grade on a spelling test. I knew how to get an A: just do the work and learn the words, that’s all. Grammar was another matter!”

And speaking of grammar, knowing a word’s grammatical function is part of knowing that word deeply. Second language learners explicitly learn not just content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs ) but the trickier function words ( those shorter bits of language that connect with content words to further clarify meaning ) as well.  Along with this comes word order, which is instinctively recognized by native speakers, but often different from the L2 learner’s own mother tongue. In short, it’s an exhaustive and often frustrating process to formally learn grammar…..but the benefits are undeniable, and they greatly ease the listener’s mental processing of speech. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell:  As the L2 learner listens, his or her brain busily constructs a rough grammatical framework ( as Rost explains it ) and fits the recognizable elements of speech into that framework, comparing them with semantic and morphological cues to establish meaning.  In cases where precise understanding is necessary, the brain will actually sort through individual heard utterances, sorting them into appropriate categories, dividing content and function words and checking for things like word order and subject-verb agreement. Of course, not everyone who speaks a second language has formally studied its grammar, and from what we’ve learned in class in the past five months, this is often reflected in their speech which, although communicative and comprehensible, is often riddled with errors. The point is that part of knowing a word is knowing its grammatical function, which allows us to both use the word correctly in speech and to identify and process it swiftly when we hear it.

And then there are collocations! What words frequently occur in combination with the target word, and is the second language learner able to recognize the same word when it’s embedded in chunk of language? Take the word “take”, which is my favorite example. Literally, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the most common meaning is “to lay hold of (something ) with one’s hands”. And then the fun starts, as students learn the million-and-one collocations that have nothing to do with the laying on of hands: take a bath, take a bus, take a test, take a trip, take a nap, take your time, take it easy, take a hike!, take care, take off, take in, take out, etc. etc. I was tempted to write “as students struggle to learn,” but actually, collocations don’t have to be a struggle. Of course, you can still buy serious books featuring exhaustive lists of collocations and idioms ( my Japanese husband bought plenty in his quest to master the English language ), but the world of online learning has other engaging and relevant resources for students who are motivated to search and teachers who are motivated to experiment with them in class. Collocations are chunks, they have rhythm and meaning, and the more you use them, the more salient they become. Take a listen to my friend Jase Levine ( a.k.a. Fluency MC ) who has literally made a career out of collocations. Students around the world find his chants highly motivating and just plain fun. It’s learning, Krashen-style: relax, enjoy, and acquire, rather than sweat and memorize.

So what else is there to knowing a word intimately? Learners should be aware of a word’s frequency in usage, especially in Asian countries where exam systems require students to memorize scores of very low-frequency academic words at the expense of “easier” but very high frequency ( i.e. commonly used ) words. Unless a learner has a specific need for difficult and rarely used vocabulary, they are better off spending their energy with the most frequently used words that will allow them to function communicatively outside of their own language community. Language students can now plug words into a corpus analysis tool and immediately see their frequency as well as their family and collocates. Like Fluency MC and his collo videos, corpus analysis tools are fun ( you’ll be mesmerized once you figure out how they work ) and useful, both for second language learners and native speakers as well. Here’s a screenshot of a lexical analysis of the first paragraph of this blog post.

All the words in blue are high frequency--that means reading my blog should be no sweat. : )

All the words in blue are high frequency–that means reading my blog should be no sweat. : )

The words in blue are all high frequency, found on the 1,000 most frequently used ( written, not spoken ) words list. Those in red occur so infrequently they are considered “off-list” words. Sometimes the results of an analysis can be surprising: apparently no-one writes about preschoolers? Maybe they write about pre-schoolers. : ) And no-one writes about “chunks”? No-one writes about timing? At any rate ( and most importantly ), this particular analysis shows that the words I’ve used in my blog are 89.7 % high frequency words, meaning that this post should be accessable to the average Joe, or even to a diligent second language student. I hope so. Analysis of spoken language is a still different matter, and even more relevant to the process of listening. Read about the compilation of a corpus of 100 million spoken words and its ongoing analysis here–it’s good stuff.

Let’s recap: to know a word intimately involves recognizing it aurally ( catching it in speech, in spite of accent or phonological variations ) and visually ( being able to read it automatically in spite of its seemingly irrational spelling ), knowing it’s syntactic function, its collocates, and the frequency of its use in both written or spoken language. There are also synonyms and antonyms, denotations and connotations ( slim has a more positive connotation than skinny, for instance ), and pragmatic restrictions. Many years ago, I remember our family wincing when my host sister Anja from Germany said matter-of-factly, “Give me the butter”–a direct translation from German, and not meant to be rude, but certainly not an acceptable use of “give” in a dinnertime context. We taught her, “Pass the salt, please,” laughed about it together, and she learned fast. All these aspects of vocabulary combine to form recognition vocabulary: words that are firmly ensconsed in the learner’s mental lexicon and easily accessed and processed in real time listening. 

So when students study a “word list”, remember the terms successfully, and score well on a test the next week, there’s a good chance that they haven’t learned the words at all. A post-test two weeks later would reveal that unless those words were used after the test in class, frequently and in a variety of meaningful ways, students would not be able to duplicate their former stellar scores. And even if they could, choosing correctly on a test shows that students recognize a word as it is used in that specific instance, not necessarily in other ( i.e. spontaneous communicative ) situations. Needless to say, because the word would not yet be salient enough, students might not recognize it in speech, either, no matter how clear their native teacher’s pronunciation might be. Got the point? Knowing a word intimately is no easy task, but discovering words in depth, rather than breadth, is also infinitely more rewarding than memorizing definitions.

You think your child is learning “just words” then? Think again. They’re building the framework for a house that will hopefully last a lifetime. Stop worrying!  Either lend a hand in the construction, or step out of the way and let them get to it.

The Drama of Semantic Processing (Class 3)

Dr. Jim’s–he said we can call him whatever we want– third class was about semantic processing. For me, it was all about the drama of everyday communication. For instance, you think you’re just chatting with a friend, but actually you’re uttering intonation units referring to either given information ( which you assume is currently active in the listener’s memory ) or new information ( which might in fact exist in the speaker’s working memory, but you assume is NOT currently active ). This is interesting, but not so amazing. What’s amazing is this: according to chapter 3 of the Ear Book, we signal whether information is given or new by using our voices, with rising tones signalling given, or background information, while falling tones signal new, or focal information. After testing this in class by attempting to tell Hiroko a story involving facts she knew ( about my daughter, Sumire ) and facts she didn’t yet know ( about my cousin Cathy ), both of us decided that if such tone variance exists, it must be extremely subtle, and difficult to consciously reproduce. Try it and you’ll agree.

Taking the subject of given and new information a bit further, we know, of course, that the speaker’s assumptions about what is or isn’t active in the listener’s memory are not always correct; this results in one of two equally frustrating situations. The first would be the speaker who laboriously and painfully explains every twist and turn of a story whose details you are actually quite familiar with ( unnecessary background information ). The other extreme would be the over-excited speaker, jabbering away at top speed and unaware that you lost the thread of the story a full five minutes ago ( unwarranted assumption of a familiarity with background information ). The lesson to be learned? Do not pontificate, do not babble, and do not charge full speed ahead without verifying that your assumptions about the listener’s degree of comprehension are correct. The well-mannered speaker is advised to confirm his own comprehensibility. I recommend pausing to ask, “Do I need to tell you this or are you up to speed?” or “Hey, buddy, your eyes are glazing over….are you following?” On the listening end, things might be facilitated by a bold-but-polite interruption: “Errrr….you told me that story last week, remember?” or “Whooooooah, Nellie! Slow down and back up to the part where your cousin ate what she shouldn’t have and All Hell Broke Loose. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!”

And since the topic of communication is far from exhausted, let’s continue with “types of understanding”, six of which are neatly analysed by Rost. From a linguistic point of view, it’s all about how our schemata match up. The best case scenario would be complete understanding ( the listener activates schema that are completely shared with the speaker ), and the worst would be not a “mis” understanding, but a non-understanding ( the listener cannot activate any schemata at all to understand the speaker ). A misunderstanding, then, is when there’s a mismatch between the listener’s and the speaker’s schemata. Here’s an example: before my husband and I were married, he took me on a trip to a resort town in Japan called Karuizawa. “It’s just like camping out in the forest!” he said confidently, sure that I would love it. My “camping” schemata activated, I pictured nothing but trees and worried that we did not have the proper gear. But no worries–when we arrived, I saw that Karuizawa was full of fashionable women in white tennis skirts, bars and restaurants, and even an amusement park! “Just like camping” for my husband meant that it was a cool, pleasant place to relax away from Tokyo. He had actually never been camping in the wild, and our schemata were wildly mismatched. 

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda in Karuizawa, 1959. (Photo from Sankei Archive)

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda in Karuizawa, 1959. (Photo from Sankei Archive)

There are also degrees of partial, plausible, and acceptable understanding, depending on how much overlap is shared by the speaker’s and the listener’s relative schemata, but let’s return to the state of complete understanding. We all have friendships where communication is so easy it’s like play; according to prototype theory as explained in the Ear Book, this is because we share common activation spaces in our memories. No two friends can share exactly the same schemata, but two friends who share similar world views can easily understand and empathize with each other because they share a similar neurological programming. And when the speaker’s words activate relevant knowledge in the listener’s memory, there’s actually a cognitive commitment involved, which produces an empathetic response and further connects speaker and listener. We don’t just listen to our best friends, we make a cognitive commitment, and I like that thought. 

As a matter of fact, some of my classmates are not so thrilled with all the detail in the Ear Book. I can understand why it makes some folks tear their hair, but so far I’m liking it. I enjoy picking things apart and breaking down concepts, and it looks to be a steady diet of this kind of reading until mid-book, when it gets “more practical for teachers”, according to Dr. Jim. The next chapter I’ll be writing about is on pragmatic processing, which looks to be pretty juicy. If it’s not, I’ll do my best to spice it up, so no worries. Good night, from the Godzilla Hotel in Tokyo (really! ).

Neural Committment, Perceptual Goodness, and Updating our Schemata (classes 1 and 2)

An hour or so of class discussion time didn’t really do justice to the first two chapters of Michael Rost’s Teaching and Researching Listening (which will be referred to from here on in as The Ear Book). At a recent JALT conference, I saw a teacher reading this text “for fun”–his own words– and I now understand why. It IS fun, not just because it’s extremely readable, but because it connects language acquisition theories and experiments with biology and neuroscience. Every TESOL student studies experiments related to critical or sensitive periods in language acquisition and discusses “plasticity”.  It’s interesting, then, to read about the process of neural commitment on page 23 of the Ear Book: 

As basic linguistic functions develop, they become confined to progressively smaller areas of neural tissue, a process called neural commitment. This leads to a beneficial increase in automaticity and speed of processing, but it also results inevitably in a decline in plasticity……It appears that the process of neural commitment leads to a neural separation between different languages in bilinguals and second language learners. The plasticity or neural flexibility required for language reorganization declines progressively through childhood and adolescence and may be the primary cause of some of the difficulties that adults face in second language learning.

What this means to me is that we do lose plasticity as we age, but hey, it’s a trade-off: we gain automaticity and speed (which means greater fluency). That’s pretty important, and actually a good consolation prize; whether the fluency referred to is in one’s mother tongue or in multiple languages, our brains are wired toward fluency, and decline in plasticity is simply an unfortunate result of that process. I also like the image of bilinguals’ different languages as being neurally separated ( like an obsessively neat person’s sock drawer, I imagine ). Mothers of my students would be relieved to know this, since many of them imagine English as something that will interfere with their child’s Japanese learning process ( imagine all the socks unballed and in a colorful mess in the drawer–that’s what they envision ). My husband and I are both late and successful second language learners who raised two fully bilingual children; between the four of us, we’ve had no trouble using either Japanese or English or mixing the two when necessary. The different language systems are firmly established in our minds; they don’t interfere with each other and they often combine to make for a more colorful style of communication.

On to chapter two of the Ear Book, which reveals that a linguist’s favorite snack is full of Perceptual Goodness. No, not really, but that’s the first thing I thought when I saw the phrase used on page 27: it sounds like a TV commercial. Actually, it refers to sound. I learned that phonemes have “identities” that clearly define them, as follows: “…..each individual phoneme of a language has a unique identity in terms of frequency ratios between the fundamental frequency of a sound…and the frequency of the sound in other harmonic ranges.” So, as I understand it, in pronouncing certain phonemes we are unconsciously manipulating sound frequencies. Although there’s a broad range of acceptable ratios between frequencies for each phoneme, if we move out of that range, the phoneme loses its identity (becomes unrecognizable or unintelligible). In other words? When a non-native speaker’s pronunciation is so far off that the listener can’t decode certain words, it’s a matter of mathematics. The ratio of the sound frequencies produced by the speaker is mismatched (not purposely, of course), and the listener must resort to guesswork or hypothesis (top-down processing) to comprehend what’s being said. It’s a very physical explanation for what defines phonemes and how we identify them. 

There are numerous blog-worthy topics detailed in chapters one to three of the Ear Book, but I particularly enjoyed thinking about Schemata. That’s one of those words that we’re familiar with, but perhaps in a fuzzy way. Well, no more fuzzy thinking now that I have Rost’s definition to work with. Here it is: “A schema is a figurative description for any set of simultaneously activated connections (related nodes) in the vast frontal cortex of the brain.” Schemata, then, refers to a set of “memory nodes” that are activated constantly as we attempt to understand the world around us, make decisions, and communicate with others. Read the morning newspaper? You’ve probably created a new schema by processing new facts and linking them together. Just met your new neighbor and exchanged greetings? In that short time, you’ve put a simple schema in place. Even more interesting is the fact that our existing schemata are constantly being undated as we read more, see more, hear more, experience more, and revise our former schema. In linguistic terms, this is being “parsimonius” (following the principle of Occam’s razor), since it is obviously a pain in the neck for your brain to be constantly creating entirely new schemata, and updating is much more efficient. I’m fairly certain that my mother-in-law is constantly updating her schemata in regards to me, her son’s American wife. And that is for the good, since her first schemata was rather alarming and not at all positive: the image of an American bride (she has since confessed to me) triggered fears of early divorce, wild and crazy spending, and greasy, unhealthy cooking. 

And that is enough reflection for now. I vow to not let my schemata get rusty, but to continue updating and creating nice shiny new ones.

 

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