Saturday, 17 September 2016

Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness

Learning new languages can be a source of unexpected pleasure. I don’t just mean the perhaps more familiar prospects that making sense of the languages will make sense of people and cultures that up to then had struck us as ‘odd’, or allow us to acquire, first-hand, knowledge and wisdom that we had no idea existed because we had no idea how to access the code that gives them voice. I also mean making sense of the languages as objects of discovery themselves, which goes well beyond the utilitarian purposes we’re commonly told we should learn languages for.

I mean the fun of cracking, bit by bit, on our own, the puzzles that languages are, as when we start asking ourselves questions like Can we say things this way? or How come there are words for this? Eventually, such ‘this’ questions lead to their ‘that’ counterparts – How about that way? Can there be words for that, too? Asking ‘that’ questions means that we’re ready to take ownership of our new languages, prompting us to attempt to answer these questions ourselves.

Exploring possibilities in this way is what learning is all about. Children do it – which may well explain why they are said to be expert language learners. Encouraging similar exploration among older learners, including of the mistakes that inevitably follow and that provide evidence of learning, would thus appear to assist language learning. H. G. Widdowson thought so, when he argued that “proficiency only comes with nonconformity” in The ownership of English, and so did Guy Cook in Language Play, Language Learning.

Yet learners’ attempts at putting their linguistic resourcefulness to good use in their learning are deemed inappropriate, as Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa discuss in Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Curtailing learner inventiveness in judgemental terms draws on two paradoxes. First, the framing of learners’ “linguistic practices as deficient regardless of how closely they follow supposed rules of appropriateness”, in Flores and Rosa’s words, that is, of how closely they follow ‘native speaker’ standards. And second, the predication of creativity on multilingualism while condemning multilingual creativity for not being monolingual.

We seem to want to find fault with features of language because finding fault with features of language users is not politically correct, as a previous post makes clear. Or not traditionally correct: a recent discussion at ResearchGate, on How advanced must L2 speakers be before native speakers accept their neologisms as acceptable rather than inaccurate?, highlights the focus of traditional language teaching on the languages and their mythical homogeneity, rather than on the learners. We keep confusing languages with textbook samples of them, on the conviction that what matters for language teaching and learning isn’t what matters to the learners, here and now, but what mattered to textbook creators, there and then.

Wanting to be taught language that matters to us, wondering about ‘this’ and ‘that’ questions in our new languages, and wanting to be allowed to find answers to them are signs of linguistic competence. Nancy Bell and Anne Pomerantz have researched these issues for the past two decades, pointing out the fictional nature of traditional language learning materials and encouraging the expansion of learner repertoires through active engagement with the languages. In their new book, Humor in the Classroom. A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers, they argue that understanding and producing language play is a good indicator of proficiency, too. They reject the contention that “humor and play have no place in the serious business of scholarship, let alone language education”, by revisiting misconceptions about “unconventional talk, particularly as they relate to how we understand language use, language learning, and language teaching in educational spaces.”

Addressing language learners’ linguistic resourcefulness in teaching materials, teaching methods and classroom practices might mean unlearning the modes and contents of what we’ve come to expect of traditional language teaching, for both instructors and learners. But I suspect there may well be unexpected sources of teaching and learning pleasure in starting to ask ‘that’ questions about our current language teaching philosophies, and looking for answers to them.

© MCF 2016

This will be my last regular post on this blog.
There are 160 posts for you to enjoy, on the blog’s core topics of
myths and misconceptions about being multilingual in the home, in school and in clinic.
Thank you for your reader support so far!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness

I met a Scandinavian couple the other day, who had visited Portugal countless times. They waxed lyrical about the country, its beauty, its history, its food, its people (I can, by the way, impartially confirm that their comments were spot on), and told me they would be moving there soon. Paperwork, housing and banking matters were all good to go, and they were delighted to have found a native who could answer their less bureaucratic questions.

“So when will you start learning Portuguese?”, I asked in turn. “Oh, no need for that!”, they waved me aside, “Everyone speaks English there”. They do?, I thought, wondering what everyone and English might mean, whenever anyone says what they’d just said. Okay, I went on thinking, so they’re aiming to make a home of Portugal’s beauty, history, food, and people in a language that is neither theirs nor the country’s. How will that work itself out?, I wanted to ask next but, before I could, they added: “Besides, we’re not good at languages.”

I must have mumbled something in response, and we probably went on talking about the marvels, the enrichment, etc. etc., afforded by travelling the world. I can’t remember. I’ve learned to switch to sociable autopilot after that line, one that I’ve heard countless times and as infinitely tried to counter, to null effect. The cumulative facts that I use more than the magical number of just two languages in my daily life and that I ‘work with languages’ apparently make me unsuitable to speak for the learning of new ones. “You’re gifted for languages”, people nod knowledgeably at me and, as far as they’re concerned, this compliment ends the argument.

Gift-wrapped language skills?
Image © Clipart Panda

The issue is, of course, that this is no compliment at all. It makes light of the tremendous amount of time, will, engagement, openness to input, readiness for practice that goes into learning any language, any time, whether we’re big or small. It tells me and other language learners that we’ve learned our languages because we were, literally, given something that we didn’t need to have merited to earn. It tells me and other believers in hard work that we should believe instead in easy handouts that we can’t help being awarded – or not awarded: the corollary of gift theories of learning is that some of us “are not good” at learning certain things, and can’t help it either. 

The issue is also that the gifted-for-languages reasoning is flawed. It says that in order to be able to learn languages we must be good at languages. So are we all gifted, since all of us are good at learning at least one language, or does linguistic giftedness apply only to multilinguals? In that case, the gift can only reveal itself after we’ve learned a couple of languages, since nobody is born using them. So was there a gift to start off with, or did we acquire language learning skills on the job? Are we talking nature or nurture?

Understand me right: I’m not denying giftedness. I’m saying that arguing that you can only learn to use new languages if you’re gifted for languages makes as much sense as arguing that you can only learn to use new smartphones if you’re gifted for smartphones. I can’t deny giftedness because the single most important thing I’ve learned from my 40+ years as a teacher is that we’re all gifted. The trick is to find where that gift lies, which is not necessarily where entitled education policy-makers keep telling us where to look. In order to be good at what we do, what we need to be given is the chance to develop what we’ve got. Francis Bacon dixit, in Novum Organon, 1: CXXI: “So again the seeds of things are of much latent virtue, and yet of no use except in their development”. Or, as Edward M. Hundert puts it in the last paragraph of his book Lessons from an Optical Illusion. On Nature and Nurture, Knowledge and Values, we must strive to “nurture that nature that has nurtured us”.

Let me leave you with two other nuggets of wisdom about learners and learning: Aristotle’s “Consuetudo est altera natura” (‘Habit is second nature’) and Quintilian’s “Consuetudo certissima est loquendi magistra” (‘Usage is the best language teacher’). Consuetudo is where we find the gift.

I’m sure that my new friends will enjoy living in Portugal – their way, with expat English among English-speaking Portuguese. They won’t notice, and I won’t tell them, what they’ll miss about Portugal’s consuetudines. Or about exploring unsuspected language learning skills, more on which next time.

© MCF 2016

Next post: Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness. Saturday 17th September 2016.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter
=Guest post=

Photo credit: Matt Thorsen
by Tim Brookes

Before I started the Endangered Alphabets project, I thought of myself as being multilingual: good French, decent German, solid Latin, tourist Spanish and Italian, toasts in Russian and obscenities in half a dozen languages.

Now, after seven years of carving the world’s most obscure and endangered writing systems, it’s clear what a novice I am. I just received a Facebook birthday card from a colleague who wrote in a dozen languages, most of them endangered. And my ethnocentricity has been challenged head-on by the fact that in doing more than 100 carvings in more than 30 different minority scripts I can now read precisely one word in a non-Latin script: the Balinese word suksma, meaning ‘thank you’.

The Balinese word “suksma” (‘thank you’).
Carved in cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Yet oddly enough my insular limitations have also been a strength in this ongoing project, or at least have offered me perspectives that might otherwise be hard to come by. My first exhibition of carvings, all of which featured Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in endangered writing systems, grew out of my stumbling upon Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. It was a revelation. I thought of myself as fairly well-traveled and widely-read, yet I’d never heard of probably 85% of the languages on Omniglot. And the texts themselves were all Greek to me – well, more than Greek, given that in many cases I couldn’t pronounce a single glyph or understand a single word-cluster.

In a way, that was an advantage. I saw those languages not in terms of the communication of meaning but as a series of symbols that had evolved (or in some instances been created) for a reason, or a series of reasons. My ignorance led me to ask questions that might never occur to someone versed in that language. Why was the Inuktitut script so mathematical? Why was Baybayin so damn thin it was hard to carve and even harder to paint?

The phrase “mother tongue” in Baybayin, the pre-colonial script of the Philippines,
based on calligraphy/graffiti by Kristian Kabuay.
Carved in flame cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Why were the letters of Samaritan off balance? Why did Cherokee have serifs on curves – and come to think of it, why did it have serifs at all?

And the more I looked at these unfamiliar scripts, the more I realized we English-speakers never stop and ask ourselves basic questions about our own language and alphabet. Why were we so smitten with the Latin alphabet – to such an extent that the default academic font was called Times New Roman? Why were we so keen on parallels, right angels, circles, the Euclidean forms that are in fact impossible to write freehand? What does English have against diacritics, when other languages embrace them to such an extent that some scripts look like a large wet black dog shaking itself?

But the really interesting questions were about language itself, and the way people instinctively think about it. For example: it has been fascinating to me how often people look at my Alphabet carvings and say, “That one looks like an alien script”. I even though so myself when I first started. I’ve come to think of this as the Stonehenge phenomenon: when people look at Stonehenge they see pattern and therefore intent but they can’t see meaning. That’s a powerful, magnetic phenomenon. They can’t look away or stop wondering what it means and why it was created.

I think an “alien” alphabet has the same qualities: we can see it has shape and purpose and therefore intent, but it’s so utterly unfamiliar we can’t understand it, and we can’t even imagine understanding it. So we assume it must not be of this Earth. More and more, I find myself thinking in such galactic terms and seeing and hearing language as a series of variations on the concept of pattern.  

“Happy New Year” in Mongolian calligraphy,
based on the work of Sukhbaatar.
Carved in pau amarillo
Photo credit: Tom Way

Let me explain. When I’ve finished carving and painting one of my scripts into, say, a piece of curly maple and then I add the first coat of tung oil, an extraordinary three-dimensional change takes place. The wood acquires both luster and depth, as if rising and sinking at the same time. Faint shadows become deep currents. Knots become cyclones. The grain ripens one way, but in the same instant a different set of ripples will often appear running perpendicular to it. The wood becomes anatomical, muscular. And the black text seems to float both in and above it, as if it is both part and not part of the wood.

The first time I really looked at this transformation, it struck me that something fascinating was taking place in terms of pattern. The grain in the wood and the ripples running more or less perpendicular to it, looking like patterns in wet sand, are expressions of the rhythms running through everything.

The verb “la” (‘to be’) in Nom, the pre-colonial script of Vietnam.
Carved in quilted maple
Photo credit: Tom Way

Trees have been on this planet for some 370 million years, and the patterns in the grain – well, they illustrate forces that have been acting on matter since the dawn of the universe.

Part of the human condition, though, is to try to see the shape and drift of those forces. We’re pattern-seeking creatures, after all. And what struck me about languages, especially when carved in wood, is that they show our own efforts to understand the world by creating patterns – patterns that others can recognize and convert into speech, into ideas – overlaid on the deeper, older, more complex patterns that have made us what we are.

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets project, whose carvings have been exhibited all over North America including at Harvard, Yale, and the Smithsonian Institution. He is also the author of 16 books, details of which can be found at his homepage.

© Tim Brookes 2016

Next post: Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness. Saturday 23rd July 2016.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages?

Many years ago, I went, as usual, to fetch my children from Swedish Supply School, which met once a week after regular (English-medium) school in Singapore, where our family lived. On that particular occasion, one of the children was especially eager to start telling me all about her day. She spoke Portuguese, this being the language that the children and I have always shared, and she speckled it with so much English and Swedish that I felt compelled to interrupt her. “Querida!”, I giggled, “Que língua é que estás a falar?!” (‘Sweetheart! Which language are you speaking?!’). She stared at me briefly as if I were a clueless alien and then snapped, in squeaky clean Portuguese: “Uma qualquer, para dizer o que eu quero!” (‘Whichever, to say what I want to say!’).

What was I doing, here? I was giving evidence that being multilingual, as I am, hadn’t immunised me against the persuasion that languages are objects of reverence: they are there to be respected. Which meant that I was paying attention to my girl’s languages, not to her.

What was she doing? She was giving evidence that being multilingual, as she is, had made it clear to her that languages are tools: they are there to serve our needs. She had last used Portuguese in the early morning, a long time before the end of her working day, which had taken place first in English and then in Swedish. So why not use, in “whichever” language, the bits and pieces of the other language(s) in which those bits and pieces first became meaningful to her? All of my children did this, as I discuss in Chapter 10 of my book Three is a Crowd?. I found it particularly revealing that later, when they and I talked about these episodes, it was their turn to giggle when reporting their unawareness that they had been ‘mixing languages’, as this behaviour is usually called. Besides, as my girl then added about this episode, she knew that I knew all three languages in question, so “there was no problem there, right?”

Again, she left me without arguments. It may be true that only multilinguals in my children’s three languages might understand what they were saying when they used their languages in this way, but any multilingual in any languages would understand what they were doing: they were being typical multilinguals. The question then arises of why we came to talk about a feature of typical multilingualism as ‘mixing’, a word with rather negative undertones. Conversely, we might also ask what it means to not mix, or switch, languages or codes. Multilingual mixes usually raise judgemental or worried eyebrows as providing evidence of bad or impaired use of language, respectively. But “bad/impaired use of language” in fact means ‘bad/impaired use of a language’, and there is a world of difference between language and a language. So why don’t monolingual mixes cause generalised unease, and where do we draw the line?

The issue is precisely one of lines. Like country boundaries, language boundaries are figments of our collective imagination. Not even linguists have any idea what or where they might be. So why do we go on interpreting multilingual mixes as offending language boundaries? Ofelia García, in an interview conducted by François Grosjean on his blog Life as a Bilingual and titled What is Translanguaging?, answers this question pithily:
Linguists often refer to the behavior of bilinguals when they go across these named language categories as code-switching. It is an external view of language. But translanguaging takes the internal perspective of speakers whose own mental grammar has been developed in social interaction with others. […] Translanguaging is more than going across languages; it is going beyond named languages and taking the internal view of the speaker’s language use.

The book that Ofelia García edited with Li Wei, Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education, has more on how translanguaging characterises everyday multilingual practices.

Languages are there to be used as the tools that they are, not replicated as straitjacketed instruction manuals. Different languages make sense to us precisely because they allow us to engage with what matters to us in different ways, and to give the right flavour to what we wish to say. To use one of my favourite analogies, how we deal with our languages is no different from how we deal with our food. There are (standard) recipes, that we haven’t been called upon to put together because they were devised and tried by other people; there are ingredients, and tips about method and seasonings. But then we do it our way, because we are the ones doing the cooking. Favouring observation of each of the languages of multilinguals over what the multilinguals themselves do with them is like analysing recipes to find out how they taste. Multilinguals only transgress those rules that never took multilinguals themselves into account.

The next post, a guest post, keeps to the topic of creativity, this time about how and why we find ways of preserving our languages in printed form.

© MCF 2016

Next post: =Guest post= Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter, by Tim Brookes. Saturday 9th July 2016.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Teaching languages through drama/theatre positively impacts oral fluency
=Guest post=

by Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson

Do you speak another language? Many people who have heard this question don’t necessarily speak a second language (L2) fluently. Learning to speak a new language is challenging, but fluency in the L2 is a goal many people share. Contrary to what most people believe, opportunities to interact in the L2 do not necessarily guarantee a learner will come to speak it fluently (Derwing, Munro, and Thomson, 2008; Ranta and Meckelborg, 2013), so finding ways to improve fluency in the classroom is important. From our recent research, it seems that drama and theatre can help.

If you have ever taken a drama or theatre class, you will probably agree that it is a lot of fun. But drama is not all about the entertainment; it can also help language learners develop speaking abilities (Kao and O’Neill, 1998; Stern, 1980; Stinson and Freebody, 2006) and can impact oral fluency and pronunciation in particular (Galante and Thomson, 2016). We have both taught English as a foreign/second language for many years in Canada, Brazil, Korea, Oman, and Pakistan. In our constant pursuit of new ways to help our students develop fluency and pronunciation we thought we’d give drama/theatre a try.

Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, Greece
Photo credit: Dan Cavanagh

With my (Angelica’s) background in theatre, I began using drama techniques to teach my own English language classes in the late 1990s. I immediately noticed this was very helpful for learners’ oral development, especially among those learners who were somewhat shy or reluctant to speak in class. I also observed that during drama activities, students would practice aspects of the language not typically offered in traditional language classes: intonation, rhythm, intention, meaning-making, improvisation, among others. Because my drama classes were very well received, I was invited to develop a language program for a prominent English language institute in São Paulo, Brazil, which focused on teaching English through drama and theatre. The program was later distributed among 17 other schools in the country.

At first, teachers were hesitant to apply drama techniques because they felt they had to be actors to do so. However, after some initial short training sessions, teachers implemented drama in their classroom and were quite satisfied with the positive results. Despite teachers’ accounts of the success of drama in their classes, I wondered what particular aspects of oral communication actually improved. To find out, I proposed carrying out a study during my Master’s program at Brock University, in Canada, where Ron Thomson became my thesis supervisor. His extensive background in second language oral fluency and pronunciation research was a perfect match.

In drama/theatre classes, there is quite a lot of speaking practice and both of us knew it was likely that learners could develop speaking abilities anyway. But we were interested in finding out whether drama classes could improve learners’ speaking abilities compared to classes that also focused on oral communication. We tracked the oral development of 24 Brazilian learners of English in four different classes over the course of four months: two English drama classes and two English communicative classes. We collected samples of their L2 speech in five different tasks (monologue, dialogue, etc.) before and after the program, all audio-recorded. We then recruited 30 Canadians to listen to the learners’ speech samples and provide their perceptions on three specific aspects of their oral performance: fluency, comprehensibility and accent. After running several statistical analyses, we found that learners in the drama group experienced significantly greater improvement in their oral speaking skills compared to learners in the traditional communicative language classes.

Photo credit: João Urbilio

In particular, we found that learners in the drama group experienced significant improvements in fluency and comprehensibility compared to learners in a communicative language class. Some of the strategies used in the drama classes had a particular focus on improving fluency: learners practiced performance in front of a group, speech with emphasis on meaning-making, and speaking without inappropriate pauses and hesitations. This result supports the idea that teaching aspects of oral language explicitly can result in larger gains in oral fluency compared to using simple communicative tasks.

Another important finding was that although all the English learners were perceived as having a first language (L1) accent (Brazilian Portuguese), this was not an issue when understanding their speech. This is also important because it tells us that having L1 accent is not a problem when communicating in the L2. This can be surprising to some who falsely believe they need to lose their L1 accent in order to be fluent in the L2. We have always believed that “accent reduction” courses do not really have a place in language learning, and our study provides evidence to support this belief.

If you’re interested in learning more about how drama/theatre can improve speaking skills in a second language, you can watch the video abstract of our study or read the article we have recently published in TESOL Quarterly. There, you will find more details about the study and its methodology. We also provide samples of the classroom activities we used.

Angelica Galante is a doctoral candidate in Language and Literacies Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and a sessional lecturer at York University. Her research interests include innovative pedagogical applications in language classrooms, drama in language learning, and plurilingual education. You can follow her on Twitter @GalanteAngelica and visit her website Breaking the Invisible Wall for samples of digital projects with language learners.

Ron I. Thomson is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics/TESL at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. His research spans L2 oral fluency and pronunciation development, computer-assisted pronunciation teaching, and ethics in pronunciation teaching. Ron is also the creator of English Accent Coach, a free evidence-based online tool that helps learners improve their pronunciation of English vowels and consonants.

© Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson 2016

Next post: Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages? Saturday 25th June 2016.  


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