Sunday, January 29, 2006

living on the edge

A couple of weeks ago I learned that the city had taken over the campus, annexed the whole thing, including the Student Center, thus coffee cost an extra two cents (city tax). AND half of Faner, they told me. But that didn't sit well...which half? Half was ALREADY in the city? Well, apparently the line ran down somewhere in the middle. North half was the city, because you could serve alcohol in the city, but the township was dry, so they always had to have their wine in the museum auditorium, not the philosophy department.

The line was there before the building, best I could figure; fire & police service wasn't an issue. Now we're all in the city, but I still wonder which side I was on; all I know is that I'm close to the edge. I had the honor of showing Sen. Simon to a room in Faner once (it's a very confusing building); some days at the beginning of a term I feel like a tourguide, leading people with confused looks on their faces to some room. Pizza drivers let pizzas get cold trying to find these places, and come back to their cars to find them towed.

And I've been on the edge, all these years. There's a story in there somewhere.

january thaw

Beginning to slow down...but this is what i've written so far. Comments welcome...they'll be e-mailed to me, but I'll publish.

language change
language learning analogies & the secretary
metaphors for language - cut across the lawn
people who say "we was"
bilingualism & children
language as a social contract
fear of behaviorism
language learning and the musician's ear
the translation plateau
the familiarity hierarchy
words that start with vowels
the listening-writing connection

stay with the pack - language in the valley

For this particular lecture, the best analogy is the herd of wildebeasts (?) or some such animal charging through the valley with a group of lions knowing full well that a few will get separated from the pack. Languages go through the ages, but a ruthless force tends to make things regular, and eliminate exceptions. That force is the simple fact that language and all its complexity has to be carried around in thousands of people's heads at any given time. And people have only so much space in their head. I don't believe that maxim that we only use 20% of our brains. I think we use most of it, but we also have systems for limiting the amount of our brains that any given thing can take up. And after that, we decide what's less important, and we give it up.

Irregular forms, exceptions like come/came/come, do/did/done, etc. aren't going away any time soon, because we use them every day and thus have reason to make space for them in the set of rules that we carry around with us every day. But the ones on the periphery: shrink/shrank/shrunk, weave/wove/woven- they're doomed. We don't have space in our heads to carry around all those irregular forms. When enough people let go of them, they are for all intents and purposes gone. They'll stick around in the grammar books a few hundred more years, but people will forget.

So the great force within language is SIMPLIFY SIMPLIFY. Complexity may be added by the addition of words and contact with other languages & cultures, but the ruthless force of the passage of time takes the extraneous stuff from the outside, and streamlines the herd.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

chat transcript

A piece of history...this is what chat is like. Sometimes several conversations are going at once (see if you can catch the one about going to St. Louis). The birthday girl is actually "GomuyuiGst18"...the little marks (^^) are emoticons. Not sure if I know what they all really mean. Or, if I could have answered the language question better.
One can get these transcripts by going back through the system and asking for them. People do research on this stuff too...

2006.01.26 12:33:23 SoonyGst20: congratulations
2006.01.26 12:33:30 ChristinK: Wow! Happy birthday Yui!
2006.01.26 12:33:42 GomuyuiGst18: thank you
2006.01.26 12:33:43 YuiGst16: happy birthday
2006.01.26 12:33:43 ERICGst11: Yuii will become 24 yrs old
2006.01.26 12:33:43 JGst12: happy birthday
2006.01.26 12:33:44 GomuyuiGst18: ^^
2006.01.26 12:33:45 SosukeGst13: Happy birthday!
2006.01.26 12:33:50 ThomasLev: Happy Birthday!
2006.01.26 12:33:56 MinhoGst1: Congraturation for getting older. haha
2006.01.26 12:33:57 SaoriGst19: happy birthday!!!
2006.01.26 12:33:59 KaoriGst15: I will go tomorrow
2006.01.26 12:34:01 SoonyGst20: older?
2006.01.26 12:34:06 YuiGst16: me too
2006.01.26 12:34:06 KaoriGst15: Happy Birthday!
2006.01.26 12:34:08 SoonyGst20: matureer
2006.01.26 12:34:12 SoonyGst20: hhh
2006.01.26 12:34:14 GomuyuiGst18: +_+"
2006.01.26 12:34:19 ThomasLev: wiser
2006.01.26 12:34:19 SoonyGst20: mature
2006.01.26 12:34:26 GomuyuiGst18: thanks every one
2006.01.26 12:34:49 ERICGst11: I have a question about "everybody"
2006.01.26 12:34:56 SosukeGst13: yes.
2006.01.26 12:34:59 SoonyGst20: yes
2006.01.26 12:35:01 ThomasLev: ok
2006.01.26 12:35:04 ERICGst11: only "body"?
2006.01.26 12:35:08 ERICGst11: no head?
2006.01.26 12:35:10 SosukeGst13: ??????
2006.01.26 12:35:14 MinhoGst1: What's different between everybody and every one ?
2006.01.26 12:35:30 SoonyGst20: tom?
2006.01.26 12:35:34 YuiGst16: everybody dont have head
2006.01.26 12:35:34 ThomasLev: good question
2006.01.26 12:35:49 ThomasLev: usually everbody has a head
2006.01.26 12:35:56 ERICGst11: aww..
2006.01.26 12:35:59 ThomasLev: some bodies don't I guess
2006.01.26 12:36:04 SoonyGst20: everyhead?
2006.01.26 12:36:08 ThomasLev: then it's "some body"
2006.01.26 12:36:12 MinhoGst1: but some one doesn't have a brain. -_-;
2006.01.26 12:36:14 SoonyGst20: some head?
2006.01.26 12:36:20 MinhoGst1: they just have a head.
2006.01.26 12:36:22 ERICGst11: like you?
2006.01.26 12:36:30 SoonyGst20: somebody doesn't have heart
2006.01.26 12:36:32 SoonyGst20: hhh

sapir-whorf hypothesis

There's more to it than meets the eye. They used to talk about the "strong version" and the "weak version" and I don't remember the difference exactly; I'd have to look them up. So I"m kind of shooting from the hip here. But in essence it says that your language determines to some degree the way you see things. The example given back in early days was of the snow-country language that had six different words for different kinds of snow, while the rest of us had only one.

This was pooh-poohed for years for whatever reason; when I went to graduate school it was clearly out of favor. But I chewed it over a few times since, and I don't reject it entirely. I have to gather thoughts on this, but they'll be coming soon.

BTW this is part of a series of language-related articles which will keep coming; scroll down for a small index. Comments are welcome.

language learning analogies

More ideas on language learning. The question at hand: what images can we convey that express what it's really like to learn a language? Here's the latest one: the secretary controls the office, and determines the success or failure of everything

In my case, the secretary even determined who made it through graduate school (thank you, Betty) - but my point is this. Language deals with how information is filed and how easily it is accessed. Learning a second language on top of a first is like taking a person whose filing experience doesn't quite match the situation at hand, and saying: file this. Quickly. So I can have access to it immediately. The question is, how soon will it be before the person changes the organizational system to better match the nature of the information? This person in a sense is a go-between: there are lots of people who have no access to the information at all, others for whom it seems to be second nature. If the office runs well, we could call that "fluent."


PS I've recently learned that your comments will come to my e-mail before being published....
don't let that stop you! I'll publish, I promise.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

chat pioneers

I used chat with my first class: a high-level writing class that has been doing a project on Wal-Mart. The assignment was to bring a url related to Wal-Mart to the chat. We opened it up & had a very lively session. I might write more extensively about this. Here are some observations, after perusing the transcripts...

-I actually taught the distinction between Tom, Mr. Tom, and Mr. Leverett, something I always do on the first day of class, unsuccessfully, and wish I had more opportunity to review later. The informal setting of the chat (14 students typing away) allowed this to happen; people read it, responded to it, learned it (I thought)...

-it was fast & lively, emoticons all over, some of them over my head; some were scared or frustrated & left unhappy; others loved it. I collected the url's and will post them soon at the class page.

-my gut feeling was that chat helped their sense of reaction, reading, responding, conversational expression, etc. The real-time, fast nature of it was fascinating; the combination of reading-writing in a fluency setting made it for all intents & purposes a new medium.

IF 3/4 of all emoticons, abbreviations, etc. are not shared by everyone, it will be interesting to find out which ones survive, if we continue the experiment. It will be an experiment in community-building.

And along those lines, I continue to be amazed at how much more I learn about my students, by simply participating in the media in which they are most comfortable.

metaphors for language

This from a review I wrote a while back; the authors were trying to describe Universal Grammar.

The authors borrowed a metaphor (from V. Cook, p. 169) that made me laugh. In this passage, the "universals" and "parameters" of languages that Universal Grammarians are often preoccupied with defining are compared to universals and parameters of driving; a universal, for example, being the expectation that in any given country all drivers will be restricted to driving in one direction on the same side of the road; this being an innate or given part of driving. Parameters, on the other hand, are restrictions within each country that establish which side drivers will use in that country; a parameter may have 'values,' in this case, left or right, which are particular to that country alone, and are changed only with great difficulty.

Though I was stern and critical of the absurdity of this idea, and still am, it got me to thinking, if one does not go around with universal restrictions on where to drive or how to do it, what would be a better analogy for the process of language?

And it struck me, on my way back from the pool, as I prepared to cut across a muddy field (where CESL used to stand), rather than go around, staying on the concrete walkway. This was it: the concept of price. I can cut across this field, and it will be shorter, but at the price of making my feet muddy. This price might be higher for some than others (I have friends who would never do this); it's certainly higher for teachers than students. Yet it's a calculation we make daily. Social & personal factors are involved, yet, the bottom line is that we either use one system to get from point A to point B, or another. And our calculations are based upon our perceptions of price.

Some language explanation as an example may be in order, but it eludes me at the moment.


Leverett, T. (2001). Review of Second Language Acquisition, by S. Gass and L. Selinker, TESL-EJ, vol. 5, no. 2, Sept.

people who say "we was"

As a grammarian, linguist, and especially English teacher, this kind of language coming from a native speaker is supposed to make me cringe. On the contrary, however, I've always been a little fascinated by it. There are a number of similar grammatical constructions, "I seen" and "ain't" being other examples, that make you wonder what people are thinking. I've heard English teachers rail against "ignorance" or "inability to conjugate a verb," as if the use of these forms is somehow caused by simply not knowing "right" from "wrong"... but I don't buy it.

My theory is that we all were in English class in about third grade when it was enforced rigorously. We were taught what was "right" and what was "wrong" and the teacher gave it his/her best to banish such forms, at least from the classroom. And with some success. We were all there; we all heard the teacher; most of us did what the teacher wanted. Some of us actually became the teacher, but that's another story. The ones who reverted to their dialect immediately after leaving class are the ones we're discussing now. They did it on purpose. They knew that that set them apart from the ones who bought into it. They knew the dialect was marked, and they took it on anyway.

There are cases in which ignorance plays a factor, but in a nice wide swath of cases like the ones above, it doesn't. "Not knowing" is not possible, for most native speakers.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

january blizzard cont'd

This is a series of writings intended to help me organize some thoughts about language learning....comments are welcome!

bilingualism & children
language as a social contract
fear of behaviorism
language learning and the musician's ear
the translation plateau
the familiarity hierarchy
words that start with vowels
the listening-writing connection

bilingualism and children

Children are basically lucky if they are able to truly participate in two different languages before they are about three. Making them bilingual in this sense means truly having them function in a language environment; just playing a few movies for them will entertain them, but won't really achieve the effect that I'm talking about here.

Monolingual children, on the other hand, face a certain problem. Our brains, in their ruthless quest for efficiency, begin to fuse concepts and language. Thus, if you're monolingual, the word "tree" becomes part of the concept that includes what it looks like, how big it is, what it does, where you see it, etc....If you use two languages, you tend to keep the language aspect separate (this is my theory anyway), because you'll become acutely aware that the language is entirely cultural and separate from the conceptual aspects of the thing. And, that different languages apply meanings to words differently, have different semantic spacing, etc.

This separation is what makes it easier for early bilinguals to learn third and fourth languages later...and this alone is a big advantage for the child. He/she will forever be more flexible when it comes to picking up languages.

The early bilingual takes longer to start speaking's as if he/she is looking around, putting all the pieces together...trying to make sure it's right...but generally, there is no other disadvantage...and even that small delay is of very little consequence, since, as a child, you get most of what you want without language anyway.

The early bilingual does have an interesting problem, though. Say one's parents speak L1 in the home, but one's friends speak L2 in the schoolyard and the teacher also uses L2. This early bilingual may not know L2 words for such things as sink, bed, pajamas; he/she may not know L1 words for blackboard, etc. There will be vocabulary gaps. But these are minor. A much bigger problem is the simple perception that the parents are not complete participants in the surrounding society; this sometimes results in the child translating for the parents, even having some power over the parents; but this is not language-related, and is only true in some cases anyway. From a language point of view, the early bilingual is at an advantage, forever, having acquired two languages at an ideal time, and having a thorough mastery of each.


language as a social contract

I've said this before, but I've never written it down. When a baby is about one (as one of mine is), he/she begins to listen carefully to everything, begin to put together the parts of a language, and get ready to speak. Fortunately, he/she doesn't really need to, unless there are other kids around and someone has grabbed his/her toy. But even then crying will usually suffice.

What the baby notices is that if certain words are said, certain things happen: it's like an agreement, a contract. If you do this, people will respond, but then, if they say things, you respond. The baby is eager to prove that he/she is part of this contract. The baby goes and gets the newspaper for you, long before he/she can tell you where it is.

The participation in a language is thus an agreement or contract that people enter into every time they speak, although it's somewhat tenuous, sometimes, say, in a bus station with someone who has a clearly different dialect, or perhaps from a far-flung corner of the empire. One assumes words will mean certain things and sometimes finds out they don't...but the contract is the same. The contract reads like this: I'll speak this and you see if you can speak back; then we'll carry on and try to understand each other for as long as it's useful.


fear of behaviorism

Chomsky came to prominence at a time, the early 60's, when the world was still reeling from the Holocaust, and they were terrified of B.F. Skinner. Skinner had merely pointed out the obvious: that given the right social conditions, people will do almost anything. That it's all in perception and social conditioning...and this is a very scary thought. But there's at least a grain of truth in it. And when you deal in language, almost everything is perception, social condition, habit development, etc.

Chomsky set us off on a search for the holy grail...assumption of, and search for universal genetic aspects of language. How this turned into a search for "universal restrictions" I have no idea. There aren't any universal restrictions; why would there be? We aren't made to NOT do stuff. We can, in fact, do anything, especially with regard to language, and if you look hard enough, you'll find that almost everything has been done by some language somewhere.

When Krashen came along, teachers lined up right behind him, especially when he talked about acquisition vs. learning. We've seen it so much: students learn things, but then they can't use them. They don't truly acquire them until later. But acquisitionists hate Krashen: how can you prove what's acquired vs. what's learned? Because it's so hard to prove, they tend to think Krashen is a screwball.

I say, take another look at it. There's got to be a way to show that someone has acquired something...that is, that they can use it habitually or when I realize that, by mentioning the bad word, "habit," I recall the big B.F., and that's a no-no, but hey, maybe after all these years we can face the facts. When you're dealing with learning languages, what you're doing is looking at how your mind stores information, the habits and assumptions it has made based on what you have learned so far, and your success is based upon your ability to condition yourself to a new set of assumptions. Behaviorism can be very useful to us here.

I'm not saying there are no genetic components to language learning (though there may be no device, as Krashen would call it...). All I'm saying is that the world's fear of Skinner and what he reminded us of has kept us from really looking at the key elements of success in language learning. If we think people are born competent and that things are going to just take care of themselves...well, I don't think so. There's enough English on the web so that if that were the case, I'd be out of a job.

More later...comments?

Friday, January 20, 2006

january blizzard

a series of essays, below, include some of my thoughts on language learning. My published articles are here; another is being published as I write, but I've been putting my thoughts down this month in order to perhaps organize everything, perhaps come up with a coherent theory of language learning, perhaps just write some more. In fact the nice people at Global Study Magazine want more, but I'm still ruminating; the one I really want to write is about bilingualism and children. So far, below, please find these:

language learning and the musician's ear: why most of us can't reach perfect pronunciation

the translation plateau: a place where many language learners get stuck (links to two articles on it)

the familiarity hierarchy: it's important to become familiar with words, in order to truly learn them

words that start with vowels are the hardest to hear.

turnover: the ability to start producing things that you've learned.

the listening-writing connection

Comments are welcome.

language learning & the musician's ear

I've been recording music in a studio, deeply unsatisfied with my own production, and thus reminded of my sister, a truly professional musician, who used to say that she detested shopping in stores that played muzak which was supposed to serve as background to the act of shopping. For musicians getting a precise sound and no extraneous clatter is important; it 's worth a special trip to the studio on a cold day.

But for most of us, there's too much else going on to worry about perfect sound. If we are in a culture to which we are not native, we have to concentrate on social graces, not to mention the content of what we are hearing and saying; thus, we tend not to worry so much about our pronunciation after it reaches a certain point of comprehensibility.

In order to explain, I'll have to beg your allowance, that comprehensibility is somehow quantifiable, so that as you approach sounding like a native speaker, you pass through 85% perfect, 90% perfect, and on up to 100% perfect. Yet, as I mentioned, very few people reach 100%; they give up when they reach a point where they can function well and concentrate on other things; they retain some accent and just live with it, even if they're a language professional and know full well that they should be able to do better. I was discussing this with a friend, and assured her that I could live with her accent just fine, and that I even had a theory for what she was going through, which I will explain below.

To reach that 100% you have to convince yourself, like the musician, that nothing is more important than getting the perfect sound. Retaining an accent is a way of hanging onto a psychological piece of not only your native language, but also your native culture and native frame of mind; though it is possible to keep these psychological things, you know they are reflected by your accent, and are thus stubborn about eliminating that accent entirely. Besides, you're functioning just fine; people understand you well, so you've lost your primary motivation for improvement. Deep down, you don't want to be entirely absorbed by the target culture. That is, unless the sound is more important to you than anything else.

One thing she said remains unresolved to me, though my theory, of course, is entirely unproven by empirical data. She said that she has good days and bad days, some days when her speech is near perfect, and other days when she has to have her husband make her wishes known. She has no ready explanation for this variation except for tiredness. Others have mentioned this trait also. As language professionals they are aware of their shortcomings. They are competent, sometimes extremely competent in the target language, yet their performance dips sometimes, and even on good days never reaches 100%. The voice carries our deepest identities, betrays our true inner needs, and thus never becomes exactly the same as everyone else's.

translation plateau

I coined this term a few years ago because I noticed that many people were getting stuck in the intermediate range of language learning (in ESL, using the paper TOEFL, I defined this as 440-470; this corresponded to their inability to get out of my level), and, in the range of students who were stuck at this level, I began to notice things in common. One was a general inability to use vocabulary effectively; when I believed that they should be able to read certain sentences without translating all the words back to their native languages, they weren't. This failure to "stay in English", or insistence on translating, was costly: they'd run out of time on the reading section of the TOEFL (a sure-fire clue), get caught on word-forms in grammar, etc.

I wrote a lengthy tome about it, but now, rereading it, I'm unsatisfied with its quality and want to rewrite it. It's wordy, not to the point, disorganized, etc. Yet it is what I have, and, though I'm not sure when I wrote it exactly (I believe it was before the article listed below, despite what it says on it), I plan to clean it up a little (put title on it, format it, move it perhaps) and leave it on the web as an unpublished manuscript. I will try to remember to change its reference here as this is now the main place where I want to discuss my ideas about this difficult place that language learners face. One of the main points of the article, though it may not be stated clearly, is that many learners have deep and valid reasons for being afraid of moving on at this point, and have to face those well before marching on in their quest.

Another article, listed below, talks about the same problem, this time for a public audience. Every term, this one being no exception, I also tell the students at this level (in our program, it's called AE2) how I feel; my mini-lecture can be condensed into these points:

-Your TOEFL score may have leveled off here or even appeared to fall; basically your skill has leveled off and your luck is still varying a little (looks of agreement);
-At this level you must look at the way you are studying vocabulary; you must teach yourself to stay in English when you read; it's not easy to teach yourself this, but until you do, your TOEFL score is going nowhere (looks of agreement)
-Some teachers feel that you don't need to write down vocabulary words in a list and do discrete memorization, but I disagree; most of us (language learners) need some work with memorization, though I'll admit that some don't. You will probably need a system of learning vocabulary.
-Your system should NOT teach you to correspond English words with native words, because that's the problem...make your system all in English (or the target language); put word, definition and sentence using word on a line, cover word & definition & read sentence when studying; look at definition only when necessary.
-I will not check this list; it's personal; you do what's best for you; and if doing it another way works better, then stick with that. But if you are stuck here, do some reflection on your system of learning...

In general, I've thought about it a lot, and continued to tell students what I think; they usually listen, and some change their methods successfully. One can never tell whether my advice is the result. I can say, however, that talking to people who are definitely stuck at this juncture has convinced me that the answer is somewhere in here. In a content-based program such as ours, lack of exposure is not the problem; lack of production isn't either. It's more that vocabulary study gets lost in the shuffle, and only the most thorough students go back, pick up the words and truly master them.

I've thought a lot about this, but have not received much criticism or critical analysis of my points. So, I'd like to ask: do you agree? Read the two links here for more information, and let me know.

Leverett, T. (2004). The road to fluency (pdf), Global Study Magazine 2.3, pp. 46-47, London, UK.

By the way, a couple of unresolved points: what about those learners who are truly sound-based - who hear everything they read and understand accordingly? For them, virtually fluent in the oral sphere, translation has ceased to be a problem long ago, but certain elements of spelling-sound conversion continue to dog them. Don't know what to say about that: any suggestions? Comments welcome.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

welcome to 061

...and it's back to work for me. I've been doing some writing about language learning (see below) but mostly have been on vacation, watching children and playing online boggle. One of my classes this term, eap2ww, will do all their papers on Wal-Mart and controversies related to their moving into certain places, among them, Queens NY, Chicago, and Murphysboro. Should be fun! Join us as the term unfolds.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

familiarity hierarchy

Vocabulary mastery is the single most important element of a language learner's competence. It is at the base of listening and reading competence; without vocabulary mastery, the other skills are meaningless. It is a good indicator of a student's overall progress with language learning for several reasons; first, it correlates with self-responsibility; second, it runs through the skills as stated above; and finally, the level of mastery determines whether a student can really move up into different levels of fluency.

But mastery of vocabulary is difficult to define. A student must first become aware of a word, remember it and have some idea of its meaning, translated into the L1. Already we must divide students into those who learn by hearing and those who learn by reading; the former group may never know how it's spelled; the latter group may never know how it sounds. But these key elements are part of the word too.

As the student becomes more aware of the word and the way it's used in the language, he/she becomes aware that its translation is generally not perfect; i.e. it is not used in quite the same way as its L1 counterpart. It has grammatical information associated with it; it's used in certain ways and at certain times, with other words. It may have forms that are associated with it- plurals, in the case of nouns, or participles in the case of verbs. It can be assumed that students are learning these together, as a group, but that may not be the case.

One of the most critical stages of the student's mastery of vocabulary is when he/she reaches the point where it is not necessary to translate the word in order to use it in a sentence. At this point the student is familiar enough with the word to just grab it right off the page, so to speak, and run with it (for the listener, of course, the analogy is different). Unfortunately there are millions of words, and it takes a bit of work to get to this point.

The principle of the heirarchy is merely that students have to enter at the lower levels, become aware of the word, become more familiar with it, and work their way up until they have mastered the crucial elements of the word. Sometimes, even for native speakers, there are gaps in their knowlege which may be insurmountable or not. Sometimes incomplete knowlege at one level prevents them from moving to the next.

I actually explain the basics of this idea to students in order to show them that just memorizing the translation of a word is not idea that they usually have no trouble with. I try to explain the job they have in front of them and organize my teaching in order to make that job easier, or at least, helping them to stay aware of the entire task in front of them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

local fame

That's right, I've been written up in the local newspaper, The Southern Illinoisan, along with my thirteen-year-old son, an enthusiastic newcomer to blogging, Sheila Simon, and Dave More, probably Carbondale's most avid blogger. A couple of points about the article:
1. I've already retracted the statement that I invented link poetry; I was the first that I knew of to do it, but I've already been proven wrong; I'm now a link poetry "practitioner" and "historian"...and by the way, Dave, hang on to that link...
2. Still waiting for the "online" version of the article (once you get used to blogging, this waiting seems to take forever...), but a picture of it (scroll down) will give you the idea...I agree with many of Dave's comments, and can only hope that a few more pick it up after reading the article.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

soul phishers

in the midst of January acquisition rambles (see below), as a diversion I'd like to comment on the person or the people who captured the domain "" and now have all dyslexic-typists such as myself diverted regularly to their "Amazing Bible Studies" site, put together by some guy in St. Petersburg Florida, apparently, who is frankly not worth linking to. When I noticed this, in November, I also believed that they had come all the way out to "" and to some of our other sites, to get us specifically, but it appears that they divert anyone who mixes up the blogspot name; they'll all be routed to their bible studies page. Probably every dyslexic typist in cyberspace knows who I'm talking about, and has been on this unexpected cyber-journey to the flashing jerusalem.

Another weblogger, Orac did a fairly thorough study of the situation, and I pretty much agree with him and some of his commenters, so I won't worry about it anymore. I might put these soul-phishers in my novel, though.

words that start with vowels

words that start with vowels are the hardest to understand when listening to English. This is partly because many of them are unstressed: think of "illuminate," "enable," "administration" or "obsession" as good examples. I'm not sure I can map out the mental process the native English listener uses when figuring out what he/she has heard; but the first sound is important, and the stressed syllables are important also. To the non-native listener, the identification of the stressed syllable is not as well developed, so he/she relies more on the first sounds. And the first sounds of these example words in particular are very difficult.

We classify words that we know by the sounds that they begin with, and tend to group them in large categories in our memory storage. But our memory does not treat vowels in the same way as it treats consonants.

I used to play a very simple vocabulary game that involved matching words with their definitions. Students would see a word on a card, but right before that, they would hear the same word; as quickly as possible they were to determine if one of the word-definitions they held matched the word they saw and heard. These students studied these hard as they wanted to win the game (and learn). But I learned from this experience the law above: It took them a few seconds longer to understand what they had heard, when the word began with an unstressed vowel...

In "advanced" listening one of the hardest things for students to pin down is names, because they have nothing to help them figure out exactly what it was they heard. This was not true for me in Korea, where everyone had one of about ten names, and 90% of the country was a Kim, Lee, or Choi. Here, names carry lots of cultural information, but to the outsider it's very hard just to pin down exactly what one heard, because, even if one knows it's a name, one has millions of choices; experience will rarely help determine what it was.

If I give lectures and then ask simple questions about the content of the lecture, the better listeners will often get all of the questions right. But if I ask them the names that I mentioned, they begin to slip up. It's hard to hear them correctly; even harder to spell correctly what was heard.

I'm sure TOEFL keeps track of this stuff, and takes advantage of it liberally, in sorting out the best listeners from the others.

Comments welcome! I'm just organizing my thoughts...


One often hears that an important quality of good language learners is risk-taking. Because the language learner will inevitably make mistakes, and suffer for them, it is necessary to take the risk of making these mistakes in order to achieve the goal, fluency in the language.

This is important when studying the idea of turnover (a term I am coining here), which refers to the willingness of the language learner to take knowlege of the new language and put it into practice, incorporate it into his/her own production. It could be a new grammatical form, new vocabulary, or new cultural style. But there is a gap between just knowing something, and beginning the process of using it correctly which generally must start with some overuse, misuse, or uncertainty; here is the risk. The language learner can either be cautious, thus have a low turnover ability, or daring, with good turnover.

Turnover for any given word or form has an important variable. Say you have just learned a new vocabulary word, an idiom for example. A genuine opportunity to use this idiom may not come up for days after you learn it, even if you know it thoroughly and are waiting for an opportunity to use it. If you are willing to overuse it or misuse it, you might construct an opportunity, but that's not the same. And, if you don't get many opportunities to speak, you may have to wait so long for the appropriate opportunity that it's too late: your memory of it is gone, and it is now lost due to non-use.

A good language learner will thus notice that acquiring the language requires not only using and maximizing every opportunity to speak or write; then, consciously incorporating new words and new grammatical forms so that the process can begin by which you figure out which have been used appropriately. Having a good turnover rate will ensure faster fluency: though many variables influence this rate, it is one of the key mechanisms that determines one's success.

(this is one of a series of writings about language learning...feel free to comment either here or wherever you purpose is 1) to start conversation about these topics, 2) to clarify my own thoughts for future writing, 3) to draw out expertise of other people who can help me clarify and understand the process of language learning. I encourage your input; write me or leave a comment!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

listening-writing connection

This idea came to me from Kim Hughes Wilhelm; I have no idea where she heard it. She said that generally the better writers are the better listeners, though you would think that writing correlates better to reading. Why is this? Because you have to be able to hear the language, hear the flow of it, to be able to produce a rhythm that will be received well.

Basically I have been mulling over this theory for years and have found that it has some validity. Students get stuck in a translating mode: they basically hear and think everything in their native language, and it's not until they really talk and listen a lot that they are able to break out of it. You would think that reading would do the same thing for them, but it doesn't. To write well, they have to be able to hear it first. And if they can't (hear it), they don't (write well).

More on this later...maybe.

I've been on vacation, and am just returning. I intend to use these posts to reflect on some language-related things I've learned and am mulling over. Comments welcome. Hope you had a good break!