Tuesday, June 26, 2007

CESL Today v70

You may have noticed our Writing Assistant, Kasandra Merrill, passing this out. She's worked hard on it. I'm working on a web version of it, which I'll give you a a peek at, though it's not quite done. I just couldn't put that fancy cover on it, but most of the articles fit just fine. I kind of enjoy it- technology has actually made it easier, and Kasandra made it easier too, doing most of the hard editing. I enjoy producing student work, because, if we've done well, it's interesting reading what they have to say, though they save their hard essays for their personal blogs.

I've noticed, though, that in writing class, they run the gamut, from interesting to deadly cautious, bordering on empty, in terms of their willingness to stick their neck out and actually say something that might make a difference. In other words, sometimes they do. When we do environment, I get a little impatient, what with the poles melting and all, and we in the universities just generating hot air and cutting trees in the process, making papers all marked up with red ink, but some of which, in their finished forms, ending up on our blog system. And so, another term ends, and the next CESL Today will be on its way too...this one, also, bound to be one for the books, one for all time.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007


The Sunset Concert tonight is a well-known bluegrass band, Special Consensus, and I recommend it; it's in Turley Park, on the west side of town, and you can park by the International Grocery Store.

But, on Saturday night, come and hear my band, the Parsley Sagebrush Band, perform at the Yellow Moon Cafe in Cobden, Illinois, about 15 miles from Carbondale. Follow these directions:

Go south from the university on Highway 51. Keep going right through the stoplight where there are two convenience stores on the corner. Go through another stoplight soon after that. After about three miles, another stoplight; then a corner where there is a large yellow water tower with a smiley face on it. This is Makanda. Keep going south on Highway 51. Now, you'll come to a sign that says, Cobden, go right. At that road, turn right. It will go several miles through the countryside, and when it comes into a town, that is Cobden. You will stop at a stop sign and keep going straight. When the road forces you to turn left, turn left, but then turn right right away, and you will end up on the main street of Cobden. Turn left. You will see a building right away, on your left, with a large yellow moon on it and a yellow awning; it says "Yellow Moon Cafe." This is it! It's easy to find. Cobden is a very small town. Even if you get lost, people will tell you where Cobden is, and you'll find it; it's right downtown.

It's free. It's a nice place, and I think you'll enjoy it. You can get our new CD.


Monday, June 18, 2007

tech goals

I'd like to investigate text-to-speech software, and also sound-to-text software. They have it; it's not hard to find, and I think, when it becomes common, it will change the nature of language learning. Right now I find it frustrating that people are actually stuck on not knowing how words sound- not being able to pick them up off the page. Life doesn't have to be this way- for long, anyway.


Friday, June 15, 2007

my class (part of it)

eap2 073


Thursday, June 14, 2007

acquisition of present perfect

A colleague of mine is teaching the TOEFL class, and I remarked to her that one of the hardest TOEFL questions I ever heard referred to a simple response to the question: (W) "How are you?" (M) "I've been better." It could have been that TOEFL was trying to test the intonation- the speaker was clearly saying that he was not great. It could also have been that a real TOEFL would not have tested an answer that was so ambiguous (though this is a common answer, it can in fact be interpreted in two ways).

If you think too hard about it, you'll end up in a backwater of confusion, as I did on the day I was trying to teach my way out of this situation. But, this post is really about what my colleague said: Yes, present perfect is difficult. They have a hard time figuring out why we need it.

I thought this answer was a perceptive, incisive comment, coming as it did from a veteran language-learner and linguist, so I thought I'd save it. Though I've studied acquisition of relative clauses a little more carefully (see below), I've also had my eye on present perfect for several reasons. First, even at the high levels (where I teach now), they have trouble with it; they haven't acquired it yet; and quite often I see sentences (given the time markers until now or since I got to Carbondale where one would typically use it. More often, we native speakers might use it naturally but they would not, and give us no time markers to show what they might have missed. In any case it is hard to pinpoint the fact that they don't have it, but it is safe to say that although they were taught it as long as two or three terms ago, it is still on the horizon for them, and, a distant one at that...in spite of the fact that it seems somewhat basic for us, essential to our concept of action, early-on in the systems of first language learners, and a basic building block in more complicated forms.

I'll explore this more later, but for now, I'll just say- you aren't born dividing actions into finished/not finished, set in time/not set in time, etc.; you have to acquire the need to express these things, as well as the ability, if you are an L2 learner; and, the situation is partly governed by how much you can get away with, on a day-to-day basis, without causing severe misunderstanding. If such a phrase as until now will suit your purpose, and express the same meaning as present perfect, in spite of the native speaker's immediate reaction (this is grammatically wrong but I can live with it), then you get away with it- indefinitely- until you learn a better way.

That's it for now- until later-

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Friday, June 08, 2007

it's all relative

This may seem arcane to some of my readers, but if you're in the position I'm in (that is, missing your glasses, late at night, after spending a week grading endless papers), it's a subject of great interest. I've watched hundreds or thousands of students stumble through the upper levels of our program, some never acquiring relative clauses, others picking them up quite easily but stumbling on other things.

Now I don't believe that it's all genetic, or natural, or that there is a universal order that all language learners will follow on their way to fluency. Sure, they'll pick up relative clauses after they pick up basic sentences, but that's obvious. A tougher question would be: are they all at the same stage of development when they do pick them up? I'm not sure. And, you can run them through a grammar class where you teach them relative clauses explicitly, and it will only make a tiny difference: they will use them for about a week. Then they'll go back to whatever they were doing before. I can't be sure of this though; I only see some of their writing.

In any case, I'm especially interested in two kinds of learners. The first are Arabic speakers, who seem to have something like relative clauses in Arabic, but whose native relative clauses leave a trace, as I believe they would say in my linguistics class. Thus, they'll say, Carbondale is a city that I like it. The "it" is a trace left behind when "that" presumably moved.

What's interesting about this is that, because both languages have lots of relative clauses (use them easily, in many circumstances), Arabic speakers appear to acquire them fairly easily, early in the game. But, because of the trace, you can have a clue that they didn't construct the sentence with native English logic. Constructed in Arabic, it comes out with a relative clause that is flawless, except for the trace which gives away the translation. One could in fact argue that they have not been acquired at all; they are just being used as part of a translation. Which brings up one thorny issue in the measuring of "acquisition".

But the other case is that of Japanese, which has slightly more possibilities of making complex noun structures as appeared for example in the following sentence: "Eighty percent of the people use energy comes from hydroelectric dams." Now we native English speakers would about have to use "energy that people use" - a relative clause - in this sentence, but this speaker obviously didn't feel it was necessary, or didn't want to. Or, was unable to.

I'm interested in the chain of thought in cases like this- and I'm interested in how to change it, since that would represent acquisition I'd like to get to the bottom of it. Comments, anecdotes welcome.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Learning theory

Oddly, I was at a pleasant dinner, outside on a nice, steamy June day, watching children tear around a shady back lawn, when it hit me about how I would pull all this learning theory stuff together. Of course, a lot of it will have to be written as I go along, and is not set in stone yet, even in my mind. But I've already done a bit of writing on the subject, and I believe I'm ready to organize and move forward with what I've got. I'll lay out the plan below. That way I can say I've published it; I put it down, printed it, got it out there in the world, whether I die tomorrow or not.

Krashen was right about a number of things, and wrong about a few crucial things. When he clearly defined the difference between learning and acquisition, most veteran teachers said yes! - because anyone who has taught a language has experienced the students who can learn tricks for a test, yet be unable to use them in real situations, sometimes less than ten minutes later. We teachers knew that things, lots of things, were learned but never acquired; that Krashen was onto a crucial distinction. With time, researchers sneered at him, because he was unable to show exactly how one would prove that something was learned but not acquired. Krashen in fact has a very bad name among SLA researchers for basically having unprovable hypotheses.

On this problem I'll say, I agree with the teachers; he was onto something. Just because he was unable to show exactly how it could be done, doesn't mean it can't be done. His model, in this instance at least, was quite right.

His biggest weakness was that he was caught up in the Chomsky era and assumed or believed that so much of what happened in language learning was inherent or derived from completely natural, inborn systems. In this regard he was wrong about a number of other hypotheses; first of which was a LAD, or language acquisition device, which made me laugh when I first heard about it, and still reminds me somewhat of a tumor, or maybe a heart implant. But that's not really what i'm posting about.

Because he thought of acquisition as a natural, inborn process, he didn't take much time distinguishing the differences between first and second language acquisition, which are in fact substantial. The whole Chomskian era, with its emphasis on the inborn nature of acquisition, has this weakness. The two are quite different, and all the differences are behavioral, since the second language learner has a language system already, when he starts, and thus builds new understanding of a new language on top of assumptions which are, in many cases, false.

Thus the first language learner is like a filing clerk who looks at a huge pile of files and says, I'll have to look at these for a while before I really know how to organize them- but I'll start organizing them anyway, as I look at them, because I have to have a way to process this information as I get it, and I can always change my system a little as I go along. The second language learner, however, says, it's a pile of files, it's probably organized like the last pile. I'll use that system, the one I used for the first pile, until I figure out that this one is different, or, at least until I have a better way of organizing it, and until I really believe my life will be simpler if I reorganize it.

Notice that the two filing clerks have profoundly different approaches. Notice also that, by definition, the L2 learner whose first language is Korean has a profoundly different approach to English than the L2 learner whose first language is Arabic, for example. An entirely different system of understanding the language, an entirely different set of systemic hurdles to understanding it completely and becoming fluent.

One of Krashen's hypotheses was that there is a natural order of acquisition. People will learn one grammatical structure before they'll learn another. When they tried to prove this, things got complicated; they ended up with examples that made me angry. I'd say, sure people learn A before they learn B, since you have to learn A before you can possibly learn B...but, I figured, that doesn't prove anything, and certainly doesn't prove that language learning is a natural, inborn process, genetic and as preprogrammed as getting an Adam's apple.

I think he was wrong about that. People whose first language has relative clauses will learn relative clauses at a different time, developmentally, than people whose first language doesn't have them, or whose first language has them, but avoids them at all costs. We choose to acquire what we feel we need the most- and our perception is guided by our experience. Different experience -> different perception -> different needs analysis -> different acquisition order.

Acquisition is basically when the filing clerk says, my life will be simpler if I organize it this new way. I will reorganize my data because I recognize now that a different or better system of organization will be more efficient- will better reflect the data I have- and will thus make it easier for me to communicate, and use the system.

Here are my (rudimentary, I admit) principles of second language acquistion:

Progress in second language acquisition is marked by a voluntary change in the system of the learner- the brain reorganizing itself for the purposes of creating better language and/or being understood more clearly . For example, my Spanish teacher can teach me the difference between ser and estar (ser- the existential be; estar, the locational be) and I can get it right on the quiz and the midterm, but still use ser for all be when I speak Spanish. Then one day I figure it out, and basically put a programming order in my system, one that says, basically, when you're talking about location, use estar; use ser for the other stuff. When this order is successfully put into my production system (I actually remember when I did this- though I couldn't tell you when or where), the learner can be said to have acquired the difference. We can notice that the learner begins getting it right- getting the difference and using the correct verb in the correct slot. And, it's a different time than the time when somebody actually taught him/her the difference.

The mind is aware of the need to reorganize, long before it actually takes the time and effort to do it. This is self-explanatory. We are conservative, and don't take matters of internal organization lightly.

Nobody can tell us how to organize our own filing system. They can, however, point out truths about the way the data is organized, which we, as language learners, will recognize when we see, and respond to accordingly. Some semblance of control is necessary, however, if only for the sake of pride. It's my mind. I'll change it only when I'm ready, you lay off telling me how to think.

The kid who becomes bilingual at a young age is at a distinct advantage, because he/she sets up two filing systems right away, rather than running the second one through the first. More about this later.

The baby hears mountains of data before actually having to produce anything in a first language. The adult second language learner, however, hears much less, and, as an adult, will have to produce much sooner. And furthermore, he/she hears a lot less of some things, for example commands, that kids hear a lot of. So it is possible that he/she has a different kind of interpretation just on the basis of what he/she has already heard, let alone a different interpretation based on false assumptions carried over from the first language. One that I recall, though I don't remember it being proven in any way, was a theory that the -ING form of a verb was the basic form (the most common- the starting point). If you didn't go through several years of come here, give me a kiss, go to bed, eat your spinach..., that might be possible, I suppose. I'd like to ask some language learners.

More about this later. This whole treatise will be moved, I assure you, to a permanent home on the web somewhere.

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Leverett, T. (2007, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57.

This is one attempt at social commentary on the effects of online environments on modern culture. Because of the computer, various things are happening: we who are online have much more contact with people in faraway lands; standardization of the language is a steady but sure process; oral dialects have become less integral as part of our lives, as most people have command of a standard Hollywood kind of dialect that they can use with strangers; the written language has become more important as a introductory tool and as a shared language among people who don't know each other and have never met; written dialects exist in places where people do a lot of online interaction, share many experiences in common, and develop their own shortcuts independently of the written language outside the confines of that environment (examples: World of Warcraft, Second Life); the relationship of written and oral language is actually changing in front of our eyes.

Enough for now. I'll let you know when this one is online; it's really not that complicated. The magazine is extremely well-made, interesting, modern, hip and glossy- all at the same time. I'm not sure if you can get it at the corner store, though. Fortunately, they're really nice about putting it online. They also put really nice pictures along with the articles, and give us (CESL/SIUC) free advertising. It's a bargain for everyone, unless, of course, I were trying to make a living from writing.

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