Sunday, August 26, 2007

The -s dilemma

I have left my Krashen book at work, and I am at home, late at night, but I feel I ought to comment on this before it slips my mind. One of Krashen's original hypotheses was that there was a distinct order in which people acquire grammatical forms, and that that order was not really affected by the order in which you taught things, etc. Therefore you could arrange a syllabus however you wanted, and it wouldn't really change anything; people would acquire in their own order, regardless of grammar "teaching", can the grammar class, it doesn't have any effect anyway.

Now one thing I like about Krashen was that he did all this while keeping an eye on the classroom and on classroom teachers; he was partly right, in that the order of acquisition is often independent of what is happening in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. However his attempts at finding an immutable "order" were futile, and it certainly wasn't genetic, or universal, or the same for all second-language learners, or even all first-language learners. Or, to be more exact, if there is a common order, they couldn't prove it, or didn't find it.

And, in the book I have, where he looks back over his entire legacy, he brings up the -s dilemma, almost as if that was the thing that beat him. For, if you listen carefully to immigrants, and people who have been here for many years, some have never acquired the habit of putting -s on verbs appropriately. They have learned everything else: relative clauses, complex sentences, etc. But they are still saying, He study English. She live in Chicago.

Now if there were a natural, immutable order, wouldn't this be about the first? It is certainly one of the simpler, more basic rules. It is a rule upon which others are built. Yet, here we are, sometimes 15, 20, 25 years into an acquisition history, and it's not acquired. What's up with that? It felt to me, in reading, that Krashen had been reduced to mumbling into his beer about his failure to explain this. He promised to explain later, but if he did, I never found it.

I maintain that acquisition order can be explained; that it goes straight to human motive and whether a form is necessary to communicate something that could be communicated without it. Thus the answer is, simply, because they can get away with not doing it. Because, unlike other forms, there is little price for not worrying about it.

And the calculations of "price" are scientific- psychological with a human dimension, but measurable, different from person to person, and clearly explainable. It is and always will be a mistake to explain such things as due to complexity of the form itself, or someone's inability to understand or know how to conjugate a verb. People "know how" to conjugate a verb. Though there may have been a point at which they didn't "know how" the verb system worked, it is impossible to explain an extremely late acquisition of -s to "knowledge," since they have now heard -s millions of times; they have even produced it millions of times, in other environments, on plural nouns for example, or possessives, when it's far more necessary to convey specific meaning. So it's also not explainable in terms of the complexity of the sound or the difficulty of producing it under pressure (though I guess that's possible). I think these may be factors, for some learners, especially at the beginning, but in the big picture, for people who are still working with it after 20 years-they begin to fade.

I suspect that if a person were systematic in looking at all learners (and perhaps somebody has done this), he/she would find that in fact people acquire -s at all different times in their acquisition history, depending on different independent variables, which could be mapped out and explained, at least theoretically. Why did someone go thirty years and still not get it? And another person pick it up right away? Surely not because of its essential complexity, or the basic nature of the language itself. Surely people who are looking at this, trying to explain it systematically, have found something they could share. Or, like Krashen, they end up mumbling in their beer, unable, truly, to explain anything?

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

treasure from the turquoise sea and beyond

As hurricane Dean bears down on the Caribbean, I am just finishing a project that started quite a while ago when a man requested a paper on St. Lucian Creole that was written here at SIUC for Dr. Glenn Gilbert, who retired here a few years ago, and who ran the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. I looked for the paper, and finally dug it up on the Wayback Archive ( which is a wonderful resource for web history. The best I could figure, the paper went to Ohio State with the JPCL and its files around 2001, then dropped from sight along with a number of other things, around 2005. SIUC had purged its files, as inactive, around 2003; we did nothing about it, because we considered them part of JPCL, not knowing that some other things were on there. At the time the man asked me for the paper, I did a quick search for JPCL and found nothing (maybe I had transposed the letters? spelled something wrong?), before moving on to another project; I was quite busy, but at least I had found a version of the paper for the man who had asked for it.

It disturbed me, though, and also awakened something in me: I had researched a similar Arawak language, in fact, the entire Arawak family, in graduate school, and this Creole had traces of it; furthermore, work on a small but important language, that was clearly valuable (to two guys, including me, at least), shouldn't be allowed to just disappear like that. My quick and faulty search, though, I don't remember well. JPCL in fact had not disappeared; it's still at Ohio State, and it's not even hard to find, if you get its name right. Not knowing this a month ago, however, I returned to those files, and restored several graduate papers, on languages as diverse as Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Shelta/Gammon (British Isles), Mauritian Creole, and Old Bulgarian. When I was done, I finished an index page, but this time decided to link to some other JPCL material, and in that process found the new JPCL site, which then made me worried about what I was doing with respect to the copyright of the material, and the images on the restored index page.

I concluded, though, that since they were papers that were done here, and published here, it was ok to bring them back here, and make them available, as opposed to leaving them in the archive, where even Google presumably won't find them. The material is valuable, and the fact is that I was about the only person who knew how to find it. It's true that JPCL owns the logo and the name, I'm sure, but I wrote that on the page; because it was part of the page, I kept the images as part of the restoration. I stopped there, at the graduate papers, though. Indexes of JPCLs, abstracts, editorial pages, and creole articles, all of which had been made public at one point, here on our now-defunct ling website, are still buried in the archive, where they will remain until or unless somebody at JPCL chooses to dredge them out. I linked to them, because I think somebody someday will want them- but, after all, most of that stuff is available through the archiving methods used with any print publication. Such material, unlike the papers, isn't really "lost"- it's just "print only," which is similar.

Now that I've unearthed this treasure, what I'd really like to do is read it, in fact, all of it. But unfortunately, school has started again; I teach 18 intensive hours a week; and I must move on, with no time for any more of this, and no patience for explaining a coder's reasoning. I'd like to say, though, that I've come to know an old friend, Caro Jacques, through her code; she put all of this here, and more; whether she did it just as part of a job, or her machine did it and put her signature in it, I wouldn't know, but I credit her with the original work, and I left her name in there, though I changed some of her details. It's really about the languages themselves, and the samples of them, that are on the papers; and, in a sense, I feel like I've taken them as part of a chain, that went back through her hands and through the hands of the authors, some of whom I also knew or know. Information seeks to be free; it surfaces, it makes itself available. This weblog may have the door to it for a while, until I figure out how to connect the main pages to it. But, nevertheless, there it is. I'd like to restore the St. Lucian flag and some other details, but the more of that I do, the less the pages actually belong to Caro and their original authors. I restored the images I could find, but that only amounted to about half of them. I figured that flags, maps and tourist pictures can still be found by anyone who is looking for them, but the language itself that appeared on the pages, or at least these authors' representations of them, these takes on them, would be lost, if I weren't there to prevent it. Yar!

Friday, August 17, 2007

In defense of Linguistics

As I write this I realize that once again the fate of Linguistics at SIUC is probably in the hands of people who may not appreciate the finer points of the science. And it is true that, with the influence of Chomsky and the obfuscating character of the science of the mind's psychology clouding the issue, very few people do have a clear understanding about what linguistics is about, or why anyone should save it. So that's the purpose of this post.

My grandfather was a fan of college wrestling, which, at Iowa State University, was a grand sport; it turns out that in my lifetime, it also has gone by the wayside, although it is probably still alive in the four major universities in Iowa and Oklahoma, and a few other places. He used to say that it was a pure sport- just two athletes and a mat- no tools, no balls, no bats or gloves, just the energy and the force of the bodies, along with the control of them, determining who won. Of course, that was in an era when competition itself had a better name- it didn't always lead to wars, or guns, or ruthless domination. One could argue that in the modern world we know way too much about competition- and now need to learn and practice more in the field of cooperation and understanding. And this is where I make my point: linguistics is to understanding what wrestling is to competing. Nothing but two minds, and the physical properties they control- the use of the mouth, the tongue, the lips, and the voice- and humans not only understand each other, they understand huge ranges of meaning, with inflection, passion, nuance, sarcasm and humor all woven in. And, like wrestling, one could argue that there's an inborn component- we are naturally given some gifts- the natural ability to do this sets us apart from animals, for example- in the same way that some people are born to wrestle or play any other sport.

But careful study of each science shows that the inborn component is far less important than the other elements. It's like watching a wrestling match. Sure, each person is given a certain gift, athleticism, that allows them to be there on that mat in the first place. A certain build, or ability with the muscles, that some of us will never have. But as the match goes on, that becomes much less important, because really, there's so much else that matter so much more...

In communicating there is a delicate balance, an interrelationship, between the written word and the spoken word. This post is delivered entirely in the written format, obviously, but it could just as easily be spoken. If it were, it would sound different, and would be received differently. But the nuanced differences between the paths we choose to take, in reaching across to each other, offer us a look at the human mind and the way it works, that is available in no other field. People have spent centuries studying the nerve endings and pathways that carry messages in the human body. At the same time, they've had very little luck really reconstructing what the science of Linguistics should really be looking for. Linguistics programs nationwide are suffering in the same way ours is- not only because people within the field communicate poorly- but also because they are unable sometimes to represent what Linguistics' role is, in the survival of man and the future of the planet.
Why should we care? It's the same defense people offer for endangered species- and I'm not convinced, by the way, that animals don't have complex language: we shouldn't be destroying something we don't understand; we can guarantee that, if we allow or perpetuate the dismantling and/or destruction of a single science, in a particular place, with the knowledge and history that go with it, we will all be much worse off.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

krashen the hard drive

My new plan is to pull my thoughts about language learning together into a single location; at the moment much of what I've said can be accessed through clicking on the Krashen label below this post. I've had some new ideas but haven't really written them down; tonight I decided to put a few of them here.

Basically I'm organizing language learning by analogy. Learning a second language is like learning to ride a bicycle: it's primarily mind-to-body coordination; it's something that, once you learn it, you might forget parts of it, but you'll pick it up fairly quickly when you try it again.

Language learning is similar to a secretary, or anyone who controls a lot of information, reorganizing the files. You don't do it until after you realize it's necessary; sometimes a good while after. You don't do it unless you know it will make your life easier for a long time to come. You are aware that changing the system is different and much harder than just adding information to it.

But here's the big one: Learning a new language is like cutting through a field, or taking a new route to work. If you just got a new job, you'll take the interstate for a few days, until you suspect that there's a better or faster way. You won't really investigate until you feel more stable at the job, in other words, when you are sure that being more efficient will save you time on a regular other words, part of your calculation, in trying a new route, involves the risk: what about unforeseen problems, red lights, etc. But part of the calculation involves analysis of future gain: if I actually cut five minutes off my time, but do it only once, is it worth the risk? (no...) but, if I could save five minutes every day, would I take the risk to find out if it would be worth it? (yes)...

I maintain that such calculations play a part in learning new grammar: or actually, in making a new grammatical rule part of one's system...that, one will not do it, until that calculation has played out. And I would like to show exactly how people calculate that, and how people have that kind of calculation in common, much as people would, say, all drive from the west side to the center of town; all would calculate in factors such as perceived time taken for each route; perceived risk; perceived atmosphere of the route; yet each driver may come away with a different calculation.

What does Krashen have to do with it? Don't know yet. Lots of good puns come from his name: Krashen burn, after krashen, call the insurance, etc. I will no doubt use a few. But, exactly how I feel about Krashen's theories, I haven't quite nailed down. Obviously I believe in the acquisition/learning distinction: I think it's crucial to understanding. I don't believe that language learning is genetic, any more than choosing a new route through town is genetic. One does what works; life is a series of compromises, many of which are with the traffic gods and the passenger-only lane. But I will say: you read it first here.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

articles from here & there

Cho, Jin-seo (2007, Aug. 3). Indians to teach English via Internet. The Korea Times.

Hill, H. (2007, May 15). Online learning. The Times Democrat, Orangeburg, SC.

Bodie, J. (1998). Teaching technology technique: Computers as teaching tools in postsecondary education. From the 1998 Archives of Black Issues in Higher Education, Diverse Issues in Higher Education online.

Anderson, N. (2007, May 11). File-swapping: As "the Man" says no, students say yes. Ars Technica.

Popular Mechanics. (2007, July). Microsoft Surface: Behind the scenes first look (with video). (new computer applications). (long-loading)

Mystery File. (2007, Aug. 4). The Second International Congress of Crime Writers, 1978.

SECOND LIFE (lest you thought):

Stuhldreher, K. (2007, July 30). Colleges bring learning to a virtual world. Philadelphia Inquirer. Linux Insider.

Haegele, K. (2007, July 15). Second Life literati create "book world". Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lamont, I. (2007, May 21). Harvard's virtual education experiment in Second Life. IDG, Computerworld blogs.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

074 in the rearview mirror

A student deleted the entire eap2 weblog, in the heat of battle, and in the heat of the dog-days of early August. Did it accidentally, in the process of deleting an extra post. Wiped out a couple of years of work, the most immediate problem being the term's fluency exercises, and folk tales including the winning two. Much of these may be recoverable, but may not. Students are already scattering their separate ways; a half dozen have already shot off for Saudi with the end of the TOEFL early today.

What remains? The papers themselves; most of the research papers are still accessible from their names on the templates of the new weblog. An archived version of the weblog can be accessed through the wayback machine; also, many of old classes' work had been downloaded into CESL Todays (this is our backup system). Some students had put their folk tales on thier own weblogs. My grade book remains, with its careful marks of what had been done and what had been mastered, all based on what had been printed off of them, and handed in. So I didn't lose too much in the way of information about what they could write or do.

I have used this weblog to brag professionally about portfolios, abstracts, etc., though, so it is a significant loss. I think it's a loss to all students who came through the class in years past (it covered maybe two or three, including some excellent classes that covered WalMart and other issues)...students who'd like to find a link to their own weblog, if nothing else. That EAP2 weblog had active links to maybe 70 students' weblogs from terms of the last several years. I'll try to get these back also. This could be painfully slow.

Is there any way to just recover the entire thing? Blogger is now quite obtuse; it's difficult to ask a real person a simple question. I'm sure that, on some level, the data exists in some mound of server-generated babble at the warehouse of the great Blogger-server. Somone once dug out our entire website (which had been deleted in a similar accident), from the bottom of SIU's server-logs. It's in there somewhere. I'm sure they don't want to go looking for it, though. I'm sure that if they did, they would then have to go looking for all kinds of other things that they don't want to have to do.

So, I don't hold out much hope. But I'm not angry either. These things happen- to everyone. Our students do have the passwords & logons to our entire system...incredible, huh? Sometimes it takes something like this to remind us of that. To my knowledge, they have never done anything like this on purpose, which is incredible, I guess.

Some students are no doubt glad that their homework won't turn up next time they google themselves. But hey, I've invited anyone to delete their own work, any time, once the grading is finished. It is now finished. Good luck in SIU, EAP2WW!

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Monday, August 06, 2007

languages in the turquoise sea

My own memory is like my e-mail inbox: certain things, about three or four months old, risk falling off the edge of it, into the great abyss, to be forgotten until the great archivist calls me into question. Such it is with the old jpcl files, which have been hiding away in the old wayback archive. I'm very grateful to this archive, for we didn't think to save these files ourselves, and they have information about such languages as St. Lucien Creole, and Mauritian Creole. As you can see I'm not done saving the files, but I haven't given up. Break is almost here; it's 100 degrees in the shade, and I'm finding that old html code is about all I have the patience for.

If any of the links work, have a look around. What you can't find on the surface, you'll find in the archive; and then, if I'm smart, and persistent, it will all come out of the archive, and back home. It'll take some coding, but it's one of my missions in life. These are, after all, endangered files.

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