Friday, April 04, 2014

Cultural flexibility presentation

Leverett, T. (2014). Cultural flexibility as a characteristic of good language learners. Third Annual AL/SL Conference on Language Learning and Teaching, Texas Tech University, April.

Gave this presentation today, and got lots of input. The handout will follow, as will links to several things I've written about it. I'm a little slow in getting it all online, but will, all in good time.

The essence of it is, when you fill a classroom with well-motivated adults wanting to learn a second language, their own native culture will be an impediment to their learning, and will provide variation in learners. For example, those from languages without article systems will find our article system pointless and ridiculous, and will have trouble learning it, whereas those from Spanish or Portuguese backgrounds, for example, will have the mental framework and will have already accepted the principle of such a system. People spoke of things in language that were hard to swallow: An old Chinese man spoke of how he couldn't get over English's failure to distinguish kinds of cousins (mother's side? father's side? male? female? older? younger? etc.). An American woman learning Arabic spoke of the way the language pulled you into the religion and she had trouble with that. One Chinese woman pointed out that she herself had reservations about acquiring such expressions as "bless you" which seem overtly Christian. The trouble we have in just adapting an entire system is often internal resistance to the culturally unpalatable demands of the new situation.

More on this later. It was to some degree unfinished business; I taught ESL for 28 years, and now am seeing the top end of it, people who are almost fluent. How can I look back at the whole process, and dispense wisdom from what I've seen? Basically, everyone was motivated, at least on the first day. Everyone had a memory and a working mental apparatus, with the slight exception of a few that were missing a switch here or there. So what remained, and why did people learn languages at different rates? This presentation attempts to get at the answer.

A good discussion occurred about the passive voice. A claim was made earlier in the day that active was more basic than passive, thus bound to be acquired earlier; that would be more natural, that would be as it was meant to be. There is a natural order to these structures, this speaker said, and we learn them in order.

Alas, but my presentation points out the ways we don't learn them in order, or, we take that order in our own hands, and impose our own order on the system, and acquire any feature only when we're ready. Thus it would be possible for a person to acquire articles first, or last, depending on their inclination, but more important, with passives, it would be theoretically possible for a person to deliberately acquire passive and passive only, since it is not required to know active before one knows passive, or to "enter" the cognitive sphere through the active voice. Is it? That, I think, would be my more fundamental research question.

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