24. The Probable Language Brain [2013, extended 2015]

Abstract: Let us sup­pose that you are a research lin­guist, tor­mented by some doubts and ques­tions about the state of your pro­fes­sion, and not con­strained by hav­ing to repeat a cat­e­chism of “known truths” to Lin­guis­tics 101 stu­dents, and not wor­ried about employ­ment tenure. How would you actu­ally go about tack­ling “the cen­tral prob­lem of lin­guis­tics”, namely how we acquire and main­tain knowl­edge of the prob­a­bil­ity of sys­temic rela­tion­ships in a lan­guage?

Here are two sim­ple prag­matic truths :

a) if you ask me the pro­duct of 9×8 I can tell you instantly : 72

b) if you ask me the pro­duct of 9×14 I have to cal­cu­late out each digit, then remem­ber to add the results. It is slow and I might eas­ily make a mis­take. That is because in my pri­mary school they only made us mem­o­rize up to 12×12.

The first act, a) is per­formed cour­tesy of my pro­ce­du­ral mem­ory and as a pro­duct of a phys­i­cal neu­ronal rela­tion­ship. (Pro­ce­du­ral mem­o­ries are rou­ti­nes acquired by prac­tice until they become sub­con­scious, such as the skill of dri­ving a car. Psy­chol­o­gists would prob­a­bly call the neu­ronal rela­tion­ship some kind of “long term mem­ory”). I am unlikely to ever for­get the answer to 9×8, but grow­ing that asso­ci­a­tion was hard. It took a lot of child­hood prac­tice.

The sec­ond act, b) is per­formed by the con­scious appli­ca­tion of rules I have learned. Delib­er­ate mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and addi­tion seems to take place in a work­room next to my declar­a­tive mem­ory. (Declar­a­tive mem­o­ries are learned facts acces­si­ble to con­scious recall. Psy­chol­o­gists would prob­a­bly call the work­room “short term mem­ory”). On a bad day I might stum­ble try­ing to apply the rules of arith­metic. Large num­bers of peo­ple never become any good at it.

In one way, my knowl­edge of a) is some­what sim­i­lar to my knowl­edge of my native lan­guage. I don’t have to sit there try­ing to apply “gram­mar rules” before I can talk. Rather, the flow of words, like the result of mul­ti­ply­ing 9×8 emerges instantly.

Con­tinue read­ing

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25. Monolingualism and How to Fix It (if it needs fixing)

Abstract: The argu­ment I will develop in this essay is that the for­eign stu­dents are a latent human resource who can assist with over­com­ing Eng­lish mono­lin­gual­ism in the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion. For­eign stu­dents, prop­erly rewarded, can be a major source of skills trans­fer. Every one of those stu­dents is a walk­ing com­pendium of lan­guage and cul­tural skills that Aus­tralians need to know.

Nations which have Eng­lish as a dom­i­nant mother tongue are often accused of fool­ish mono­lin­gual­ism. There are pop­u­la­tions in other lan­guages which are also mono­lin­gual for a vari­ety of rea­sons, although mul­ti­lin­gual­ism has been and remains the most com­mon world­wide pat­tern. At this point in his­tory how­ever, Eng­lish mono­lin­gual­ism is espe­cially resis­tant to chal­lenge, and will be at the core of this dis­cus­sion.

Anglo-cul­tures nour­ish a widely accepted social meme which dis­par­ages lan­guage learn­ing. The strong form of this meme is “we can’t learn for­eign lan­guages”, and the weaker vari­ant, “it is a waste of time to learn for­eign lan­guages because every­one speaks Eng­lish”. The sup­port­ing ratio­nale to the weak form of rejec­tion is that “if we need interpreting/translation there are plenty of peo­ple in this coun­try who can do it”.

It is not dif­fi­cult to dis­prove the hope­less “we can’t learn…” atti­tude. How­ever it has proved very dif­fi­cult to chal­lenge the “lan­guage learn­ing is a waste of time” atti­tude, partly because most Anglo-coun­tries now do have large immi­grant pop­u­la­tions which are a use­ful source of lan­guage skills for at least one gen­er­a­tion. The chal­lenge is also dif­fi­cult because “waste of time” in the end is a mea­sure­ment of cul­tural value, and only inci­den­tally a mea­sure of eco­nomic value. Con­tinue read­ing

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23. Testing for Teaching; Teaching to What?

The out­line which fol­lows analy­ses the two halves of a lan­guage teacher’s pro­fes­sion:

a) The first half is daily class­room prac­tice : what is taught and how is it eval­u­ated?

b) The sec­ond half of a teacher’s pro­fes­sion is to know or at least esti­mate what is going on in the brains of her stu­dents : what is learned and how is it learned?

Teach­ing is a sim­u­la­tion machine. Learn­ing is for life. The implicit pro­fes­sional chal­lenge is in mak­ing the sim­u­la­tion use­ful for liv­ing.

Note: The dis­cus­sion here reflects a teacher’s inter­est in actual lan­guage learn­ing, rather than that spe­cial game which sets out to man­u­fac­ture “the IELTS/TOEFL per­form­ing clone”. Also, I have ter­med these notes an “out­line”. It would be an abuse of lan­guage to call them an aca­d­e­mic paper in any fin­ished sense, and the absence of ref­er­enc­ing rein­forces that. There are, after all, whole aca­d­e­mic fac­ul­ties devoted to the study of test­ing, though unfor­tu­nately most teach­ers have never heard of them. Still, for those in a hurry, these reflec­tions of my own may crys­tal­lize some of the ques­tions which, sooner or later, will trou­ble any thought­ful teacher.

Con­tinue read­ing

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22. Hidden Boundaries – A Joint-Venture Education Program in China

This review is a post-mortem of an edu­ca­tion joint-ven­ture between an Aus­tralian col­lege and a Chi­nese col­lege in cen­tral China at the three year mark*. It has lessons for pol­icy, man­age­ment, teach­ing and learn­ing. The focus is on for­eign lan­guage teach­ing, but most of the ele­ments also apply to other fields of study. 

[* The Aus­tralian writer was leav­ing China due to an inco­her­ent Pub­lic Secu­rity Bureau reg­u­la­tion that a work visa could not be extended beyond 65 years of age, regard­less of real fit­ness].

Scene I: The Joint-Ven­ture Busi­ness Model

The for­eign partner’s busi­ness model was designed to move grad­u­at­ing stu­dents to Aus­tralia for fur­ther study. Such stu­dents would there­fore have to meet cer­tain aca­d­e­mic and Eng­lish lan­guage stan­dards. The Chi­nese college’s busi­ness model had a pub­lic ver­sion and an implicit ver­sion, the actual one, which only grad­u­ally became clear to the for­eign part­ner over time. 

Admis­sion to the nor­mal col­lege pro­gram was cheap in Chi­nese terms, but was cemented to a cer­tain admis­sion level by the national Gaokao (高考) exam­i­na­tions. The admis­sion mark was not espe­cially high, since this was not a pres­ti­gious insti­tu­tion, but it existed. There were how­ever still large num­bers of fail­ing stu­dents whose fam­i­lies had suf­fered the humil­i­a­tion of not being allowed to send their chil­dren to col­lege. That fail­ure of course meant a seri­ous net loss of future oppor­tu­nity and income to those fam­i­lies.

How­ever, there was an even worse prob­lem. In a cul­ture where ‘face’ (面子mianzi) has immense force, buy­ing one’s way out of humil­i­a­tion has been an estab­lished prin­ci­ple for gen­er­a­tions, and of course cre­ates count­less busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties. The college’s plan (so obvi­ous in the Chi­nese uni­verse, so opaque to the for­eigner) was to legit­imize the admis­sion of fail­ing stu­dents by bring­ing them into an “inter­na­tional” pro­gram at three times the stan­dard national fee level. 

Whether these “inter­na­tional” pro­gram stu­dents ever grad­u­ated at a level suf­fi­cient for inter­na­tional study was irrel­e­vant to the Chi­nese college’s income stream, and (it turned out) beyond the expec­ta­tions and finances of nearly all the stu­dents. This is not a new model. The South Korean ter­tiary edu­ca­tion sys­tem plays out the same par­a­digm on a large and very prof­itable scale. 

Con­tinue read­ing

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21. WHAT NEXT? Eighty things to do with students learning English

This is a col­lec­tion of things to do in a class­room, plus a lit­tle expla­na­tion for teach­ers. The col­lec­tion is not a syl­labus, it is not graded and it is cer­tainly not “com­plete” (what would “com­plete” mean here?). How­ever bits of it should be use­ful for almost any­one teach­ing Eng­lish.

All teach­ers accu­mu­late a reper­toire of tricks. Over the years they find that some things work well for them, oth­ers not so well. Some approaches suc­ceed bril­liantly with one class, but fall flat with the next one. There is prob­a­bly a com­mon core of tech­niques and activ­i­ties pop­u­lar at any given time, with a fairly small num­ber of cre­ative teach­ers on the mar­gins invent­ing (or rein­vent­ing) extra ways to get across and embed skills or knowl­edge.

The present out­line is ded­i­cated to those Mon­day morn­ings when all inspi­ra­tion fails. Cur­ricu­lums are dull doc­u­ments, and unless a teacher is entirely a text book sludge repeater, she will want to use lively and inter­est­ing activ­i­ties as tools for meet­ing the abstract cur­ricu­lum objec­tives. It is there­fore use­ful to have a reminder list of activ­i­ties which can be adapted for the class wait­ing in room 201. Con­tinue read­ing

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20. Please Tell Me Some Idioms to Learn

Abstract : What is an idiom? The answer is both com­plex and fuzzy. This short paper is a col­lo­quial dis­cus­sion that begins with a stu­dent inquiry about learn­ing idioms and pro­gresses to the real­iza­tion that idioms are an inde­ter­mi­nate cat­e­gory which raise deep ques­tions about the nature of col­lo­ca­tion and cog­ni­tive lan­guage pro­cess­ing.

She was try­ing to be con­ver­sa­tional. “Tell me some good idioms”, she said. I’ve been guilty of revers­ing this as a learner of Chi­nese. “Tell me the best 成语 (chengyu) to learn”, I’ll demand of some star­tled Chi­nese accoun­tancy stu­dent or engi­neer. We should all know bet­ter. Not many of us can man­age the turn-on-a-pin­head instant wit of an Oscar Wilde, and how can we find a fit for those expec­tant ears in another head? So we mum­ble the first thing that comes to mind from tens of thou­sands of Eng­lish idioms or Chi­nese 成语.

This time I stonewalled the lady, not plan­ning to be rude, just a kind of sub­con­scious rebel­lion. “Some good idioms?” For what, when, how, why and under what level of threat?  She was ask­ing for a bucket of sea­wa­ter to explain the world’s ocean cur­rents. That’s the trou­ble with know­ing too much about a sub­ject for a 30 sec­ond sound bite (no arro­gance intended). She went off in a huff, look­ing for her sound­bite. After all, for a real answer there was always Google online, with zil­lions of sources and lists. The trou­ble is, they wouldn’t help her much unless she had a pho­to­graphic mem­ory, and even then not much either. Why not?  Con­tinue read­ing

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19. Stress, Rhythm and Intonation

Abstract: These are notes on Eng­lish stress, rhythm and into­na­tion. Part A is for stu­dents and Part B is for teach­ers. The treat­ment here is “tech­ni­cal”, as by a lin­guist, but in very plain lan­guage. Even with poor for­mal Eng­lish, L2 speak­ers who “sound right” will gain social accep­tance, and this in turn will greatly accel­er­ate their learn­ing. Firstly the con­cept of “the music of a lan­guage” is intro­duced. It is noted that lan­guages are on a scale of “syl­la­ble timed” to “stress timed” (though this is not a sim­ple mat­ter). Eng­lish is a stress-timed lan­guage. Both word stress and sen­tence stress are essen­tial in Eng­lish. How­ever, proper word liaison and eli­sion marks native speak­ers from non-native speak­ers. Some advice is given on how to prac­tice pri­vately and in a class­room. The impor­tance of teacher talk as a model is noted.

Part A  – For Students

1. Recognizing the “music” of foreign languages:

I have a short wave radio. I can hear voices from many lan­guages. I turn the dial and hear Rus­sian. I don’t under­stand Rus­sian, but I know it is Rus­sian.

As I go through the sta­tions I hear Japan­ese and Span­ish, Viet­namese and Ger­man. I can’t speak these lan­guages, but I know what they are when I hear them.

HOW DO I KNOW? Well, my mind has learned a lit­tle of the MUSIC of those lan­guages. Each one sings a dif­fer­ent “song”. Con­tinue read­ing

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18. Fluency Vs Accuracy OR Fluency AND Accuracy for Language Learners?

Abstract : This sem­i­nar paper indi­cates a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in objec­tives between lan­guage learn­ing for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and learn­ing for live use. Whereas accu­racy is an absolute goal within school­ing con­texts, its value on the street is highly vari­able. This dif­fer­ence is reflected in teach­ing per­spec­tives. // This is the out­line of a sem­i­nar on teach­ing method­ol­ogy given as a teacher inser­vice for Chi­nese Eng­lish teach­ers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, in Novem­ber 2009. 

1. Why do we teach Eng­lish?

  • Stu­dents learn a lan­guage sup­pos­edly to use it in their jobs, or other areas of their future life.
  • As teach­ers in schools, we mostly don’t teach lan­guage as it will actu­ally be used in jobs or other areas of real life.
  • As teach­ers in schools, we mostly teach lan­guage for exam results, or for tests like IELTS. We can’t avoid this. It is a fea­ture of mass edu­ca­tion.
  • Our dis­cus­sion will mostly be about teach­ing in this col­lege in Zhengzhou, China, for col­lege pur­poses. How­ever, I will begin by look­ing at the larger idea of how real lan­guage is used.
    Con­tinue read­ing
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17. Basic Tips for Language Teachers

Abstract : These notes [2300+ words] con­sist of three parts : 1. Some short back­round notes on the pro­fes­sion of teach­ing lan­guages; 2. A few use­ful links for teach­ing tips and con­tent; 3. A col­lec­tion of ten activ­i­ties which the sem­i­nar pre­sen­ter has invented or bor­rowed, and found to be pop­u­lar with students.// This is an out­line from one of a monthly series of sem­i­nars by Thor May on teach­ing skills. The sem­i­nars were given as a teacher inser­vice for Chi­nese Eng­lish teach­ers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China. This sem­i­nar was con­ducted on 10 June 2008

1. Back­ground Teach­ing Notes

1.1 The Lan­guage Play­ing Field

1.1.1 Lan­guage teach­ing is about a) skilled teach­ing, and b) USING lan­guage.

1.1.2 Many of the skills involved in the pro­fes­sion of teach­ing are com­mon to teach­ing most sub­jects. The teach­ing pro­fes­sion is really about a) per­suad­ing peo­ple to learn, and b) help­ing them to learn.

1.1.3 As every sales­man knows, per­sua­sion is cus­tomer-cen­tered. Sell­ing refrig­er­a­tors to Eski­mos is tough work, just as sell­ing a risk of embar­rass­ment to teenagers is tough work. The sales­man must be cun­ning.

1.1.4 A few peo­ple want to know ABOUT the inner work­ings of lan­guage. They are ana­lytic lin­guists. Every­one else just wants to USE it. Learn­ing a new lan­guage, it may some­times help a stu­dent to know some­thing about its inner work­ings. The teacher has to make a judge­ment about this, while also remem­ber­ing her own lim­ited knowl­edge about how the lan­guage works. How­ever, the first duty of a lan­guage teacher is actu­ally using the new lan­guage her­self, and encour­ag­ing her stu­dents to use it.  Con­tinue read­ing

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16. Grammar for Language Teachers

This entry has the struc­ture of a sem­i­nar pre­sen­ta­tion. It was just that,  for Chi­nese teach­ers of Eng­lish in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China, May 2008. I hope that you find it provoca­tive enough to be use­ful.

Abstract: 1. What are we doing when we do gram­mar ? / 2. So what is grammar?/ 3. Where do the rules in book gram­mars come from ? / 4. So is gram­mar just about the links between words ? / 5. Lan­guage gram­mar always hap­pens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain / 6. What should gram­mar teach­ers teach ? / 7. Do stu­dents learn use­ful lan­guage con­trol from study­ing gram­mar books? / 8. Can teach­ers teach gram­mar? / 9. How can lan­guage teach­ers be most use­ful? / 10. Do gram­mar mis­takes mat­ter? / 11. Is accu­racy more impor­tant than flu­ency?


Think about the fol­low­ing –

1. What are we doing when we do gram­mar ?

1.1. Ducks _ _ _ _ [add one word / add one word / add one word …. com­plete this sen­tence ] (class game)

1.1.1. Why did you choose those words ?

1.1.2. Would native speak­ers choose the same words as L2 speak­ers on aver­age?

1.1.3 Would Aus­tralians choose the same words as Amer­i­cans?

Con­tinue read­ing

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