11. Some Mysteries of Language Learning

An expert is a fool a thou­sand miles from home. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully failed to learn about nine lan­guages, I’m a vet­eran lan­guage learn­ing imbe­cile, always a thou­sand miles from suc­cess, and an eter­nally hope­ful begin­ner. I’ve also had the cheek to teach my native lan­guage to hope­ful novices for over thirty years, which some­times leads them and oth­ers to mis­take me for a wannabe guru. The sheer hypocrisy of this dilemma should con­demn me to embar­rassed silence forever, yet I per­sist prob­ing the rea­sons and reme­dies for my own lan­guage learn­ing incom­pe­tence. After all, my exas­per­ated search is surely shared by mil­lions of oth­ers. The dis­cus­sion which fol­lows is infor­mal, but makes seri­ous points. It builds on an orig­i­nal e-mail exchange with a cor­re­spon­dent in 2005. 

[illus­tra­tion cour­tesy of Dr Phap Damwho unlike me made a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion into the world of another lan­guage.]

Hi Thor,

I would like to talk about your anal­ogy of play­ing chess/football in con­nec­tion to learn­ing a for­eign lan­guage;[ed: an allu­sion to my May 1995 paper. See ref­er­ences].

First let me tell you that I used to live among Indone­sian over­stay­ers in Welling­ton. One had man­aged to sur­vive for many years (maybe 10 years) work­ing at McDonald’s kitchen unde­tected by the immi­gra­tion. So it is the equiv­a­lence of “hav­ing played chess/football” for many years in terms of for­eign lan­guage learn­ing. And yes, unde­ni­ably, he could make him­self under­stood by speak­ing Eng­lish, not Indone­sian, in his work­ing envi­ron­ment. 

How­ever, it was totally dif­fer­ent than I had worked in an IT gam­ing soft­ware audit­ing com­pany and then in a tech­ni­cal call cen­tre. Had he had the same tech­ni­cal skills as I had, it would still be very hard to cope with the tasks involved using that kind of Eng­lish level.

I remem­ber on one occa­sion, he left a note in the kitchen of our flat mean­ing: don’t be messy because there is a cat. But the writ­ten Eng­lish was so funny, in the sense that it is rid­dled with any kind of mis­takes, that the other over­stayer wrote a joke com­ment on it.

When I dis­cussed with other Indone­sians who had a good mas­tery of Eng­lish, the con­clu­sion was that they sim­ply did not learn. Esp, at lower strata of life, you don’t need to mas­ter Eng­lish to sur­vive. So the other way round, the fact that you can sur­vive is not a proof that you have mas­tered a for­eign lan­guage sim­ply by hav­ing been in a lan­guage speak­ing envi­ron­ment.

One more point is that the anal­ogy is not all true. If you play chess or foot­ball, what is wrong is absolutely wrong. But this does not apply in speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage. For exam­ple: you can say “I have do” or “I have doing” and still make your­self under­stood as “I have done” and in most sit­u­a­tion peo­ple won’t be both­ered to cor­rect you. So learn­ing through mak­ing mis­takes in this sense, even if it is true, is a very slow and very long process.

And the over­stayer exam­ple also shows that there is a dif­fer­ence between a child learns his/her mother tongue and a non-native speaker adult learns a for­eign lan­guage. It would take too long for an adult to learn a for­eign lan­guage using child-learn-to-talk approach.

Cheers, Ming

Hello Ming,

The game anal­ogy for lan­guage learn­ing is only partly rel­e­vant, as you noticed, espe­cially for chess (where you nor­mally do learn the basic rules before try­ing to play). Touch foot­ball, with its learn-as-you-go pat­tern and loose inter­pre­ta­tion of rules it prob­a­bly closer.

You are also right that most games impose a penalty for rule-break­ing, while in lan­guage the mes­sage is the impor­tant thing, and the mes­sage can often be inferred even when rules are “bro­ken”. In fact there is some­thing impor­tant going on behind that fact. Hardly any lan­guage teach­ers or text book writ­ers seem to real­ize what it is.

The human brain works like a par­al­lelinfor­ma­tion proces­sor, not a lin­ear proces­sor as in your per­sonal dig­i­tal com­puter. Lin­ear com­put­ing is very eco­nom­i­cal, it yields math­e­mat­i­cally cer­tain out­comes, but it is extremely frag­ile. A sin­gle rule vio­la­tion will freeze the pro­cess­ing, which is why com­puter pro­grams crash con­stantly. (There is an apoc­ryphal story that a NASA Venus probe was lost in the early days because a sin­gle comma was miss­ing in the com­puter pro­gram).

Par­al­lel pro­cess­ing needs much more com­put­ing power than lin­ear com­pu­ta­tion, and its out­comes are always prob­a­bilis­tic, not cer­tain. One the other hand, it is extremely robust : SOME kind of use­ful answer or result can usu­ally be inferred, although the prob­a­bil­ity of it being the right one varies. Human com­mu­ni­ca­tion is like this. We are never quite cer­tain that we under­stand exactly what the speaker means, but we are right often enough to get by.

That describes your Indone­sian friend, doesn’t it. He could sur­vive socially with noodle speech, and even hold down a sim­ple job. He struck a prob­lem with writ­ing because the cul­tural rules attach­ing to for­mal pat­terns in writ­ing are more demand­ing than the stan­dards of infor­mal speech. The stricter stan­dards exist because writ­ing is nearly always sep­a­rated from the orig­i­nal con­text of the mes­sage, so there is noth­ing else such as body lan­guage or a social sit­u­a­tion to help with decod­ing it. There­fore it is not sur­pris­ing that writ­ing is not “acquired” auto­mat­i­cally by young chil­dren (let alone adults). 

All human beings have to be TAUGHT writ­ing AFTER they have acquired spo­ken com­pe­tency in their mother tongue. In fact, only a minor­ity of native speak­ers ever become flu­ent writ­ers of their lan­guage. Beyond sim­ple things like shop­ping lists and SMS elec­tronic text mes­sages, writ­ing is a stilted and painful activ­ity for the major­ity of peo­ple every­where. They are a bit more at ease with read­ing, but the read­ing age of most pop­u­la­tions decline after about 14 years of age (i.e. after puberty very large num­bers of learn­ers lose inter­est in this kind of learn­ing). In Australia’s sup­pos­edly advanced soci­ety, 47% of peo­ple do not have suf­fi­cient lit­er­acy to read a med­ical pre­scrip­tion or a train timetable accord­ing to a recent cen­sus. The fig­ures are roughly com­pa­ra­ble in other OECD coun­tries. It is true that func­tional lit­er­acy is a fuzzy and con­tested notion (see Larsen 2002, and Wikipedia 2012). Still, there is no doubt that vast num­bers of native speak­ers strug­gle with lit­er­acy in a way that never occurs with speech. 

Even faced with bad writ­ing how­ever, a well edu­cated lan­guage user can gen­er­ally extract use­ful infor­ma­tion (an abil­ity that illit­er­ates may lack). In spite of the Indonesian’s crazy note Ming, you prob­a­bly guessed the drift of his writ­ten mes­sage cor­rectly. We humans are geniuses at “find­ing” mean­ing, some­times even when there is none to be found. (Hands up if you have never “seen” faces or ani­mals while you were look­ing at clouds in the sky ^_^ ).

The kind of expla­na­tions I have been offer­ing here about the com­pli­cated world of lan­guage learn­ing are not what you will nor­mally hear from uni­ver­sity teach­ers of Applied Lin­guis­tics. Why not? Well, for a moment let’s take a turn away from real peo­ple learn­ing real lan­guages, and look a lit­tle at the the­o­ries about men­tal lan­guage cre­ation cooked up by aca­d­e­mics, and taught in schools and uni­ver­si­ties …

Firstly, at the moment the major­ity of text books and pub­lished mod­els by lin­guists about how lan­guages work assume a lin­earpro­cess­ing model for the human brain. Every era has its metaphors, usu­ally com­ing from the won­ders of that age. At present we are rev­el­ing in the enor­mous changes wrought by dig­i­tal com­put­ing, which hap­pens to depend mostly upon lin­ear com­pu­ta­tion. Of course, we quickly draw on this as an anal­ogy to explain our own thought processes. Added to this ten­dency is the pow­er­ful effect of peer pres­sure in pro­fes­sional groups. For aca­d­e­mics, “pub­lished” is a key term, the sur­vival word for a career. As with reli­gions and ide­olo­gies, in acad­e­mia it is usu­ally a health risk to chal­lenge ortho­doxy. It is rel­e­vant to keep these pres­sures in mind when eval­u­at­ing any con­tem­po­rary research con­clu­sions.

The “stan­dard model” of lan­guage cog­ni­tion for half a cen­tury now has come from Noam Chomsky’s essen­tially lin­ear (though recur­sive) gen­er­a­tive gram­mar mod­els, which require a “deep struc­ture” in the mind called UG, mean­ing (for him) uni­ver­sal gram­mat­i­cal rules com­mon to all lan­guages, and genet­i­cally pro­grammed only for human lan­guage.

The UG model claims that chil­dren learn­ing their first lan­guage don’t need huge speech input from par­ents or oth­ers because they already know the rules, and only have to switch the right ones on for their L1. How­ever, after a cer­tain age (“crit­i­cal period”) this won­der­ful con­ve­nience of auto­matic lan­guage learn­ing is no longer avail­able, so it becomes hard to learn L2, L3 etc. 

Well, we adults can cer­tainly agree that for­eign lan­guage learn­ing is a tough chal­lenge. How­ever, the crit­i­cal period hypoth­e­sis (which is con­tro­ver­sial itself) is not nec­es­sar­ily linked to UG. I was per­son­ally skep­ti­cal about the UG story even as a stu­dent, and I have for­mally rejected it since the 1980s. This is the rea­son that I walked away with­out com­plet­ing my first PhD on gen­er­a­tive gram­mar in a uni­ver­sity where it was dom­i­nant (a stu­pid career move). 

Of course, researchers work­ing through the prism of UG have still learned many use­ful things. You can get quite use­ful infor­ma­tion even out of fairy tales, although you may have to do some heavy inter­pret­ing and edit­ing later. For what it is worth (I come cheap nowa­days ^_^ ) my unfash­ion­able skep­ti­cism has been get­ting more sup­port lately from research which chal­lenges UG. For exam­ple, see Frank, Bod, & Chris­tiansen (2012) in the ref­er­ence list below, as well as Dabrowska (2012) and Grif­fiths (2011).

Any­way Ming, you want infor­ma­tion that is actu­ally use­ful to teach­ers and stu­dents. From the view­point of class­room lan­guage teach­ing, a heavy insis­tence on ‘rules’ (which may be fairy tales any­way) might be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for many learn­ers. It is true that some stu­dents want more expla­na­tion than oth­ers. The log­i­cal types often ask for some kind of expla­na­tion. They are nearly always a minor­ity, and not nec­es­sar­ily the best L2 learn­ers (I know: I’m one of them). As an explana­tory tool, I have found as a teacher that gram­mat­i­cal expla­na­tion works best as an “aha!” expe­ri­ence, clar­i­fy­ing lan­guage pat­terns which stu­dents already have some con­trol of (see May 2007 for fur­ther dis­cus­sion).

For class­room-type lan­guage learn­ing, my gen­eral expe­ri­ence has been that an empha­sis on flu­ency is more impor­tant than accu­racy up to about inter­me­di­ate stage (see May 2009). Peo­ple need to get air­borne, get some con­fi­dence in using L2. After inter­me­di­ate level, depend­ing on a student’s pro­fes­sional needs, the teacher might offer more guid­ance on for­mal explicit rules. Even at this later stage how­ever, what a stu­dent needs most is curios­ity and the learned skill to guess about rules (really pat­terns) them­selves, before check­ing the opin­ions of text book or dic­tio­nary writ­ers.

Which learn­ing method actu­ally works best for lan­guage learn­ers? One man’s meat is another man’s poi­son. Learn­ing effi­ciency depends a lot on the learner, and peo­ple vary greatly. Some peo­ple are aller­gic to class­room study (a huge prob­lem in mass edu­ca­tion sys­tems gen­er­ally) while oth­ers lack the per­sonal orga­ni­za­tion for pri­vate study. Usu­ally, too, both per­sonal and class­room meth­ods which might be just right for a begin­ner will have to be adapted or changed as the learner pro­gresses to inter­me­di­ate and advanced lev­els. This is hardly sur­pris­ing. The learner’s brain is chang­ing. More­over he or she is devel­op­ing new skills in howto learn. There­fore it is really dis­ap­point­ing that nei­ther schools nor text­book writ­ers usu­ally adapt in any sys­tem­atic way to the chang­ing meth­ods needed by their pro­gress­ing stu­dents.

Reflect­ing on my own early-stage learn­ing expe­ri­ence, prob­a­bly the best series of non-class­room courses I have ever come across are the Pim­sleur audio (only) lan­guage courses, orig­i­nat­ing in the 1960s. They are now pub­lished for many lan­guages. Go to http://www.pimsleurdirect.com/languages/sample/to try half an hour in a lan­guage which you don’t know for free. The pub­lish­ing com­pany retain­ing Pimsleur’s copy­right, Simon & Schus­ter, have used the pio­neer­ing work of the late Dr John Pim­sleur to pro­duce some­times brain-dead, com­mit­tee man­u­fac­tured course con­tent, but the clever design of Pimsleur’s approach has been strong enough to sur­vive even that. This teach­ing pro­gram works for me any­way, and I’m a dumb lan­guage learner. Sure, I am made aware of mis­takes instantly, but it is my aware­ness, not some­one telling me in a puni­tive way. I just become aware that I need to run the tape again. 

A great advan­tage of courses designed purely for audio like Pim­sleur is that you can learn on your feet, walk­ing or run­ning, which keeps you alert. Against that, a prob­lem for lis­ten­ing-learn­ing + run­ning is that nobody has ever made an MP3 player with big, tac­tile con­trol but­tons and a pro­gram­ma­ble mem­ory which could opti­mize adap­tive learn­ing.

Another crit­i­cal fac­tor that both lan­guage learn­ers and lan­guage teach­ers gen­er­ally han­dle in a very ama­teur man­ner is human MEMORY. With­out lan­guage mem­ory you not only can’t learn or use a lan­guage, you have lost your essen­tial human­ity. “Mem­o­riza­tion” has become a code word in the West for bore­dom and abuse because the process of its man­age­ment is so often han­dled fool­ishly.

This is a big topic. Acquir­ing the first mem­ory traces for a new lan­guage, and cross-link­ing them is a sub­tle process. Rein­forc­ing those first del­i­cate men­tal asso­ci­a­tions needs skill and con­sis­tency, unless you are one of the blessed with won­der­ful mem­ory chem­istry. I could dis­cuss the­o­ries about mem­ory with a great flour­ish of aca­d­e­mic ref­er­ences refer­ring to frag­mented exper­i­ments (usu­ally by psy­chol­o­gists) with­out actu­ally adding much to the daily under­stand­ing of teach­ers and lan­guage stu­dents. How­ever, the prac­ti­cal man­age­ment of mem­ory processes is worth think­ing about. There is some research which can be applied by any­one. Much of it has to do with grad­u­ated (but inter­est­ing!) rep­e­ti­tion. Maybe the best known name asso­ci­ated with this con­cept is Sebas­tian Leit­ner. For a dis­cus­sion of Leitner’s ideas, and a com­mer­cial exten­sion of them, see the Super­memo web page at http://www.supermemo.com/. More recent devel­op­ments of Leitner’s the­ory go by the gen­eral name of Spaced Learn­ing Sys­tems, which have become com­mon in elec­tronic flash­card pro­grams.

Actu­ally I find from per­sonal expe­ri­ence that spaced learn­ing needs to be com­bined with other tools for max­i­mum advan­tage. MULTIPLE CHOICE ques­tions might be one such tool. It is rather remark­able how lit­tle atten­tion has been paid to mul­ti­ple choice as a learn­ing mech­a­nism, as opposed to a test­ing tool. Where the MC learn­ing option has been inves­ti­gated, the evi­dence seems very sup­port­ive (Roedi­ger et. Al. 2010; Klee­man 2010).

For test­ing, MC is often a lazy option, machine pro­gram­ma­ble, which explains its pop­u­lar­ity. (Effec­tive­ness in test­ing comes a poor last when human time and effort by testers is at stake… ). 

How­ever, as a rel­a­tively ungifted lan­guage LEARNER, I find that mul­ti­ple choice, espe­cially with imme­di­ate feed­back, is one of the best ways to lay down the first faint mem­ory traces of a for­eign lan­guage – traces which can be built upon more robustly later in other ways. At the moment I am using an Android app’ for HSK Chi­nese (a bit like Eng­lish TOEFL or IELTS) to do exactly that. It seems that the acts of guess­ing, if nec­es­sary, and choos­ing, main­tain atten­tion in a way that, say, merely flip­ping through flash­cards can­not. This process works best when the mul­ti­ple choice is com­bined with a Leit­ner-type spaced learn­ing algo­rithm to revise the choices which were made incor­rectly.


And now for the Far Side ….

Speak­ing of lan­guage learn­ing mys­ter­ies, none may be so impen­e­tra­ble as the bab­ble of an AUTOMATIC TRANSLATION MACHINE. The fol­low­ing mas­ter­piece claims to be an assign­ment from a Korean stu­dent of Eng­lish who declined to admit that Google Trans­late had met his writ­ing on the way to my desk. Actu­ally it is a coded mes­sage from inter­galac­tic white mice plan­ning a ter­ran inva­sion, but tem­porar­ily dis­guised as com­puter bots.

Hello . I am sorry to be late. I will speak about thou­sand sul­fu­ric acids that I am famous today.

Cloth sul­fu­ric acids are acid in Kyongsang-namdo Milyangsi makeup cot­ton acid inside and the Wool­san city upper fac­ing north bor­der. Height is 1, 189m. 

While cloth sul­fu­ric acids are high-pitched the north and the west, but east four sides one gen­er­a­tion is slow assis­tant inspec­tor, accom­plish even­ness side that is called lion eas­i­ness in height 800m neigh­bor­hood, and is con­nected to south­east four sides of Jaeyak­san (1, 108m). 

Danyangcheon passes for the east of the moun­tain, and Sijeon­cheon that is upper stream of makeup cloth south­ward passes and soaks lion review one gen­er­a­tion.

San­naecheon of the north of the moun­tain makes Gok­jeopy­eongya and is accom­plish­ing agri­cul­ture rent.

It are clause of com­ing to help can­cer Seosangam etc. and Chingch­ing­pokpo “Her­culean strength water­fall” tourist attrac­tion of Hon­gry­ong­pokpo and so on on the west of the moun­tain much cul­tural assets such as mis­sion dialogue’s relics includ­ing Pyochungsa that is.

If is north edge San­nae of the moun­tain, because ice begins to freeze since pump­kin cat­tle, mid-June beside dolomite that hold tra­di­tional Korean rite to pray for rain in other peo­ple fame and wealth, because there is ice mar­row (national mon­u­ment No. 224) that melt in the fall, tourists’ kick does not run out.

Cloth sul­fu­ric acids are con­nected south­west­erly in the spon­tane­ity moun­tain, and is linked by Jaeyak­san because acid is con­nected again south­ward.

Because cloth sul­fu­ric acids are sit­u­ated in Yong­nam dis­tricts Alpine mid­dle,

Yeolnamalpeuseu’s huge moun­tain range and eulalia field etc.. of lion review of view in nor­malcy enter and offer a grand spec­ta­cle at a look. 

North four sides of cloth sul­fu­ric acids is achieved to steep stony cliff zone and the cloth yel­lows, Jaeyaksan’s the moun­tain range west phys­i­cal aspect of a moun­tain does Geupjun because accom­plish­ing Cheongildanae every­where or the west is form­ing steep slope again while slant is slow. 

Also, west val­ley that live dan­der is deep and every­where water­fall of being form­ing mag­nif­i­cent view tak­ing thou­sand sul­fu­ric acid one gen­er­a­tions that had called is Her­culean strength of three south­ern provinces from the exam­ple speak. 

The cloth sul­fu­ric acid wests and the north are steep slope, the east is form­ing gen­tle slope, spe­cially huge rock­walls of nor­malcy neigh­bor­hood Cheongilbye­o­rang make that and there is ice mar­row that ice freezes in the north sum­mer, con­sist of steep stony cliff rock­wall.

Yong­nam dis­tricts Alps’ noted pro­duct is out­spread wide eulalia field over ridge line dur­ing 8–9 min­ute.

This mid­dle Jaeyak­san lion plain is counted to place that eulalia field is out­spread most solemnly. 

To 1 Mil­lion-pyeong as many as to lion plain Ire­une­ungo, if is the fall white per­sonal appear­ance because eulalia grows widely toplofty climbers wel­come .

Cloth sul­fu­ric acids are called is Korea Peninsula’s Yeongsan or Her­culean strength of three south­ern provinces to the Yong­nam dis­tricts Alps cen­ter moun­tain being Milyangsi’s guardian moun­tain.

Next, I will send the other news. Be healthy.



Chom­sky, Noam (1995) The Min­i­mal­ist Pro­gram. Cam­bridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Frank S.L., R. Bod, M. H. Chris­tiansen (2012) How hier­ar­chi­cal is lan­guage use? Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Soci­ety B: Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, 2012; http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/279/1747/4522.full.pdf+html

Griffiths, Thomas L. (2011) Rethinking language: How probabilities shape the words we use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States: PNAS March 8, 2011 vol. 108 no. 10 3825–3826. Online @ http://www.pnas.org/content/108/10/3825.full

Klee­man, John (2010) Mul­ti­ple choice quizzes help learn­ing, espe­cially with feed­back. Ques­tion Mark(blog) @ http://blog.questionmark.com/multiple-choice-tests-help-learning-especially-with-feedback/comment-page-1#comment-63107

Larsen, Mer­rin (2002) Lit­er­acy Lev­els in Aus­tralia – Can Ozzies Reed and Rite?. Kings­ley Edu­ca­tional Pty Ltd. Online @ http://www.kepl.com.au/literacylevels.html

May, Thor (1987) Verbs of Result in the Com­ple­ments of Rais­ing Con­struc­tions. [ed: an exam­ple of the writer’s ear­lier work within, but begin­ning to find lim­i­ta­tions with the gen­er­a­tive lin­guis­tics tra­di­tion]. Aus­tralian Jour­nal Of Lin­guis­tics, Vol.7, No.1, June 1987: pp.25–42 Online @ http://www.academia.edu/1552308/Verbs_of_Result_in_the_Complements_of_Raising_Constructions

May, Thor (1994) Post­sup­po­si­tion And Pas­tiche Talk : Medi­at­ing Order And Chaos In Lan­guage. Work­ing Papers In Lin­guis­tics, Vol. 14, 1994: 22pp. Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne. Online @ http://www.academia.edu/1550958/Postsuppositon_and_Pastiche_Talk

May, Thor (1995) Obser­va­tions on the AMES Cer­tifi­cate in Spo­ken and Writ­ten Eng­lish. [ed: An infor­mal dis­cus­sion paper for teach­ers intended to chal­lenge an incom­ing ESL “com­pe­ten­cies” cur­ricu­lum. It cost the writer a job!].@ http://thormay.net/lxesl/teach3.html

May, Thor (2007) When Gram­mar Doesn’t Help. Inde­pen­dent research, online @ http://www.academia.edu/1562624/When_Grammar_Doesnt_Help

May, Thor (2009) Flu­ency Vs Accu­racy OR Flu­ency AND Accu­racy for Lan­guage Learn­ers? Inde­pen­dent research, online @ http://www.academia.edu/1544290/Fluency_Vs_Accuracy_OR_Fluency_AND_Accuracy_for_Language_Learners

Phap Dam (2010) Hind­sight of an Eng­lish lan­guage learner. Insti­tute of Viet­namese Stud­ies, Texas Wom­ens Uni­ver­sity. Online @ http://www.viethoc.com/Ti-Liu/bien-khao/bai-giang/hindsightofanenglishlanguagelearner

Roedi­ger, Henry L. & Andrew C. But­ler (2010) The crit­i­cal role of retrieval prac­tice in long-term reten­tion. Dept. Psy­chol­ogy, Duke Uni­ver­sity. Trends in Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence(in press). Online at http://duke.edu/~ab259/pubs/Roediger&Butler%282010%29.pdf

Woz­niak, Piotr A. (2012) The Super­memo learn­ing pro­gram, and mem­ory research dis­cussed. Online @ http://www.supermemo.com/

Wikipedia Ref­er­ences

Note: Although I have included a num­ber of Wikipedia ref­er­ences, Wikipedia itself, being crowd-sourced, is always open to sev­ere chal­lenge. How­ever it is unsur­passed as a quick start­ing point to grasp essen­tial con­cepts and pur­sue more thor­ough ref­er­ences. I have assumed that read­ers will use the Wikipedia ref­er­ences here in that spirit. The same prin­ci­ple applies to gen­eral blog dis­cus­sion ref­er­ences.

Wikipedia (2012) The Pim­sleur Method. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pimsleur_method

Wikipedia (2012) The Leit­ner Sys­tem. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitner_system

Wikipedia (2012) Spac­ing Effect (in rec­ol­lec­tion). @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacing_effect

Wikipedia (2012) Dis­trib­uted Learn­ing. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributed_learning

Wikipedia (2012) Spaced Learn­ing @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_learning\

Wikipedia (2012) Func­tional Illit­er­acy @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_illiteracy

Wikipedia (2012) Con­nec­tion­ism. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectionism

Wikipedia (2012) Cog­ni­tive Model & Dynam­i­cal Sys­tems. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_Model#Dynamical_Systems

Wikipedia (2012) Dis­tri­b­u­tional Hypoth­e­sis. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distributional_hypothesis

Wikipedia (2012) Hier­ar­chi­cal Tem­po­ral Mem­ory. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchical_temporal_memory

Wikipedia (2012) Uni­ver­sal Gram­mar [UG]. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar

Wikipedia (2012) Gen­er­a­tive Gram­mars. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_grammar

Wikipedia (2012) Min­i­mal­ist Pro­gram. @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalist_program


copy­righted © Thorold (Thor) May 2012,   all rights reserved
Last update Octo­ber 2012

Bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. Many of his papers, essays and sto­ries may be seen on his web­site at http://thormay.net ; e-mail thormay@yahoo.com .


[This entry has been re-posted from my main web­site at http://thormay.net/lxesl/lxlearningmysteries.html. It is also posted on another of my Word­Press blogs, Thor’s Unwise Ideas . ]

Posted in Grammar, Language learning, Language teaching, Machine translation, method | Tagged | Leave a comment

1. Learning to be Australian

This was a let­ter writ­ten to The Aus­tralian news­pa­per on 17 Feb­ru­ary 1993 (they declined to pub­lish it). I think that its mes­sage still has res­o­nance today.

Dear sir,

We have a large mir­a­cle on our hands here in Aus­tralia. Half of our peo­ple come from some­where else, yet there is no civil war in sight, no eth­nic cleans­ing, no inter­nal refugee cri­sis. How can this be? Is the land and com­mon cul­ture touched with some rare balm of tol­er­ance?

No, one hun­dred and forty source nation­al­i­ties have not sim­ply for­got­ten their dif­fer­ences, nor mag­i­cally rec­on­ciled the clash with Anglo-Aus­tralian expec­ta­tions. Peo­ple here are no bet­ter or worse than they are any­where else. The poten­tial for man’s inhu­man­ity to man is quite as real. We there­fore need to unsen­ti­men­tally iden­tify and pre­serve at all costs the spe­cial mix of ele­ments that has made the mod­ern Aus­tralian nation-state such a haven for coop­er­a­tive liv­ing.

Three ingre­di­ents of the Aus­tralian mir­a­cle spring to mind. The first is eco­nomic well-being, still dis­trib­uted more or less equi­tably through­out the pop­u­la­tion (in spite of present trou­bles). The sec­ond is the open polit­i­cal cul­ture. Polit­i­cal squab­bles are noisy as they are every­where, but it is chook house squawk­ing. Nobody wants blood on the grass. The third ingre­di­ent will have escaped most Aus­tralians, because it is hid­den from their expe­ri­ence.  Con­tinue read­ing

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