Posts Tagged ‘Second Language Theory’

The inverted pyramid

November 9, 2010

Language experts often compare levels of foreign language proficiency to that of an inverted pyramid.  As the image (based on the ACTFL proficiency scale) illustrates, at the beginning level (“Novice” in ACTFL terms) there is relatively little space.  It doesn’t take much effort to go from a Zero to a Novice.  A speaker at an elementary level (officially “Intermediate”) needs to know significantly more than the beginner.  As learners get into the Advanced and Superior levels of language proficiency, each new level represents a significant jump in the amount of things that a speaker must do. Progress from an Advanced to a Superior level takes a lot more work than progress from a Novice to an Intermediate.  Thus, the inverted pyramid.

I mention all of this because I find myself confronting this reality.  As I continue to review and practice German, Italian, and Chinese, I really am learning new forms, vocabulary is growing, and listening comprehension is improving. However, despite the fact that deep down things are progressing, a good part of me feels “stuck” in my level.  Some days it is discouraging.

So I want to remind myself (and others):

1.  Relax, paragraph-level tasks really are more difficult that sentence-level tasks.

2.  Relax, it really does take time to build more vocabulary, especially in languages that don’t have cognate forms.

3.  Relax, grammatical nuances take time to appreciate.

All of this reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon that I saw some 25 years ago.  Linus said something like, “We have not been able to answer all of your questions. Indeed, we have not been able to answer any of them completely.  In some ways we are just as confused as before.  However, we believe to be confused about things at a much higher level and about things that are much more important.

That totally applies to language learning.  When I try to speak German, for example, I still hesitate and bungle through just as badly as I used to, but part of it is because I am hesitating and bungling through higher-level tasks.  (BTW, when ACTFL testers perform proficiency exams, if the candidate starts to break down at a higher level, the tester returns to questions at a lower level to see if the candidate can also go back to performing the tasks correctly.)  Who knows that every so often we need to do the same thing with the foreign language that we are studying.  Go back down to some of the simpler tasks that we can perform.  Just try to come back up again soon.

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Grammar, evil or not?

May 12, 2010

As I write this entry we are in the final week of a semester, and I have taught a Portuguese class called “Advanced Grammar and Composition.”  Let me weigh in on the supposed evils of grammar when learning a foreign language.  I know that in today’s world of ‘communicative competence’ and ‘critical period hypothesis’, the idea of grammar has taken on a negative vibe in language learning.  There are people that say that we should not teach any grammar at all, ever.  “Let people learn naturally, like we did when we were little babies.”  Others say that students should discover for themselves all of the nuances of a language, and this will help them remember things.  So where does grammar teaching fit in?

First of all, we are not babies and language learning for adults will never replicate the experience of babies–thank goodness!  Babies go through cognitive development simultaneously with language development.  When parents first say “Timmy, look at the cow.  Do you see the cow?” babies don’t even know yet what a cow is.  First language learning is hard work and little kids struggle with it for years.  However for adults, we already have the cognitive development.  When we learn the word “vaca” in Portuguese we already know what a cow is.

So when it comes to teaching grammar, the key is BALANCE.  Sometimes a little grammar rule can create a great short cut in learning.  For example, knowing the rule “after ‘para que’ use the subjunctive”  can be extremely helpful.  The problem comes when we spend so much time in talking and analyzing grammar that we forget to move on to speaking the new foreign language.  Unfortunately, it’s actually easier to talk about grammar than it is to practice speaking a foreign language.  So, by default we sometimes resort to talking about it instead of doing it.

Hopefully we had that balance in this semester’s Portuguese class.  Take a peek at the student’s projects that are on our course blog called “é isso aí”.  Their creativity and performance were fantastic.

Obrigado gente, eu gostei demais da experiência de poder aprender com vocês.

Learning a language alone…, that is, people don’t

September 16, 2009

IMG_3706Last week I had an interesting conversation with “the linguist”, Steve Kaufmann.  For those of you who don’t know Steve, check out his blog “The Linguist on Language.” He always has an interesting twist on language learning, combining practicality with a good hunk of focused study.  Steve is also the creator of LingQ, another innovative site for language learning that includes an especially creative way of organizing a learning community and a cool application to identify new vocabulary words, which are then made into flash cards.

Anyway, what has stayed with me for days since our conversation was his simple observation that “Nobody learns a foreign language alone.  We all want someone to share it with or else we lose interest and stop learning.” It keeps rolling in my head, language learning is a social activity.  I know that in my case it is true.  When I was studying German, somehow I bumped into German speakers every day.  Same thing with Italian.  When I was studying Japanese, I secretly hoped that every Asian student on campus was Japanese, so that I could overhear their conversations  and maybe say hello.  When learning a language, I find myself talking to total strangers.  I remember how in China in elevator I would ask the other people what floor they wanted to go to (qù jǐ lóu?).  How crazy is that?   And when we arrive at their floor, I’d blurt out “15 lóu dào le.”   They just loved it, the game never got old for me.

Every semester at UT I organize the foreign language tutoring for MBA students and McCombs faculty and staff.  It’s offered on a not-for-credit basis, something extra, and this semester 67 people signed up!  Amazing.  People just want to practice language with other people.  I believe that is part of the success and draw of the LingQ and Live Mocha’s of the world.  They do a good job of bring people together socially for language practice.

Thanks for the reminder Steve, language learning is a social activity.  So, get out there and try a few lines of whatever language you are studying.

* And the picture, a social bunch of MBA students hanging out with me in a copper mine in Chile!

Schema Theory in Language Learning, Examples

May 24, 2008

In my previous post on General principles in learning a foreign language (May 14) I mentioned schema theory and how some feel that learning a language relates to learning certain “scripts.”   We don’t just learn the vocabulary and the phrases, but we also need to learn to follow a given script that people normally use.

I am writing this post from Brazil, a country that I visit often, usually once or twice a year.  I’ve been speaking Portuguese off and on for about 30 years and I get by pretty well.  Here are three examples of situations where I didn’t understand what was said because of my lack of understanding the “script.”

1.  I was in line to buy some food at a supermarket and when I got to the cashier she asked if I had a discount card for that store.  I wasn’t prepared for that question and so I didn’t understand what she said.

2.  I was in line to buy food at a different supermarket and the cashier asked me for my zip code.  Again I wasn’t prepared for that question, didn’t understand what she said, and I needed her to repeat it.  When I finally understood what she wanted, I wasn’t sure what to say.  What does an American tourist say when the cashier wants your local zip code? (I have been told that this was for tax reasons).  I ended up blabbing something about being from Texas and how she probably didn’t want my zip code.

3.  Two days ago I was at the bus station, getting a ride back to São Paulo.  “When does the next bus leave for São Paulo” I asked.   She said, in essence, “The next leaves at 3:00 o’clock and then at 15:20.” Although I am used to military time, the switch between “three” o’clock and “fifteen twenty” through me off, I didn’t understand what she said and so I had to have her repeat it.

In each of these examples it was impressive to notice how I went from understanding 100% of the Portuguese to a whole series of garbled sounds that I didn’t understand at all.  In each case I believe I lacked the “script”  Next time I go to that supermarket, however, I’ll be ready when the cashier asks for my CEP or if I have a discount card.  I think I know the script now.  In terms of language learning, it’s important that we listen for, and practice doing, different types of exchanges (scripts).

General principles in learning a foreign language

May 14, 2008

I’m returning to Austin from Los Angeles where I just attended the Spring Symposium of the UCLA Center for World Languages. In fact, this picture was taken at D’amore’s Pizza, my favorite place in the world to buy a calzone. I was asked to be the keynote speaker and I gave a talk entitled “Language Learning in Today’s World: How Do Universities Fit In?” There was a full slate of presentations from graduate students, lecturers, and faculty of UCLA, all showing the various projects and materials that they are using to teach foreign language.

I have found myself thinking about the factors that really make a difference in learning a foreign language. That is to say, I’ve been learning, speaking and teaching foreign languages for nearly thirty years. It has been long enough to see various academic theories come and go. So here’s my list of the things that I believe enhance the learning of a foreign language.

To begin, experts say that it takes around 500 hours for native speakers of English to obtain an intermediate level of proficiency in category two languages (e.g., Spanish, French, etc.). The estimation is that category four languages (e.g., Japanese) take twice that amount of time. I believe this is an important reality check that people sometimes ignore. Basically it takes more effort and time to learn a foreign language than what most people expect. Put 500 hours in perspective. Most university courses meet for 75 contact hours per semester (and most of those are not actually spent in real study). Even if you are involved in dedicated, concentrated study outside of class, it will still take a long time to get to a true 500 hours of study.

Next, I believe in the importance of providing context if you want to remember words and phrases in a foreign language. The more we can associate language to specific situations and experiences the better we will retain them and the better we will be a manipulating them for other situations. We can all remember the exact moment when we learned or heard some phrase in another language for the first time. Context provides a powerful association between the experience and the language used.

Third, I believe in what the proponents of schema theory suggest. That is to say that our learning of a foreign language isn’t just related to learning the right vocabulary and grammar, but there is a behavioral “script” that society follows for almost all activities. I often give the example of how different the experience of going to a bakery or deli in another country can be. A lot of what goes into foreign language learning is related more to learning the social scripts than it is to just learn the words and the grammar. This is also part of the reason why I accept the importance of learning language in “chunks” or phrases, as opposed to isolated words. Chunking, as it is called, helps us to follow the scripts.

Fourth, I accept the notions of input and intake. Researchers use different words to describe the details, but basically all suggest that it isn’t enough for learners to have input fly by them. It is important that this input sink in, be noticed, recognized, etc. In fact, I believe that one of the most important roles that a foreign language teacher has is that of helping the learners to recognize input. Thus I accept the importance of consciousness raising, noticing, input enhancement, to use some of the terms that are associated to this basic idea.

Fifth, I relate to Krashen’s suggestion for narrow listening and narrow reading. Basically, I believe that repeated analysis, study, and review of small chunks of language are more beneficial than a superficial analysis of large blocks of language. For those that are not advanced speakers, this generally means that the deep study of a two-minute chunk of language is better than a one-time viewing of a 60-minute movie

Finally, I have always been a fan of Schumann’s acculturation model of language learning, meaning that I believe that there are lots of cultural and social factors that affect our language learning. These include such things as the various types of motivation, extroversion, anxiety, etc. In fact, in many ways I am convinced that that the social factors outweigh most others when it comes to real language learning.

The UCLA conference was a great example of projects and teaching ideas that students, lecturers and faculty have created for the teaching of foreign language. Those interested may want to take a peek at their web site at their Center for World Languages: