Conceptualizing language for teaching and learning

Saturday February 5, 2011

I am thinking about how I understand language, because I want to teach and learn well.

First, I subscribe generally to something like the Chomskian generative grammar idea of deep structure and surface structure.  I think abstracting to just two structures is a big simplification, and that all the intermediate structures are equally present, and further that the deep structure, if it is taken to be language-specific, is not the deepest structure.

The brain is doing something, and even if there is no language happening I think it is fair to call what the brain does thinking.  (Maybe if you want to be picky this could be limited to "what the cerebral cortex does," but I think such a division is likely to be artificial.)  Neurons firing hither and thither.

At some point a thought may start to move up the assembly of language, and make it some or all the way to a final surface form, which may be vocalized or written (or otherwise expressed externally) or not.  Whether or not it is, the machinery of language will (almost?) automatically re-process the surface form, re-understanding what the brain just came up with, allowing it to be re-considered and re-processed, leading to further thought.

I think this may be the main evolutionary advantage of language over simpler communication systems like grunting, etc. - trumping communication.  Language is good for communication, but for evolutionary purposes it isn't all that much better than non-linguistic communication.  I think the re-processing effect, the feedback loop that you get, may be the prime benefit.

(could put examples here)

Anyway, here's a theoretical linguistic stack diagram of the language mechanism:

And now I'll add my glossing to normal language terms.  I know this isn't perfect.  I think the original divisions aren't perfect either, as semantics is interrelated with the other bits, and you can't really tear them apart neatly.  Anyway, my attempt to go in a useful direction:
I think this could be useful.  I now introduce the following very short story:
Peter wanted to know the names of the birds.
He read a book and learned the names of the birds.
Peter wanted to learn how to swim.
He read a book and drowned.
I don't remember where that's from.  Actually now that I think of it, maybe it was in the back of a Calculus for Dummies book.  Huh.  Anyway, I think it expresses a valuable idea in education.

I do think that as people become more educated, better readers and thinkers, the bounds of what they can learn from a book expand.  People get good at translating language to action through the faculty of their minds.  Imagination, visualization, that kind of thing.  Most people can learn how to use their clock-radio by reading the instructions.  You don't have to figure it out by messing with the clock.  But even then, you may need some practice to get good.  The point here is that I think about whether certain things are more like swimming or more like bird-naming, for educational purposes.
Okay, so how about this?  I think it can work, with some clarification.  The surface-swimming match seems pretty good to me.  Pronouncing something is a clear skill-performance, and I think it makes sense that it needs to be practiced.  Bird-naming doesn't seem very deep, though.

Okay, so it's not.  The swimming-style skill of going directly from pre-lingual thought to lingual word is the deep thing here, more or less, and the bird-naming intellectual knowledge, probably stored in a native-language/target-language pair, are clearly different.  However, when trying to bring out that pre-lingual thought in the target language, it's clearly not that hard to go from pre-lingual thought, realize that there's relevant bird-naming knowledge, go to the native language word and then the target language word, and bring it back and finish going to a surface form in the target language.  It is slower, but doing it this way is practice that will develop the relevant swimming-skill.  It's much harder to go from intellectual knowledge of pronunciation to a good performance of the pronunciation skill.

So maybe the bird-naming / swimming axis would be better understood or labeled as an axis from easily-applied abstract knowledge to practice-immediately-or-you-drown swimming skills.  Maybe it's a fine distinction.

Compare: In my Korean language program we learned the Korean 'alphabet' / sounds totally without provided romanization, just repeating after the teacher.  The sound systems are different between English and Korean, as you can easily hear if a native English speaker encounters a native Korean speaker who pronounces English words by saying Korean phonetic spellings.  Some vocabulary early on was done with Korean-for-pictures as well, avoiding English glosses, but soon English glosses became very important for understanding and learning Korean vocabulary.

So this brings me to the traditional four language skills:
(Is that the right thing to call them? Language skills?)
Okay that was a silly way to do it, but it looks kind of pretty.  Let's make one of those box diagrams, eh?
I'm ignoring the physical parts of reading and writing.  I think that's fair.  They don't use the phonological/pronunciation part of the language stack, anyway.

So how do people learn these skills, and/or learn a language?  What should teachers do?  What should students do?

Aside: I'm in a particular position of dealing with students who, similar to myself, already have some foundation in the target language.  The foundation may be incomplete, and it may also be incorrect in places.  What is appropriate for this type of student?

Really I guess the "virgin" student is pretty rare; but I'm thinking about adults who have already had one or more formal treatments of a language...

Okay this is too long already.  Some questions are set up.  Answers: GO!!!

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.