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Author Topic: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?  (Read 2711 times)

Calach Pfeffer

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Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« on: September 23, 2018, 10:17:10 AM »
Do you have to start with counting and telling time and learning about money? Do you have to know the different words for family relations first? Why can't you start with abstraction? Jump straight, for instance, to the formal organization of, say, academic discourse... why not? Why can't you? To learn and use a language do you genuinely need to start at the simplest concrete expressions and the most commonplace of abstractions like color or weight?

At least one of the reasons I haven't learned much Chinese is it's boring to me. As an academically-minded person, the fuck do I want to spend time learning "taxi" or "turn left"? It's useful language, but irrelevant to my main daily focus.

Attend a university language course to learn about daily necessities - who would do that really?

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #1 on: September 26, 2018, 03:42:27 AM »
Turn left and taxi are a LOT more useful than what I see in many Chinese courses.  Most seem to assume that you'll need to be fully trained to undergo a customs interrogation and be checking into a new hotel every day.

Overall, I think some method to customize courses based on the needs and interests of the student would make learning Chinese a lot easier.

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Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #2 on: September 26, 2018, 07:58:41 AM »
there'd need to be a theory of language acquisition on which to base the customisation. Or at least a model of language acquisition. According to wikipedia, no one really knows how second languages are acquired.

the idea I've been having is something I've called "discourse", which is an example of me using terminology in a misleading fashion. "Discourse" these days is something measured by statistics programs. People put in large amounts of text and get lists of word frequency and so on. Those lists or language features are what characterise the "discourse". Or so I understand.

Me, I've been saying "discourse" is something you can describe in process terms. A person is engaging in XYZ "discourse" if they use whatever language they like to engage in the understood meaning construction steps associated with the "discourse".

I have wondered if language teaching courses could not be structured around a given "discourse". That is, the students are taught whatever language is going to get them up and running in the various stages associated with creating meaning in the given structure.

Issues: there may not be that many useful "discourses"; there may in fact only be one, "academic discourse". Naively speaking, there are a huge number of discourses, maybe an infinity of them - just find some context in which certain types of speech act are required before meaningful content can be considered expressed - but outside of the context, who cares? For the "discourse" to be meaningful outside its context it has to have something transferrable, and most discourses don't. "Academic discourse" has a relationship (technically I have to say "supposedly" has a relationship) with Truth, and that can be used to make it a privileged discourse. Is there anything else that can make any other discourse similarly privileged? Currently I have no idea, and kind of don't want to because there's a slippery slope right into Relativism just waiting to be covered in sewing machine oil right there...

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CWL

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #3 on: September 30, 2018, 01:17:08 AM »
According to wikipedia, no one really knows how second languages are acquired.

What Wikipedia page suggested this?

Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #4 on: September 30, 2018, 05:46:30 AM »
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theories_of_second-language_acquisition

"Each of these theories can be thought of as shedding light on one part of the language learning process; however, no one overarching theory of second-language acquisition has yet been widely accepted by researchers."

Representing the above claim as meaning "no one really knows..." is maybe unfair but we are here to wrestle the bs so we'd best get muddy

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #5 on: October 02, 2018, 03:41:09 AM »
My suspicion, especially in the case of second languages, is that the "best" acquisition methods vary based on the person learning the language.  Unfortunately, subjects initially learning their first languages aren't very good at discussing the details of what helps them the most.

Assuming we're dealing with speaking the language, interesting or not, some basic phonetics is needed.  If you can't say the words in at least a partially understandable fashion, no one will understand you even if your vocabulary and grammar are perfect.

From phonetics, so many courses go off the rails.  They focus on highly unlikely conversations, so end up using vocabulary that's of little use in daily life.  Quite a few courses also decide to waste time on trying to hammer in perfect grammar.  Language is about communication.  Without adequate vocabulary, grammar doesn't really serve much of a purpose.  "I doctor need" is grammatically incorrect, but gets the very important point across.

Here's one clue - even with different learning styles, what "specialized vocabulary" in your own language do you learn faster (assuming the same amount of time spent learning)?  Specialized vocabulary for something you find interesting or specialized vocabulary for something you consider to be irelevant and useless?  If you don't think specialized vocabulary is nearly qualified as another language, go listen to 2 lawyers discussing the legal theories behind tort law.  Then go listen to an epidemiologist evaluating a research paper on the effectiveness of a new medication.  Then go out and listen to a pair of aerospace engineers discussing how to modify a wing design to decrease drag and increase lift.  All of the are using English grammar, but the vocabulary will be very confusing to the average layman.  If you think about it, many hobbies have similar levels of specialized vocabulary.

For me, I'm plotting to continue sampling various Chinese courses, but may eventually have to design my own.

In an EOSL class I once took, I saw something that could be a great model for language and even grammar acquisition.  It was a very short story.  Only 2-4 paragraphs.  Enough of the words were English to get started, but then there were . . . other words.  It was designed so that the reader could contextually figure out nearly all the words and even some of the grammar quirks (in this case, plural was done by repeating the noun).

This sort of learning in context is how many people learn new words in their own language, so could be applied to learning a foreign language.
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Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #6 on: October 05, 2018, 06:02:08 AM »
It won't be strictly staged, but I suppose we could say second language appears in a person in an order like this:

vocabulary > grammar > phonology > discourse

I suppose that to be the trajectory anyway. A learner would skip forward and back, ideally gaining increasing control over their preferred discourse style as they build a foundation of words, sentences, and speech.

There'll definitely be students who cannot move forward without the concrete discipline of vocab lists and grammar drills. And any teacher who thinks all students will work well under that kind of soul-destroying regime prbably should get a job in some kind of ministry of education because apparently every damn teacher does think that....

I think there has to be a range and variety of students out there - and I'll be one of them - that will function better and learn more if some concept of the target discourse appears fairly early on in the teaching program.

Imma go head and assume such a thing can appear in a teaching program. Because, goddammit, it can.

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CWL

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #7 on: October 05, 2018, 04:48:19 PM »
vocabulary > grammar > phonology > discourse

And any teacher who thinks all students will work well under that kind of soul-destroying regime prbably should get a job in some kind of ministry of education because apparently every damn teacher does think that....

I would place phonology at the front of the list. 

Not every teacher; however, the Peter Principle is quite visible in public education.

Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #8 on: October 06, 2018, 12:03:39 AM »
If accents persist in a way grammar errors don't, we could even try saying phonology is the last system to be mastered. But I'm no kind of language teacher and I suppose I should reveal what I'm hoping for here...

I'm thinking that we might be able to define a learning trajectory under which mastery of the language subsystems is generated in stages, but that elements of each stage must and will appear at *every* learning stage, and I personally would really like it if learning Chinese were to include discourse concepts right from the git-go.

Occurs to me right now that if I'm saying "discourse" is larger units of language organised with purpose and meaning, and that "discourse concepts should appear right from the beginning of teaching", then I might just be discovering a new name for "communicative language teaching"

bibibibibi


But I like this new name and it seems to me more actionable. Or at least it would be if "discourse" could be defined in process terms rather than just according to language features.

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #9 on: October 09, 2018, 05:46:17 AM »
Part of this phonology first or later comes down to written vs verbal.  If you are doing most of the communication in writing, you accent and any other non-standard pronunciations are irrelevant.  China makes things extra fun by only having added phonetics as an afterthought. One of the first things I did in China was to stand outside the restrooms on a floor of the building not being used for any classes that evening and memorize 2 characters.  I had zero idea how to say the words at that time, but at least I avoided having to worry about accidentally walking into the ladies room.

For a course where part of the instruction is verbal, starting out learning the basics of pronunciation is a good idea.  At least this gives the student a way to connect the words to letters.  Will a one-off basic "Here are the tones and good luck with the letter c." lecture be the end-all of this?  No.  On the other hand, such a lecture provides a starting point to help gaining vocabulary and at least provides students a chance to be partially intelligible.  As more vocabulary is learned, just listening to the words being pronounced in a standard accent should help students improve  their pronunciation.  If there's a live instructor, that person can spot pronunciation issues where each student needs extra attention.

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Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #10 on: October 17, 2018, 10:57:16 AM »
I don't know how big this is, but kind of a big deal, is what I think: discourse.

There are a probable infinity of discourses. They depend on social contexts and those things come and go in a blink of the eye (except wouldn't it be cool if there were one or two basic discourse types underlying all social communication......)

But there's one that's central to education contexts everywhere: academic discourse.

At the bottom and the top ends of education, there's academic discourse. When professors write articles, when students work textbook problems, there it is again. Textbooks are designed to elicit exactly that type of expression. They want students to rehearse knowledge, apply what they've rehearsed, analyse the result, and make an assessment of what's revealed.

Even more, student assessment rubrics make explicit reference to such kinds of expression and grade them, and that's how you know if a student passes or doesn't. That's how you know if someone "learned" the subject while they were studying it.

Isn't it just, like, super-obvious that past a certain point, language learners need some framework within which to extend and develop their communicative ability and holy shit if academic discourse is not exactly one of those frameworks but with the added benefit of being deeply embedded in the very concept of learning?

How widely applicable is the type of expression you practice while practicing academic discourse? I can't be sure because I might just be stating my own preferences, but doesn't it seem, like, super-wide?

It seems like such a glaringly big idea, but I don't think anyone knows what I mean when I talk about it at my school.

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Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #11 on: October 26, 2018, 07:50:25 AM »
And another thing...

Communication trades on meaning, right? With or without adequate grammar, if meaning is transferred, communication has occurred, right? The tricks and tasks of communication skills boil down to how well or how badly you link meanings together, yours and the other person's, riiiight?!

Does that mean there is no communication practice if there is no monitoring? Inasmuch as any one communication task (the clarification of meaning, the disagreement with reasons, the delivery of some new idea, and so on) can be completed in, usually, a range of different grammatical forms, you need someone listening in to tell you practicers what the hell they're messing up?

In general, no. But at the beginning, when you're dealing with communicatively challenged, yet million-word memorised vocabulary English major, it seems like yes? That to get the ball rolling in a communicative direction, you need someone on hand to slap away the anti-communicative movements and thumbs up the offers to clarify?

Is there any communicative practice (which is to say any practice task that stands or falls on adequate target communication) that can be performed without a native speaker listening over your shoulder?

I'm not talking grammar practice or joyful noise production practice, but practice at transferring meaning.

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #12 on: October 30, 2018, 05:52:47 AM »
If I take 2 people who don't know Chinese, teach them about 25 words and give them no grammer, then try to have them talk, the results will likely be extremely limited success at communicating anything.

On the other hand, if I take one of those people and put them with someone who speaks Chinese and has a lot of patience, that person can provide corrections (spelling, word selection, and grammar) as-needed and also attempt to teach the new language learner some more vocabulary.  Being an experienced teacher is nice, but is not an absolute requirement.

There are real world examples of people dropped into a foreign country learning the language "the hard way."  If my job didn't keep me continuously immersed in English, I'd love to just spend 3 months in the Northeast with a non-English speaking tour guide and see what happens to my Mandarin level.
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Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #13 on: October 30, 2018, 11:35:12 AM »
All men are created equal.

Take bus #5 to the restaurant.


Language student me has something to use language with in sentence number 1. Language student me gives little to no damn about sentence 2.


I probably started this thread wrong in that I asked "must it start with the basics?" What I meant all along is why must seemingly all language instruction be so resolutely concrete. A single abstraction, for the love of learning! A conceptualization! But no. It's all counting and turn left then go straight.

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Calach Pfeffer

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Re: Language acquisition - must it start with the basics?
« Reply #14 on: October 30, 2018, 11:46:41 AM »
Apparently, for English, 800 "lemmas" (wth, a word family with a root and all its inflections?) will get you through most of daily life. You need 3000 for watching a movie properly. 8-9000 for a novel. And somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand to be a native speaker.

I'd love to know what those lemmas were (and how difficult it is to learn one - do you need to learn only the root to be passable at that lemma's use or do you need the inflections, whatever they are?)

I'd also love to know why anyone should think there'd be a universal order in which they'd be learnt. It surely must be that different temperaments will gravitate to different types of expression. And that the temperaments will NOT be forever separate. There must be a way of teaching language that does not haze the learner with some lengthy introduction to buses and turning left.


How many words do you need to speak a language?

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