Awareage Languness

This is a post to recount my recent attempts or (more pretentiously) my ongoing journey to understand how linguistics can help language teaching. The post was initiated by a video teaser (on linguistics and teacher education) to a talk by Bridget R. Schvarcz in the upcoming TESOL France 2018 colloquium.

I will include various prompts which led me to my current language (or communicative) awareness location as a way to illustrate my route.

My first prompt would have to be my CELTA training of 4 weeks of which a few days I vaguely remember being devoted to orthodox segregational linguistics that language can be compartmentalised into things such as parts of speech, subject verb object sentences and various other related grammar. I did not re-evaluate this basis for some time after my initial TEFL training.

Fast forward a few years to a point after many classroom incidents that kept showing me the inadequacies of my knowledge about the English language and its usefulness in helping my students. I had a vague idea of communicative language teaching or CLT (ignoring for now its basis in the segregational linguistics of speech act theory) – but marrying CLT up with my grammar knowledge was tortuous to say the least (hands up who has not tried to and/or is mandated to shoehorn grammar points into a lesson?!).

Integrational linguistics can be summed in three words – language presupposes communication.  My route to it was from the notion of meaning invariance. As teachers of language one form one meaning is obviously appealing – e.g. adding an -s to cat means there is more than one cat.

My next prompt was being aware of Columbia School Linguistics and its focus on analysing invariant meanings. For example some/any. One of the scholars associated with Columbia School Linguistics is Ricardo Otheguy whose talk here led me to discover that there exists another line of thought (held by people such as Roy Harris, Sinfree Makoni, Alastair Pennycook) which questions the validity of invariance in language.

Integrational linguistics holds signs (meaning makers) are radically indeterminate – that is both form and meaning are not fixed codes which can be plucked and used – signs do not pre-exist acts of communication but are made in the act of communication. Hence they are not determined before the act of communication itself.

Now to a language teacher this seems most unhelpful. If form-meaning pairs do not pre-exist acts of communication then how do we teach them?

Fear not, we don’t need such codes to start thinking about planning lessons. We can focus on the acts of communication themselves. Here we see echoes of approaches such as task based language teaching, comprehensible input and total physical response.

This whiggish history of my language awareness, my awareage linguness, if you will, pardon my poor joke, hopes to have piqued you into maybe asking yourself some questions posed by Bridget R. Schvarcz in her teaser video:

What influenced who you are as a teacher today?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word linguistics?

Have you ever used any of the theoretical knowledge about language structure in your teaching?

Do you think you are a better teacher because you have studied linguistics?

If you are headed to TESOL France 2018 hope to bump into you, thanks for reading.

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Explore some topics in applied linguistics

Thanks to a post by Jason Anderson I read a paper called – Research trends in applied linguistics from 2005 to 2016: A bibliometric analysis and its implications.

The authors kindly sent me a file of the abstracts that they had collected. I thought some topic modelling would be interesting to do on the data. Topic modelling is a way to discern what a set of documents is “about” by getting a program to find clusters of words. Lei & Liu (2018) used a different approach called n-grams to find their topics.

They found for example that between 2005-2016 there was a significant decrease in formal linguistic issues, such as phonology and syntax.

The topic modelling also shows this decrease (note that the corpus used in the topic modelling runs from 2000-2016):

By contrast they found significant increases in topics related to sociocultural issues. The topic modelling also indicates this:

The topic model correlational matrix is interesting to look at. The screenshot below shows that the topic “english chinese paper” (full topic cluster is “english chinese paper hong use varieties kong world local language”) is significantly related to the topic “language social identity” (full cluster is “language social identity how practices literacy languages policy linguistic multilingual”):

Though I am not sure how to interpret the red blobs! If you do let me know.

Finally the model indicates that topics related to child language development seem to be on the wane (full cluster is “children language age children’s development early study acquisition adults years”):

Have a play with the model and if you spot anything interesting do leave a comment. Note running iterations can be a tad slow.

Thanks for reading.

References:

Lei, L., & Liu, D. (2018). Research Trends in Applied Linguistics from 2005 to 2016: A Bibliometric Analysis and Its Implications. Applied Linguistics.

The paradox of re-usability in language materials

The title is adapted from a critique of learning objects (orginally defined as digital resources used to aid learning) in the field of instructional design by David Wiley. What follows is borrowed heavily/paraphrased from his writings.

Author Julie Moore raises intellectual rights and copyright issues with the idea of having editable materials from course books. However there is a deeper paradox in editable or re-usable material.

If we look at a typical unit in a coursebook it may have sections such as language focus and practice, input reading and/or listening and output speaking and/or writing all centered around the unit topic. We could describe this unit has having an internal context, that is the elements which make up the unit – instructions on how to use a language point, practice exercises on this language point, a picture that goes with the reading text, a role play that goes with a speaking activity etc. The more elements that are in the unit the larger the internal context of the unit.

External context would be the other units in the coursebook. A learning object is said to have no external context independent of its instructional use. That is external contexts exists for a learning object only for the purposes of some instructional procedure.

The number of external contexts in which a learning object will instructionally fit varies according to the internal context of the said object. An instructional fit is the effectiveness of the object.

A large object (i.e. one with many elements) has a greater internal context than a small object. Larger objects fit into fewer external contexts than smaller objects.

To restate this the fit of an object with other objects is a function of 1) its internal context and 2) its external context with other objects. The more internal context you have i.e. the more elements, the better will be the (pedagogical) effectiveness of the object. But the internal context is inversely related to the number of other objects in the external context. So the paradox is that the effectiveness of a learning object and its potential for reuse (i.e. to fit in with external context) are contradictory.

So you have a trade-off between effectiveness and re-usability. For editable materials the more you make it re-usable the less effective it will be pedagogically.

Now one could argue that learning objects is concerned with conceptual knowledge (e.g. teaching someone how to develop web pages) whereas language goes beyond the limits of such knowledge. Language avoids the re-usability paradox. It has both a lot of internal context (systems such as phonology, syntax) and a lot of external context (systems such as semantics, pragmatics).

However as the world of language course books currently exists it could be said to follow the path set by other books that deal with conceptual knowledge. If this is the case then the re-usability paradox applies.

Furthermore the paradox is due to the author rights issues covered by Julie Moore. In the copyright context “reuse” means more or less “use as exactly as is”. So is there a way out of the re-usability paradox?

As David Wiley puts it:

The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.

How likely are we to see open content from commercial parties judging by the state of current play in the ELT publishing world? Happily individual teachers and grassroots organizations are already thinking and working on this.

Thanks for reading.

ELTJam, machine learning, knowledge and skill

“Knowledge and skill are different. Vocabulary acquisition tools help learners improve their knowledge, which may in turn have a positive impact on skill, but it’s important to be cognisant of the differences.” [https://eltjam.com/machine-learning-summer-school-day-4/]

“We need to be careful though not to oversell the technology and be clear about what it can and can’t do. There is no silver bullet. This is especially the case when it comes to skills vs knowledge; a lot of the applications that could come from this sort of technology will help improve knowledge of English, and may contribute to accuracy” [https://eltjam.com/machine-learning-summer-school-day-5/]

The above two quotes are from a nice series of posts by ELTJam on a machine learning workshop. The first point from the first quote is indeed important to recognize. Bill VanPatten (2010) has argued that knowledge and skill are different. However what is meant by knowledge and what is meant by skill? For a nice video summary of the VanPatten paper see the video linked below.

Knowledge is mental representation which in turn is the abstract, implicit and underlying linguistic system in a speaker’s head. Abstract does not mean the rules in a pedagogical grammar rather it refers to a collection of abstract properties which can result in rule-like behaviors. Implicit means that the content of mental representation is not accessible to the learner consciously or with awareness. Underlying refers to the view that a linguistic system underlies all surface forms of language.

The actual content of mental representations include all formal features of syntax, phonology, lexicon-morphology, semantics. And a mental representation grows due to input being acted on by systems from the learners mind/brain.

Skill is the speed and accuracy with which people can do certain behaviours. For language skill this refers to reading, listening, writing, speaking, conversational interaction, turn taking. To be sure being skilled means that the person has a developed mental representation of the language. However having a developed mental representation does not entail being skilled. How skill develops depends on the tasks that people are doing. A person learns to swim by swimming. A person learns to write essays by writing essays.

It follows that the Write&Improve (W&I) tool (as the flagship example of machine learning based tool for language learning) can be seen as targeting how to be skillful in writing Cambridge English Exam texts. The claim that machine learning, and by implication the feedback by W&I, is changing the knowledge of the learner’s English does not accord with VanPatten’s description of knowledge as mental representation. His description implies that no explicit information, in the form of feedback in the case of the writing tool, can lead to changes in the mental representation of the language of writing. He states that research into writing is unclear as to whether feedback impacts writing development.

My point in this post is to briefly clarify the distinction between knowledge and skills (do read the VanPatten paper) and to suggest that the best machine learning based tools can offer are opportunities for students to practice certain skills.

Postnote

W&I has never claimed that its tool has impact on language knowledge. See Diane Nicholls comment below.

References

Van Patten, B. (2010). The two faces of SLA: Mental representation and skill. International Journal of English Studies, 10(1), 1-18. PDF available [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267793221_The_Two_Faces_of_SLA_Mental_Representation_and_Skill]

BlackBox Videocast 2: Mental Representation and Skill

What Chomsky said about “native speakers” in 1985

This is taken from a rambling but fascinating project by lexicographer Thomas M. Paikeday titled The Native Speaker is Dead published in 1985. He sent a 10 point memo to some linguists on the question of what is a native speaker.  I thought it would be useful to put this up here, since notable ELT bods such as Scott Thornbury used a recent native speaker debate to critique Chomsky (see Geoff Jordan’s response). As to whether Chomsky answered the memo is up for grabs. Personally I think, like David Crystal who also responded to the Paikeday memo, that Chomsky deftly sidesteps the import of the initial memo. The Paikeday book is available on the net but takes some searching, let me know and I can email it to anyone interested.

I marked one passage in orange as it is not clear if this was a response to a specific and separate question asked by Paikeday (on what Chomsky meant by “grammaticalness” from his book Aspects of the theory of syntax) or whether it was excerpted from the response Chomsky gave to the Paikeday memo. In Paikeday’s book this passage is the first one but it seems to be oddly placed to me.

Chomsky:

I read your comments on the concept “native speaker” with interest. In my view, questions of this sort arise because they presuppose a somewhat misleading conception of the nature of language and of knowledge of language. Essentially, they begin with what seem to me incorrect metaphysical assumptions: in particular, the assumption that among the things in the world there are languages or dialects, and that individuals come to acquire them.

And then we ask, is an individual who has acquired the dialect D a native speaker of it or not, the question for which you request an “acid test” at the end of your letter.

In the real world, however, what we find is something rather different, though for the usual purposes of ordinary communication it is sufficient to work with a rather gross approximation to the facts, just as we refer freely to water, knowing, however, that the various things we call “water” have a wide range of variation including pollutants, etc.

To see what’s wrong with the question, let’s consider a similar one (which no one asks). Each human being has developed a visual system, and in fact visual systems differ from individual to individual depending on accidents of personal history and maybe even genetic differences. Suppose we go on (absurdly) to assume that among the things in the world, independently of people, there are visual systems, and particular individuals acquire one or the other of them (in analogy to the way we think of languages).

Then we could ask, who has a “native” visual system V, and what is the acid test for distinguishing such a person from someone who has in some more complex or roundabout way come to be “highly proficient” in the use of V (say, by surgery, or by training after having “natively” acquired a different visual system, etc.). Of course, all of this is nonsense.

But I think uncritical acceptance of the apparent ontological implications of ordinary talk about language leads to similar nonsense.

What we would say in the case of the visual system is this. There is a genetically determined human faculty V, with its specific properties, which we can refer to as “the organ of vision.” There may be differences among individuals in their genetic endowment, but for the sake of discussion, let’s put these aside and assume identity across the species, so we can now speak of the visual organ V with its fixed initial state V-0 common to humans, but different from monkeys, cats, insects, etc. In the course of early experience, V-0 undergoes changes and soon reaches a fairly steady state V-s which then remains essentially unchanged apart from minor modifications (putting aside pathology, injury, etc.). That’s the way biological systems behave, and to a very good first approximation, this description is adequate. The things in the real world are V-0 and the various states V-s attained by various individuals, or more broadly, the class of potential states V-s that could be attained in principle as experience varies.

We then see that the question about “native” acquisition is silly, as is the assumption that visual systems exist in some Platonic heaven and are acquired by humans.

Suppose now that we look at language in essentially the same way – as, I think, we should – extricating ourselves from much misleading historical and philosophical baggage. Each human has a faculty L, call it “the language faculty” or, if you like, “the language organ,” which is genetically-determined.

Again, we may assume to a very good first approximation that [the language faculty or language organ] is identical across the species (gross pathology aside), so that we can speak of the initial state L-0 of this organ, common to humans, and as far as is known, unique in the universe to the human species (in fact, with no known homologous systems in closely related or other species, in contrast now to V). In early childhood, the organ undergoes changes through experience and reaches a relatively stable steady state L-s, probably before puberty; afterwards, it normally undergoes only marginal changes, like adding vocabulary. There could be more radical modifications of a complex sort, as in late second language learning, but in fact the same is very likely true of the visual system and others.

Putting these complications aside, what is a “language” or “dialect”? Keeping to the real world, what we have is the various states L-s attained by various individuals, or more generally, the set of potential states L-s attained that could in principle be attained by various individuals as experience varies. Again, we see that the question of what are the “languages” or “dialects” attained, and what is the difference between “native” or “non-native” acquisition, is just pointless.

Languages and dialects don’t exist in a Platonic heaven any more than visual systems do. In both cases, there is a fixed genetic endowment that determines the initial state of some faculty or organ (putting aside possible genetic variation), and there are the various states attained by these systems in the course of maturation, triggered by external stimuli and to some rather limited extent shaped by them. In both cases, there is overwhelming reason to believe that the character of the steady state attained is largely determined by the genetic endowment, which provides a highly structured and organized system which does, however, have certain options that can be fixed by experience.

We could think of the initial state of the language faculty, for example, as being something like an intricately wired system with fixed and complex properties, but with some connections left open, to be fixed in one or another way on the basis of experience (e.g., do the heads of constructions precede their complements as in English, or follow them as in Japanese?). Experience completes the connections, yielding the steady state, though as in the case of vision, or the heart, or the liver, etc., various other complications can take place. So then what is a language and who is a native speaker? Answer, a language is a system L-s, it is the steady state attained by the language organ. And everyone is a native speaker of the particular L-s that that person has “grown” in his / her mind / brain. In the real world, that is all there is to say.

Now as in the case of water, etc., the scientific description is too precise to be useful for ordinary purposes, so we abstract from it and speak of “languages,” “dialects,” etc., when people are “close enough” in the steady states attained to be regarded as identical for practical purposes (in fact, our ordinary usage of the term “language” is much more abstract and complex, in fact hardly coherent, since it involves colors on maps, political systems, etc.). All of that is fine for ordinary usage. Troubles arise, however, when ordinary usage is uncritically understood as having ontological implications; the same problems would arise if we were to make the same moves in the case of visual systems, hearts, water, etc.

About the term “grammaticalness,” I purposely chose a neologism in the hope that it would be understood that the term was to be regarded as a technical term, with exactly the meaning that was given to it, and not assimilated to some term of ordinary discourse with a sense and connotations not to the point in this context.

Such questions as “how many languages are there” have no clear meaning; we could say that there is only one language, namely, L-0 with its various modifications, or that there are as many languages as there are states of mind/brain L-s, or potential states L-s. Or anything in between. These are questions of convenience for certain purposes, not factual questions, like the question of “how many (kinds of) human visual system are there?”

Apparent problems about the number of languages, native speakers, etc. arise when we make the kind of philosophical error that Wittgenstein and others warned against.

I think that looked at [my] way, the questions you raise no longer seem puzzling, and in fact dissolve.

References:

Paikeday, T. M. (1985). The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers. Toronto and New York: Paikeday Publishing

How many words do scholars have for “How many words do Eskimos have for snow”?

The photos above were taken from a book on mountains (the title of which I had forgotten to note) whilst on a winter break. I remember feeling vaguely superior to the author of the mountain book as I vaguely recalled the “debunking” of the Eskimo-languages-have-so-many-words-for-snow myth. Then I promptly forgot about the issue till @EngliciousUCL tweeted a study by Regier et. al. (2016) called “Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited”.

This study makes the point that in all the fuss about the status of the Eskimo words for snow an underlying principle has not been tested, that is “language is shaped by the need for efficient communication”. The authors go on to demonstrate the support for this principle.

This post is a limited attempt to list interesting articles written by scholars on the Eskimo snow words topic either for the public or more specialist audiences.

So back to the question – How many words do scholars have for “How many words do Eskimos have for snow”?

 

There are at least 40000 words using the following references (click here):

 

As mentioned the above is a limited list as this does not include texts with a passing mention of “Eskimo words for snow” and/or that use it as a prompt for other related examples (many of which you can find by doing a search in Language Log). For texts before Martin (1986), Cichocki and Marcin (2010) provide a comprehensive history.

The Language Log blog is also the stomping ground of the author of one of the most popular descriptions of the refutation of the “How many words do Eskimos have for snow” – Geoffrey Pullum.

To recap Pullum (1991) following Martin (1986) points out that the number of distinct words, defined as root forms, that Eskimo/Inuit languages have for snow is four. This number is taken from the text published by the anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911. The problems of identifying what are words is compounded in Inuit languages as they often add bases together to form whatever description they need. Hence the number of words for snow or for seals or for ice is unbounded. The number of sentences in English to describe say a wintry scene is similarly infinite.

Bearing the above in mind, specialists in Eskimo/Inuit languages such as Kaplan (2003) say the number of root forms amount to 3. Whilst other specialists like Woodbury (1991) gives 15 lexeme meanings, where a lexeme is similar to a root.

One study of several Eskimo dictionaries by Krupnik & Müller-Will (2010) argues that independent words that are derived from roots represent “a meaningful and clearly distinguishable phenomenon to indigenous speakers”. Hence the number of ways Eskimo languages describe snow is quite rich, even more so for words to describe ice. They add if you really want a language with a 100 words for snow look to the Norwegian Sámi.

This shallow trek into the Eskimo words for snow trope brings up a couple of points – 1) how various factoids one learns about language often hides more interesting principles as Regier et. el. (2016) show; 2) how using English as a comparison language as well as the metalanguage of comparison may result in erroneous native speaker intuitions projected onto a language with a very different classification system (Silverstein 1991).

I’ll leave you with a question asked to Michael Silverstein one of the players in the early drama:

I asked Silverstein if he had ever thought about popularizing the field of linguistics in the way academics in other disciplines have.

He recoiled. “That’s an ethical question,” he said. “There are people who are scientific evangelists, who are no different in kind than any other evangelist. I’m enough of a Menckenite to be a skeptic–that is to say, to realize that my claim to systematic knowledge of a social phenomenon is just one more thing that might go into the hopper of whatever the phenomenon happened to be. One might say that that’s just not the kind of phenomenon that responds to that sort of treatment. ‘You just think you’re studying it, you’re not really studying it; what the phenomenon is is exactly what John Simon says it is, and pooh-pooh on all of your stuff.’ Because, remember, the phenomena are us.”

(Watch Your Language! Anthropological Linguist Michael Silverstein on Australian Aborigines, Wine Nuts, Dear Abby, and the Language Police by Bill Wyman, February 14 1991)

Thanks for reading.

TaWSIG and teacher experience design

Teachers as workers, TaWSIG, is here for one simple reason, there is very little public discussion of working conditions in English Language Teaching, ELT. To a large extent this is understandable given the dominance of private business concerns running the industry. We try not to be anti this-that-whatever, rather we want to promote discussion of the reality of our working lives. If you agree please do consider sharing your opinions and experiences.

On the website blog we have so far posted on why you should join, everyday hassles, re-claiming our teaching identity, re-thinking professional development and raising mental health issues.

We do not want you to go back to your scheduled programming, we want you to help push ELT into thinking about designing teacher experiences we can be proud of. We want our learners to be proud of their achievements knowing their teachers are working in the best possible circumstances. We want to change things. We can change things.

Thanks for reading.