What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

General discussion about learning languages
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby moonlyrics » Thu May 30, 2019 7:35 pm

Cainntear wrote:Very much so, which is why applying learning styles to language always seemed absurd to me anyway: are we going to say "no point teaching him pronunciation -- he's a visual learner" or "no point teaching her to write -- she's an auditory learner"?


I'm studying for german A2, but actually a rusty intermediate speaker. I've been in 3 german immersion environments as primarily learning by sound. 1 of the environments was pre-selected by test scores [SAT scores] so should be some academic similarity. most people suck at learning primarily by sound. in these 3 environments, I've only met one other student with an aptitude for this out of about 80 students.

the ability to mimic and retain sound information is not a common skill in my experience.

I don't have a comparison for written language acquisition like with latin or something non-spoken.

of course, everyone can speak in immersion environments. they are just really slow at retaining information.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

with movies (audial and visual medium) it's obvious who has an ear for spoken language and who doesn't.

huge difference between george lucas (visual) writing/directing, zack snyder (visual) writing/directing, and quentin tarantino (audial) writing/directing. quentin tarantino is known to make trivial spelling mistakes which are phonetic mistakes so that's why I think he's more of an audial learner.

"Language is first and foremost a spoken phenomenon, making it seem unlikely that any language processing doesn't involve sound."

primarily by sound and involving sound are different.

"So unless we're talking about completely deaf people (who may still use the auditory cortex, I don't know), everyone processes language primarily by sound."

skill levels are so different that it doesn't make sense to lump everyone together.

[edit: I'm talking about language acquisition at ages 15 years and up.]
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby Ser » Thu May 30, 2019 9:54 pm

Here's a fun article from Inside Higher Ed that you guys might find interesting:
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/09/learning-styles-debate-its-instructors-vs-psychologists
"'Neuromyth' or Helpful Model?", Jan. 2019
(Original title: "In Learning Style Debate, it's Instructors vs. Psychologists")

The idea of the VA(R)K learning styles (visual, auditory, (read-write,) kinaesthetic) is not backed by science, but its survival may be explained due to its usefulness as a tool to have prospective teachers understand that there are differences between individuals when it comes to how they learn, and so they're encouraged to use different approaches to student learning. Talking about more current ideas such as students having multiple intelligences and different levels of those intelligences can even be politically problematic sometimes. From the article:
    [Ulrich] Boser, the science writer, agreed: “There’s something in America in general, and in education in particular: we don’t like to talk about how people are different,” he said. Teachers like to believe in students’ unlimited potential, and anything that places constraints on it is problematic. But he admitted, “Intelligence is a real thing.” Different people have different levels of it. Talking about that “makes educators uncomfortable.”
    [...]
    In a 2013 op-ed in The Washington Post, [Howard] Gardner [from Harvard's School of Education] called learning-style theory “incoherent” and said he had proposed a very different scenario, one that said different parts of our brains compute different kinds of information -- linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, musical, etc. He has estimated that most people have seven to 10 “distinct intelligences.” Gardner suggested that educators individualize teaching as much as possible, teach important materials “in several ways” (through stories, works of art, diagrams and role-playing, for example), and drop the term “styles” from their vocabulary.

I also liked the example of learning to play soccer. It doesn't matter if you come out as strongly visual and zero kinaesthetic in a VARK test, you're not going to learn soccer by merely watching soccer games. (In the article they contrast it with trying to learn soccer auditorily, but I think an example with visual learning makes more sense. Although, yes, the nonsense of learning soccer by listening is the point.)


Here is an interesting monograph about thought in psychology on learning styles, from 2004: https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A13692 (scroll down and click on the PDF image to download it). This is a document 180 pages long on learning style models, numbered at seventy-one (71) and classified into 13 groups.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby moonlyrics » Fri May 31, 2019 4:36 am

Ser wrote:The idea of the VA(R)K learning styles (visual, auditory, (read-write,) kinaesthetic) is not backed by science


it could be tested though. (since VARK separates visual and read-write, those could be tested separately.)

80/20 sound/visual teaching
50/50 sound/visual teaching
20/80 sound/visual teaching

my anecdotal experience is that my memory retention is much better with a sound heavy approach like immersion. I'm skeptical that's true for people with excellent visual memory because I've seen few adults thrive in that environment. they learn, but not quickly. maybe "learning styles" is too vague.... it's more like "memory style."

american musician (grammy nominated) was working in london.... he got hit by cars 3x in 6 months because the traffic was too confusing. he said in an interview "my brain doesn't work that way"..... he has awful visual memory and exceptional sound memory. the drugs didn't help either, but it's not like he gets hit by cars regularly in usa.

Ser, thank you for the article recommendations. I do appreciate the academic trend in this forum.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby Serpent » Fri May 31, 2019 4:09 pm

Cavesa wrote:The FSI has experience with taking whole classes of learners to a certain level in a certain amount of time. But what doesn't get said too often: they are not classes of random learners. They are classes of preselected people, who qualify for a certain kind of jobs. People with a certain level of education, perhaps people having passed some entrance testing, and so on.
I think they also generally already speak one foreign language?
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby Ani » Mon Jun 03, 2019 3:55 am

Serpent wrote:
Cavesa wrote:The FSI has experience with taking whole classes of learners to a certain level in a certain amount of time. But what doesn't get said too often: they are not classes of random learners. They are classes of preselected people, who qualify for a certain kind of jobs. People with a certain level of education, perhaps people having passed some entrance testing, and so on.
I think they also generally already speak one foreign language?


The average is 2.4. It's a massive difference from a monolingual beginner.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby Cainntear » Mon Jun 03, 2019 9:17 am

moonlyrics wrote:
Ser wrote:The idea of the VA(R)K learning styles (visual, auditory, (read-write,) kinaesthetic) is not backed by science


it could be tested though. (since VARK separates visual and read-write, those could be tested separately.)

It has been tested. None of the papers testing it properly found any evidence for it. That's the point of Paschler et al.'s paper.

my anecdotal experience is that my memory retention is much better with a sound heavy approach like immersion. I'm skeptical that's true for people with excellent visual memory because I've seen few adults thrive in that environment. they learn, but not quickly. maybe "learning styles" is too vague.... it's more like "memory style."

The question here is whether that's a matter of "style" or simply a matter of "what you already know". If you can process the sounds, you're better off. Meanwhile, people who insist that they are "visual learners" and "have to see the word written down in order to learn it" typically have very poor pronunciation, if they even attempt to speak at all.

I've met a lot of French learners, for example, who say "which E is it?" when trying to spell a word, even though E, É and È are different sounds. They have categorically, undeniably learnt the wrong thing, as they've conflated three (admittedly related) things into one.

The problem with learning by sound is that it takes a lot of work and/or planning to prep the average learner (one with no advantage such as previous study of language or music) and people therefore decide it isn't worth it, then find excuses for why people who've been learning for 5 years still can't tell three different sounds apart.

american musician (grammy nominated) was working in london.... he got hit by cars 3x in 6 months because the traffic was too confusing. he said in an interview "my brain doesn't work that way"..... he has awful visual memory and exceptional sound memory. the drugs didn't help either, but it's not like he gets hit by cars regularly in usa.

The fact that he has a deeply ingrained habit of looking left first when crossing the road doesn't tell us anything about learning styles. I cycle pretty happily on the left side of the road normally... but even then, I occasionally find myself cycling on the right when I come out of a supermarket and hop back on to go home. There's still a surprisingly strong association in my mind between supermarket carparks and the other side of the road.

The fact that it's only when traffic is coming from the "wrong" side means it's not visual. If anything it's spatial but as a musician, you can't say he has poor spatial awareness -- playing an instrument relies on a very well developed map of the location of keys, buttons, holes, frets and/or strings.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby StringerBell » Mon Jun 03, 2019 2:24 pm

Cainntear wrote:Meanwhile, people who insist that they are "visual learners" and "have to see the word written down in order to learn it" typically have very poor pronunciation, if they even attempt to speak at all.


I am a visual learner learner. When learning a new language, I have to see how a word is written so that I can anchor it in my mind. I do this with both Italian and Polish, two languages which I speak and I get constant feedback from native speakers in both languages that my pronunciation is very good, even though I speak Polish very infrequently. When a new Italian word comes up in conversation, if I don't see it written or ask about its spelling, I will not be able to remember it or use it myself. In fact, about 10 seconds later, that word is completely out of my mind as if I'd never encountered it. For this reason, I never pick up new vocabulary from extensive listening. However, if I ask about how that word is spelled during the conversation then as the person spells it I can see the letters in my mind, and then there is an extremely high probability that I will remember that word later on.

Even when I watch youtube videos in my native language, I almost always turn off the audio and use the computer generated subtitles, if they are available. When people are speaking, often things go in one ear and out the other, and by the time the video is done, I will have forgotten most of what the person said. However, if instead of listening to the video, I read the subs, then my attention and memory of the content is noticeably better and the experience is more enjoyable. My brain has a strong preference for visual and textual content than auditory content.

When I'm having a conversation with my husband about a complex scientific topic (which happens frequently), if he starts a long verbal explanation, I get lost because I'm trying to picture in my head what he's saying, and then I get hung up on something or he goes faster than my mental picture can handle. If he jots down a simple diagram or even a couple of key words as he's going, then I can use those visuals to process information much faster and remember it. He's the complete opposite; he can listen to massive amounts of very complex information without visuals, process it quickly, and remember it. At the end of the day, we are equally capable of processing the same level and amount of complex information, but I require visuals to do it while he doesn't.

So, when I learn a language, I need visuals. I need to see how a word is written. I need to picture that word in my mind. I do the same with my native language; when I speak, I often see the words that I'm saying in my mind, and if I come across a new word in English, I need to see the spelling of it in order to remember it, and I don't think there is a person on the planet who would say that I have poor pronunciation in my native language. When I spell a word aloud, regardless of the language, I can see it as easily as if I were looking at it written on a paper, so I can spell aloud extremely long words with a high degree of accuracy; however, my husband who is not a visual learner can't see words in his mind at all, so spelling aloud for him is torture.

You can define "visual" or "auditory" learner however you want, but there are clear differences between the way he and I process information, and there are clear differences between how people learn in general.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby moonlyrics » Tue Jun 04, 2019 4:59 am

Cainntear wrote:It has been tested. None of the papers testing it properly found any evidence for it. That's the point of Paschler et al.'s paper.


tested with language learning?

Paschler et al.'s paper intro.....

... very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education..... We conclude therefore, that at the present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.


yes, the poor injured musician could have a problem with habits rather than visual memory. that's a valid hypothesis. he has excellent spatial awareness and coordination, so it wouldn't be that.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby Cainntear » Tue Jun 04, 2019 10:20 am

StringerBell wrote:
Cainntear wrote:Meanwhile, people who insist that they are "visual learners" and "have to see the word written down in order to learn it" typically have very poor pronunciation, if they even attempt to speak at all.


I am a visual learner learner. When learning a new language, I have to see how a word is written so that I can anchor it in my mind. I do this with both Italian and Polish, two languages which I speak and I get constant feedback from native speakers in both languages that my pronunciation is very good, even though I speak Polish very infrequently. When a new Italian word comes up in conversation, if I don't see it written or ask about its spelling, I will not be able to remember it or use it myself. In fact, about 10 seconds later, that word is completely out of my mind as if I'd never encountered it. For this reason, I never pick up new vocabulary from extensive listening. However, if I ask about how that word is spelled during the conversation then as the person spells it I can see the letters in my mind, and then there is an extremely high probability that I will remember that word later on.

The thing is... I'm the same. When I'm early on in learning a language, I learn best from written words... but I don't consider myself a visual learner.

What you are learning when you learn a new word is a series of sounds. As a non-fluent learner, you cannot hear these sounds -- your brain won't let you. When you're in a language with a clear and regular phonemic spelling system (Polish is very highly regular, Italian isn't as good, but it's far better than a lot of languages) the written form is a pretty clear and unambiguous representation of the sound of the word.
Now this may seem like a strawman, but imagine you were learning a regional Chinese language that was written in the Chinese script and that had no established Latinisation -- seeing the written word would not help you remember the spoken word. You would need to invent your own phonetic Latinisation, because that would be telling you the sounds.

Going back to your brain not letting you hear sounds:

I'm sure you're familiar with the idea of phonemes -- we all say /l/ slightly differently from each other, and we all individually say /l/ differently in different words depending on the context and contact with other phonemes. Our brains, however, treat all of these different things and just /l/. It's the first stage of processing language: the brain filters out all the complexities of the sound wave and categorises an infinite spectrum of sounds into a finite number of phonemes. The brain throws data away that it considers irrelevant.

Unfortunately, while the difference between two types of L sound may be irrelevant in English, it's not in (for example) Scottish Gaelic, where there's a broad/slender (non-palatal/palatal) distinction and (in some people's accents) a weak/strong distinction, meaning for the one English /l/ there is 2, 3 or potentially even 4 phonemes.

How can your brain learn these phonemes when it's constantly throwing away the data that would tell it they exist?

This notion that there are "auditory learners" that just hear things and learn them is fallacious. Anyone who does learn from sound alone is using non-language parts of the brain to hunt for data that's missing. A person with a trained musical ear is more capable of semi-consciously analysing the frequency content of something they're listening to and picking out information that they can then go and learn

Even when I watch youtube videos in my native language, I almost always turn off the audio and use the computer generated subtitles, if they are available. When people are speaking, often things go in one ear and out the other, and by the time the video is done, I will have forgotten most of what the person said. However, if instead of listening to the video, I read the subs, then my attention and memory of the content is noticeably better and the experience is more enjoyable. My brain has a strong preference for visual and textual content than auditory content.

It is possible that you're non-neurotypical, and outliers don't prove the general case (which is a bit of an existential question for this forum -- I think in the last couple of years more and more of us having been talking about our own neurodivergent traits). Or maybe it's just a matter of YouTube videos being made by untrained amateurs who are not particularly good at scripting (if they attempt it at all) and producing material that's formulaic, repetitive, low in content, and just generally bad at holding the viewer's full attention...?

When I'm having a conversation with my husband about a complex scientific topic (which happens frequently), if he starts a long verbal explanation, I get lost because I'm trying to picture in my head what he's saying, and then I get hung up on something or he goes faster than my mental picture can handle. If he jots down a simple diagram or even a couple of key words as he's going, then I can use those visuals to process information much faster and remember it. He's the complete opposite; he can listen to massive amounts of very complex information without visuals, process it quickly, and remember it. At the end of the day, we are equally capable of processing the same level and amount of complex information, but I require visuals to do it while he doesn't.

But here hangs a big question about the nature of good teaching: is your husband in any way disadvantaged when presented with a diagram?
My hypothesis about seemingly fundamental learner differences is that it's a matter of tolerance to untuned input -- our ability to "fill in the gaps" of what is presented to us.

Going back to pronunciation and what a trained musician can do that a non-musician can't, the musician picks out the frequencies to try to find the nature of the phoneme... but doesn't need to do this, and would be able to learn from a description of mouth shape. The musician would then be able to use their learned skills of frequency discrimination to learn to identify the phoneme quicker than a non-musician, but that's not "learning style" -- it's "existing knowledge" or "existing skills".
So, when I learn a language, I need visuals. I need to see how a word is written. I need to picture that word in my mind. I do the same with my native language; when I speak, I often see the words that I'm saying in my mind, and if I come across a new word in English, I need to see the spelling of it in order to remember it, and I don't think there is a person on the planet who would say that I have poor pronunciation in my native language. When I spell a word aloud, regardless of the language, I can see it as easily as if I were looking at it written on a paper, so I can spell aloud extremely long words with a high degree of accuracy; however, my husband who is not a visual learner can't see words in his mind at all, so spelling aloud for him is torture.

That's not being "a visual learner", that's being synaesthetic. It's not hugely rare (and there's a theory that mild synaesthesia is the origin of language and a precondition of language processing) but it's not common enough to be a component of learning styles.

You can define "visual" or "auditory" learner however you want, but there are clear differences between the way he and I process information, and there are clear differences between how people learn in general.

But there's a difference between "processing information" and "learning". I believe that the goal of teaching (including writing instructional material) is to minimise the amount of processing the learners needs to do to receive the teaching input, because it's only after you have successfully received the input that you actually start to learn.
I firmly believe that reducing the amount of unnecessary processing that the learner is required to do reduces the effect of information-processing differences on the quality of learning. All the best teachers I've learned from made learning easier for everyone.
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Re: What the snake oil salesmen will/won't tell you

Postby Dragon27 » Tue Jun 04, 2019 11:11 am

As far as I know, the relevant studies have shown multiple times that visual memory is superior to auditory, so everyone learns (or memorizes?) better from the stuff they see, than the stuff they hear (well, maybe except for some outliers). In addition to that, audio material is harder to analyze and decipher: a) each language has its own unique phonetic system, that requires quite some time to get used to, whereas many typical European languages have essentially the same latin alphabet (with some tweaks); b) actual speech is much more messy (there are many phonetical quirks, like assimilation, unique for each language, people's individual manner of speaking, simplification of the frequent words and collocation, etc.), which makes it harder to extract phonemes from it, and requires you to guess the word or a phrase as a whole from incomplete information that your brain was able to grab (and context, of course), while the printed text (unlike some messy handwriting, which is not what people often use these days) is easy and clear down to every letter; c) speech is fleeting, written word is static - you can take all the time you like looking at a word.
So no wonder a typical learner gravitates toward the easier medium, and avoids the harder (but necessary) work with audio material.
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