We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

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We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Hashimi » Sat Dec 29, 2018 3:55 pm

A quick survey of introductory course books indicates that their syllabus content provides poor short term return for someone with limited time to invest. There is usually too much material in the early lessons that is not relevant to immediate needs. The first chapters often deal with topics like the indefinite article, pronouns, or adjectives, before coming to something that can be immediately used. The following interview (Dickie, 1989) with a young foreign language learner highlights this.

Gareth is in his fifth month of learning Japanese in the first year of secondary school. He is speaking to the researcher.

"Tell me something in Japanese, Gareth."

"O.K. You ask me questions in English and I'll answer in Japanese."

"Were you born in New Zealand?"

"We haven't got up to `yes' yet."

"All right. I'll try something else. How old are you?"

"Do you want me to say the whole sentence because I can only say the number?"

"That's fine. Just tell me the number."

"....."

"That sounds good. Here's another question. What do you do at school?"

"No, not that kind of thing."

"Sorry. What sort of thing should I be asking you?"

"Well all the regular things like `This is a pen' and `The book is red'. That kind of thing."

https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/s ... korean.pdf

Could this be real?
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Speakeasy » Sat Dec 29, 2018 5:48 pm

There is no doubt that “some” introductory language courses are either quite simply poorly-designed or seemingly front-loaded with essential information which will be of use only once the student has acquired a basic understanding of the L2’s structure along with a basic vocabulary of high-frequency words and the like. However, to imply that “all” courses fail the student is a bit of a stretch. Furthermore …

In my view, the author is making a “false comparison” between (a) acquiring sufficient listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills so as to be able to establish a deep contact with the L2 culture, albeit sometime in the distant future perhaps after years of study, and (b) meeting the essential requirements of a traveller whose sojourn to the L2 country will be short and whose “immediate needs” are the typical transactional type communications which take place in predictable situations.

The solution to this “problem” is NOT to redesign “type a” introductory language courses so that they will fulfil the “type b” requirements. The solution is quite simple: use a phrase-book-style language aid to the traveller. Surely the author is aware of these tools; unless, of course, this paper was just another totally forgettable publish-or-perish effort at maintaining his current employment.

By the way, a sample size of one student?
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Iversen » Sat Dec 29, 2018 6:08 pm

In my opinion indefinite articles, pronouns and adjectives are among the things that are most relevant to any learner's immediate needs. So are the typical positive and negative answers to simple yes-no questions. However in some languages the situation is slightly more complicated because there aren't any words for yes and no - you have to repeat the verb and/or use a pronoun, and then you should of course know what those things are. And if you can't understand the question the main lesson should be NOT to answer at all, but this particular student seems to be quite aware of that.

By the way: I'm slightly surprised to see Paul Nation's name in this context. He is most known for some quite solid work on the number of words people are supposed to know.
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Cavesa » Sat Dec 29, 2018 7:25 pm

Of course it could be real. But I wouldn't be so quick about dismissing it as a problem.

I can definitely see the benefit of both approaches and have experienced learning from books following each of the paths.

The "easy grammar first" approach is in my opinion much more advantageous in the long run, as it gives the real basics, usually follows the logic of building one block upon the other. Yes, the disadvantage is learning some important stuff rather late, but that can be partially caused by a teacher or class progressing too slowly. There are teachers, who get through two units of a coursebook in a semester, so everything in the third one and later seems to arrive too late. So, I think the main problem here is too slow progress through the initial building blocks.

The "basic conversation first" approach is being glorified too much these days. Most coursebooks will be proud of presenting the "most important" language first. Yes, there are advantages to learning things like yes and no, or presenting yourself immediately. But there are disadvantages too. In French (and I can imagine this being a problem of many languages, especially those more distant from the learner's native one), the clear disadvantage are those tons of discouraged learners understanding nothing and complaining "language learning is just about memorisation, I give up, there is no logic". Starting with "C'est un avion. " and "J'ai une pomme" is simply more logical than starting from "Je m'appelle X. Je voudrais une pomme."

But I can understand the frustration. It was weird not to learn basic yes and no answers in Latin after two years of classes too :-D

Still, I simply think that phrases like "This is a pen" and "The book is red." are definitely not bad choices at first. The problem is not progressing beyond those in five months.

It is a common complaint of people that "this is not what I would talk about with my friend Pedro" or "this is not what you need in a restaurant" (examples from another recent thread on a similar note). But I wonder, what do those people actually talk about, if they don't need basic grammar, pronouns, present tense, adjective, or articles.
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Random Review » Sun Dec 30, 2018 12:40 am

A couple of excellent posts from Iversen and Cavesa above; but I'd go further: the problem is completely the opposite. Most courses don't spend enough time on really getting the basics right. My experience as both an EFL teacher and self-learner is that curricula are under pressure to move far too fast, I know of no other field where spending time on the basics is seen as a problem. Add to that the fact that this is a high school student who's probably studying a mere 2-3 hours a week, that we're talking about an FSI category 5 language and it seems entirely normal to me.

Interviewer: solve this differential equation
Student after 5 months of high school math(s): sorry, we've only done basic algebra so far.
Onlooker: can this be real?

Er, yes.

It's just another example of how the difficulty of learning foreign languages is massively underestimated. Imagine listing "this is a pen" and "the pen is red" as if it were the most simple thing in the world. :roll:

Just to take examples from my own limited knowledge, the quoted phrases contain two articles for a start. German has articles that decline for gender, number and case, leaving the learner with literally dozens of scenarios. Spanish has a "mere" 4 forms and 6 different scenarios (if you include nouns that begin with a stressed "a" sound) for articles, but compensates for this relative "simplicity" by having major usage differences that must be learned (e.g. "no tengo coche" or "me gusta el café") and these are supposed to be the easier languages (for English speakers). Does the TL even have articles? There's a demonstrative there, what about demonstratives (big differences in usage there between languages!)?. How many forms? Are there different forms for different genders, cases or number? Pronouns versus determiners? Close or distant referents? What about 3 grades of distance or more? Are there differences from L1 in pragmatic usage (e.g. many languages will use their equivalent for "this" even for distant things after they have been introduced into the discourse)? Are there differences due to animacy? Does the demonstrative need to be followed by a measure word? What one? What about "is" in "this is a pen"? Does the TL even have a copula? If so, how many? Famously "easy" Spanish has 2, which one do we need here? Do we have to mark this copula for tense, aspect, number, mood?

Etc times a thousand.

This article makes my blood boil, because the most upsetting thing for me as an EFL teacher in China for almost two years was watching bright, interested kids being rushed through a curriculum and ending up speaking fluent Chinglish with difficult to understand pronunciation. I often wonder how it could possibly be commercially viable to slow the **** down and get the basics mastered first*. I have now also watched several adults confidently rush to fill up with words and expressions and experience similar effects, before pronouncing that "being understood" is all that matters in Spanish and that Chinese is impossible to learn.

Hmmm, that wasn't what you thought when you started, was it? It couldn't possibly be that you need to go back and study the basics for a while, could it?

* I came to the conclusion that the only way parents would ever pay for a slower curriculum than competitors provide is if they could hear a Chinese equivalent of what their child sounds like in English. Then they'd pay for it alright. I wonder if that's why the music teaching industry isn't dominated by companies selling: "you're child can play Chopin, Bach, etc fluently in just 2 years!" and filled with parents complaining that their kid is still practicing scales and simple melodies after 6 months of piano classes and demanding to know when they will "learn Beethoven". Most parents would hear that their kids were playing great music badly. They can't hear that with an L2 they don't speak.
Last edited by Random Review on Sun Dec 30, 2018 1:06 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Cavesa » Sun Dec 30, 2018 1:59 am

Yes, moving too fast is just as much of a problem as moving too slowly.

I would say the main problem are the wrong expectations. People are not being explained what to expect from each approach, what results they are likely to achieve, what is the planned pace, what is the time frame.

The example at the beginning of this thread is from a high school. Well, the schools are the worst. The information is being given to the parents, who often have no clue about the language in question or language learning in general, and are usually not that informed anyways, except for the name of the courebook they need to pay for. The students are being given little information, beyond what is gonna be in the next test.

When I asked in my little sister's school about the end level in the second foreign language (the purpose of this question: trying to find out which second language was being taught the best at the school), I was given no real information. When I asked how many students pass language exams and at what level by the time they finish school, I was answered a completely unrelated: "we don't force them to do that". Like really?

Would it be such a problem to show people the bigger picture? Like "if you study well, you should be able to do .... by the end of high school. We plan to get through the whole course series X from the first book to the third, ending at level Y, which means this and that. Here is a list of recommended supplementary material."

So, it is no wonder that the students are not convinced about the meaning of their basic lessons. And without the meaning, they are unlikely to work too hard.

I believe it is the fault of the teachers, and partially the coursebooks, when a student dependent on them can't see why is learning "the book is red" so important. And I think it is a huge problem of the language teaching industry's PR, that people dismiss lots of useful stuff so quickly, with the stupid argument "it is not useful in conversation". What conversation? It really looks like there are just two or three touristy conversations people find worth preparing for.

It is understandable, when the independent learners worry about their personal curriculum, about its direction, about the pace, about the meaning of the individual steps. But the people suffering in classes are settling for a lot of compromise and expect this in return: a reliable guidance. They are usually not getting it.
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Adrianslont » Sun Dec 30, 2018 7:47 am

I don’t believe this Gareth kid. I’d bet a week’s wages that “yes” is covered in the first five weeks of his curriculum. Basically the whole Gareth example is click bait - it’s a way to get you into the discussion of what should go in a curriculum. Fair enough. Maybe. It’s certainly a valid topic.

I’d also have a smaller wager that he has been taught how to say “I’m x years old” but then again maybe not - as Random Review says, we are talking about the first lessons in the first year of high school. And he probably didn’t have Japanese in primary school. Maybe he only has one Japanese lesson a week (I didn’t read the article closely). So maybe he does only know the numbers. I wouldn’t panic yet.
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Cainntear » Sun Dec 30, 2018 11:22 am

I'm very dubious about attempting to draw general conclusions from a sample quite so small as the one in the study, and I wonder if there's an element of self-deception involved in restricting themselves to such a small sample, in that they know that if they were to open it up to a large number of learners via an online survey, they'd find so many differences that the problem would be unresolvable.

As others have said, this paper seems to conflate the issues of coverage and retention at times. Did they never get shown it or did they simply forget it? That's more than relevant, because the two problems have very different solutions.

I think that the biggest aid to retention is systematicity. If the phrase you're learning is part of a system (i.e. presented in the context of known grammar and idiom) then the brain has a way of storing it reliably for later recall.
So compare teaching "je m'appelle"/"me llamo"/"mi chiamo" on day one where there is no established system to understand it in with doing it the way Michel Thomas does*: waiting until you've taught reflexive pronouns, asking "how do you say I call myself" and then just telling them that's how you tell someone your name. In the latter case, learning the specific phrase takes a matter of seconds, in the former, you're going to need to revise it so much that the phrase alone will take hours of your life to learn.

(* Note though that Thomas does here conflate the special case of pronominal verbs with the reflexive. I never did decide whether this was justified or not.)
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Cainntear » Sun Dec 30, 2018 11:49 am

Cavesa wrote:I believe it is the fault of the teachers, and partially the coursebooks, when a student dependent on them can't see why is learning "the book is red" so important.

Oh no, there is a fundamental problem with that sort of thing -- it is meaningless, and language is all about meaning.

It's a recurring issue in language teaching and I wrote about it years ago. As I said then, "the" in language prompts often makes my insides scream "which one???". The complete phrase "the book is red" serves no model as an expression or communication, because it is just unimaginable as a genuine communication. What would I be achieving? Why would I be saying it? Whenever I challenge people to answer these questions, they contrive answers that just aren't real language... because "the book is red" is not real language. If you google it, there are three main situations it appears in -- kids books (for learning to read); language learning products; and a play on words taking advantage of the homophony of "red" and "read", but in this case the red tends also to imply blood.

Now, sorry to harp on about Michel Thomas, but while some of his exercises had very odd sentences, he's the only teacher I've heard giving truly naturalistic language in exercises: "I want it, but I don't have it" is meaningful to everybody -- it encapsulates every layer of meaning in language... other than the link between a proper noun and a concrete object. Or something like "I'm sorry, but I can't do it today because I'm too busy" -- this one feels slightly unnatural because in normal speech we wouldn't use quite as many connectors, but it is still deeply meaningful, so the learner can't help but consider how all the individual components contribute to the final meaning.

That's what good teaching examples do -- they present an intuitive example of language so that the learner can connect with it on a deeper level. A truly unnatural example (the book is red, the swan is on the lake) encourages only superficial intellectual analysis.
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Re: We haven't got up to 'yes" yet!

Postby Random Review » Sun Dec 30, 2018 1:28 pm

Cainntear wrote:
Cavesa wrote:I believe it is the fault of the teachers, and partially the coursebooks, when a student dependent on them can't see why is learning "the book is red" so important.

Oh no, there is a fundamental problem with that sort of thing -- it is meaningless, and language is all about meaning.

It's a recurring issue in language teaching and I wrote about it years ago. As I said then, "the" in language prompts often makes my insides scream "which one???". The complete phrase "the book is red" serves no model as an expression or communication, because it is just unimaginable as a genuine communication. What would I be achieving? Why would I be saying it? Whenever I challenge people to answer these questions, they contrive answers that just aren't real language... because "the book is red" is not real language. If you google it, there are three main situations it appears in -- kids books (for learning to read); language learning products; and a play on words taking advantage of the homophony of "red" and "read", but in this case the red tends also to imply blood.

Now, sorry to harp on about Michel Thomas, but while some of his exercises had very odd sentences, he's the only teacher I've heard giving truly naturalistic language in exercises: "I want it, but I don't have it" is meaningful to everybody -- it encapsulates every layer of meaning in language... other than the link between a proper noun and a concrete object. Or something like "I'm sorry, but I can't do it today because I'm too busy" -- this one feels slightly unnatural because in normal speech we wouldn't use quite as many connectors, but it is still deeply meaningful, so the learner can't help but consider how all the individual components contribute to the final meaning.

That's what good teaching examples do -- they present an intuitive example of language so that the learner can connect with it on a deeper level. A truly unnatural example (the book is red, the swan is on the lake) encourages only superficial intellectual analysis.


I tend to agree with you if we confine ourselves to how textbooks usually teach; but language is only meaningful or meaningless in a context. As a sentence in a book of exercises or a drill, I agree that it's meaningless. What about in a genuinely amusing or interesting (but not necessarily realistic) dialogue? I think it's meaningful now and that's one reason the dialogues in many Assimil courses are so much better than the standard dialogues in textbooks.

What about a simple classroom guessing game? Hide a book a pen and an eraser (for example) and the kids have to guess the colour of the objects, for example:

"The book is red, the pen is blue and the eraser is pink"

The teacher tells them how many they guessed right but not which ones. The game continues until all 3 coloured objects are guessed correctly and using correct grammar (obviously you have to ask ICQ's for that), at which point the teacher shows them the objects to confirm, splits the class into groups of 3 and has students play.

I'd argue that now it is meaningful (at least for maybe 4 or 5 minutes until the students start to get bored and process mechanically again :lol:). That's only me and off the top of my head; better teachers than me with more time to think can surely come up with more and better.
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