I went to a talk today from a very erudite applied linguist called Claire Kramsch. She was talking about the identity of foreign language teachers, and among other things, she discussed the extent to which language teaching should address the target-language culture during the lessons. Home I come, and fire up Llingo for a spot more Thai – and I can put into words something that’s bugging me: the stock photos.

I am learning Thai because I am going to Thailand. My motivation to learn is all tied up with my visit there and I will probably stop studying after I come back (unless I fall in love with the place and decide I want to go back again and again). I am excited about visiting and learning Thai is fuelling that excitement – deliberately.

But in the chapter I am working on now, the words are about the office, the factory, the car park, while in a roundabout way attempting to demonstrate use of the negative (the computer is not red, it’s black), etc. Honestly, it would motivate me more (and I’m motivated already), if the picture of the woman in the office who is sitting not standing, were of a Thai woman in a Thai office. Or even a non-Thai woman in a Thai office. Give me a tiny taste of culture by showing me this, rather than generic white woman in stock office photo. As for the car park – why do you have to show me something that looks like Banbury retail park on a Sunday morning? Show me a Thai car park, number plates! Give me a bit of culture. Just a tiny taste. Why could the stock photo of a computer not have had Thai lettering on it? These little differences in experience are one of the joys of travel, and although I accept that not everyone learns the language in order to visit the country, quite a lot do, and, crucially, it wouldn’t come at any extra cost.

Here’s a Thai car just to prove it: And do you know what? If you said to me ‘the car is white, not black, and is at the car park, not the bus stop.’ I would probably more or less get what you were saying.

Image result for thai number plate

But half the fun, the motivating factor, the magic of learning a language is in a picture like this. I see different lettering on the number plate. I see different types of window stickers on the car. The street furniture is different. There’s even Thai graffiti in the background!

It’s got me thinking about the text books I use when I teach as well – there’s no culture in them either. Generic pictures of people talking about generic things – the extent of the culture shown in the books is the names of the pretend people.

Now, I love learning languages. I like the intellectual activity, the cross-linguistic comparisons. But when I first went abroad at the age of about 10, it was the being there that was magic: the otherness of France, where the little details were different. I still get a kick out of it. I still get a kick out of bringing home a tube of foreign toothpaste or having a tin of foreign food in the cupboard. I wonder at its exoticness and how for peope from that place, the same thing that gives me a thrill must feel mundane, taken for granted.

Of course there’s masses more to culture than a bottle of shower gel with unfamilar wording or lettering, a picture of a car with a different style number plate. But it’s a start, and it’s an easy start at that, which can be delivered in the classroom or indeed the self-instructed online course at no extra cost at all. And who knows, it might start to open minds in the way that ‘my name is Pierre and I watch cartoons every day because they are funy,’ utterly fails to do.




Too much stuff

Sit down, hold on to your hat, there’s a rant coming.

Lesson 9: Introduction.

When my oldest (now sixteen) was about two, he would frequently appear in doorways, laden down with toys. There would be a teddy and a plastic toy microwave under one arm, a pretend washing machine and no doubt a series of wooden trains, metal cars, or goodness knows what else, under the arm. He would look at me forlornly and say ‘too much stuff.’

Well, Lesson 9: Introduction – too much stuff. Way too much stuff.

Before, single words carefully layered to build up learning while recycling previous vocabulary. All of a sudden: six phrases, with between three and seven words each. Some of the same words cropping up in different positions in different sentences. And, weirdness of weirdness, these funny strange icon-y things which are in some way supposed to explain ‘hello,’ ‘how are you’, ‘nice to meet you’ and ‘goodbye’ in diagrammatic form. Because the pictures were invariably stock photos of random people drinking tea or chatting.

OK, I thought, I can do this. It’s standard beginner language fare. How hard can it be?

Very hard, it turns out. I could not but could not get this into my head. I looked hard at the six phrases and tried to see some patterns: the learning outcome for this section appeared to be the different politeness article depending on whether you are a man (in which case you say khrap at the end of things), or a woman (ditto, kha). Cue looking hard at the speech bubbles and listening or looking out for khrap or kha, and narrowing it down. Cat in hell’s chance. Bloody impossible. Rubbish scores, adrenaline rising, me feeling lost again.

Now then, there is a form of language teaching called ‘communicative language teaching’ which, despite having nearly finished two years of a master’s on second language acquisition, I’m still not intimately acquainted with. But the idea goes something like – learn to communicate, don’t translate, don’t do grammar, and all will be well. It’s closely allied with the ‘input hypothesis’ which says that in order to learn a language, all you need is input (ie language) in an obvious context, and the rest will follow naturally.

These six phrases, it seemed to me, exemplified all that was wrong with these approaches. I think Llingo was trying to come over all CLT, all Krashen on us here. Hear the phrases, learn the phrases. Away we go. Er, no.

I thought I was going mad. I grabbed onto whatever I could of the phrases second time around. I thought – I’ll start with the first word of each phrase and that’ll help. But two started with Di-Chan. Two had ‘sa-bai’ as the second word – one of them was one of the di-chan phrases. Ah, OK, I am making a link now. Di-chan must be ‘I’. Sa-bai di is something to do with being fine, because it’s in ‘how are you’ and I’m fine thank you. Over I go again. Am I quite sane? I keep thinking: ‘I don’t think I’ve met this word before’ and blaming my ancient memory for not being able to keep the words in my head.

On my third pass I gave up. I wrote it all down, weird symbols and all. And lo – they taught me ‘di-chan chue than ya kha’ –and tested me on ‘phom chue mai khrap’. As if I was magically supposed to know that it was the same thing! Twas only when I decided to further demoralise myself with a round of Memrise (there are no decent learn Thai courses on Memrise) that I work out that there are two words for ‘I’, depending on whether you’re female (Di-chan) or male (Phom). Just mentioning that at the start would have made life a lot easier, dear Llingo.

As a learner, at this juncture I want to know what each word means. I want to know how Thai expresses these things. That way I am more likely to be able to internalise it. (I do accept that this isn’t always possible in a language class, especially a ‘communicative’ one where use of the learner’s L1 might be somewhere between frowned-upon and impossible).

So I take a trip to google translate where I attempt some sleuthing. Here, the unfamiliar alphabet and the lack of gaps between words creates even more problems but I have just about managed to work out a few more bits and pieces, although it now appears there are two words for ‘you’, and I don’t know in which circumstances one would use one or the other.

I scroll forward and the future lessons seem to revert back to single items of vocabulary. Llingo gets another chance. But this one was bloody horrible.

I can’t sing a rainbow

I caught up. I went over all the chapters where I hadn’t got 100% on the test. I kept on with them until I hit 100%. I felt proud of myself that things are sinking in. I appreciated the clever design of the course which meant that the new language was building up, carefully recycling the old stuff. Things were going well.

And then colours happened.

Six colours. Black, white, red, yellow, green, blue. And very little to hang their meanings on. OK, I saw the word ‘si’ at the start of each one, so I guessed that might mean ‘colour’ but that you have to say it all the time in Thai. I grabbed onto ‘si dam’ for black by thinking ‘damn, it’s dark in here’. ‘Si fa’ was blue – it was the last in the list and the simplest word, so I coped with that. The others were a big colourful mush in my brain. I could get the answers right when the options were clear – ie the noun being described was the only option, and I knew the noun. But when it was the colour on its own, they just wouldn’t go in in the same way. I wonder why? Were they too abstract? Bore little relation to anything else?

It got me thinking about when we teach vocabulary in topic areas, and whether that is always the most helpful way, when the words aren’t cognates? Sure, my mental lexicon has now put all the Thai colours in its own little box, but with the exception of blue and black, the box might as well be made out of six foot concrete because the words are only relating to each other, and not to any other words in my mind. And even those are only very tenuous – with–to looking back at Llingo, I can tell you the following:

  1. I think green is something like krueng
  2. Yellow might have some links somewhere with jaune – or that’s what I was trying to remember – perhaps it ends with a ‘n’?
  3. I made some association with red and blood but I can’t remember why.
  4. The word for white is easily confused with one of the other words.

But black is definitely ‘si dam’, and blue is definitely ‘si fa’.

When I get into a place like this with my language learning, I find it very frustrating and I feel quite lost. The sensation is akin to feeling adrift or out of control; it’s a struggling panicky feeling that is very uncomfortable. It’s hard to want to carry on when you feel lost like this; it’s demotivating. I wonder what I’m doing this for anyway. It makes me wonder how many of my learners feel like this a lot of the time. I am a ‘good language learner’ who is reflective and can make links between words and also I also know explicitly that I’ll get there. I have a wisdom of experience. But when you come to a teenager who’s doing it because they have to, I imagine that that out-of-control feeling might be amplified. Add to that the fact that when I am learning Thai, I can go at my own pace, but the out-of-control teenager is obliged to go at the same pace, roughly, as 29 other in the class… well that can’t be fun at all.

Which comes back to reiteration, revision, repetition. These things need to be gone over in umpteen different ways – like Llingo has done beautifully up to now. Build it up slowly. Come back to it. And then perhaps, slowly, the out-of-control feeling will fade away and I can puff about with pride again – and pick up the correctly coloured hire car when we are in Thailand.

Image result for thai colours

Sawat di ka… again

It’s been a while. I have been in ‘essay hell’, finishing coursework for my Master’s in Applied Linguistics. But the worst is now over and the next deadline is in a month – which I know is very soon, but just this morning it feels like a liberated lifetime away. So over breakfast it was back on the llingo.

I think we underestimate the importance of revision in language learning. There are graphs out there that show us how you need to look at something x number of times in the first learning session, then space out the revision with longer and longer gaps, and then finally – hop! – the learning has made the jump from short term memory into long term, and I will be able to say the Thai words for ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘boat’ and ‘bike’ til my dying day.

So I went right back to the beginning today. The app had told me that I only had 96% accuracy, and that bugged me, so I did the first lesson all the way through and lo! I have now achieved 100%.

What do I notice the most today? The power of sound. Hearing the words, beautifully clearly, seems to me to be the most useful thing at this beginning juncture. I do look at the written forms, switching between the Thai versions and their transliterated alternatives, but what stays with me is that voice. I can hear it in my auditory memory for quite some time afterwards – certainly a lot longer than the two seconds quoted in the literature about phonological working memory. Something else is going on here – like it’s being auditorally imprinted. The sections where I’m expected to read and identify the pictures are working in a different way: I can tell the six words apart and tell you what they say, but their written form (not even the transliterated one) isn’t being imprinted on my visual memory in the same way at all. If you gave me a Thai written text, for example, I don’t think I stand a cat in hell’s chance of picking out those six words, even if they put gaps between the letters. But I might, just might, be able to pick out the words in a spoken stream.

I am struggling to think why this might be the case (and would welcome clever applied linguists’ informed hypotheses on this). At the moment, and off the top of my head, and without any theory behind it, is that hearing / listening, is a basic biological skill, whereas reading is a learned skill, a cultural construct. I hear a sound, I assign it a meaning, job done. I read a word, I pick out the letters, I decode, I get a little bit distracted remembering that ง says ng, which means that one must be ‘girl’ because has the ‘ng’ / ง at the end, and that น says n, so that must be ‘bike’ because it has the ‘n’ / น at the end… so much more to think about, and hence, inevitably, a slower process.

Am I contradicting what I wrote in the ‘can you write it’ post? Possibly. But that’s allowed because this is an exercise in musing aloud.

What does this mean for language courses which focus on writing from the word go? What are the implications on pronuciation of that kind of course? One person’s anecdote doesn’t equal evidence, of course, but it can equal hypotheses ripe for exploration.

Image result for thailand bicycle

Strategy use, learning and forgetting

I’m still working through Llingo and complementing it a bit here and there with the Memrise alphabet course. This morning I was quite excited (sad, I know), to complete a session with prepositions. On the assumption that there is no verb to be in the present tense in Thai (I have no idea whether this is the case or not, I’m just overextending my knowledge of Mandarin for no other reason than they are in a similar geographical area), this means that I can now say some more complete sentences. Somehow preposition use makes me feel like I’m really getting somewhere – much more so than just simple statements such as ‘the man drinks’.

The sentences were long, and some of them were only presented to me aurally, but mostly I got them right. Mostly this involved a fair bit of thought, a repetition and a conscious scanning of my mental lexicon to translate them, but every now and then I had a sense of automatisation.

But there was another process/ product thing going on. The way the app is set up, it tells me something (in writing, or aurally) and I have to pick the picture which best describes it. So here, the product is getting the right answer in the form of picking the correct picture, even if I don’t fully get what is going on. I am still focussed on my words ‘boy’ ‘girl’ ‘woman’ or ‘man’ – now supplemented by other nouns. I am working out which is the right picture without necessarily grasping the correct preposition – after all, there isn’t a picture of the girl under the bus stop, on top of the bus stop and inside the bus stop – so as long as I get ‘girl’ and ‘bus stop’ I will get the answer right.

Strategy use has been a big thing in Applied Linguistics and there’s plenty of evidence out there that seems to suggest that, at the very least, strategy use correlates with proficiency, and some evidence suggesting that strategy use brings about language learning. But I’m now wondering the extent to which task design plays a part in this. Because in what I’ve done today, my strategy use isn’t helping me learn my prepositions. Sure it’s reinforcing my nouns, but but I can fudge it without the prepositions.

There’s another random thought I’ve had – and that’s about forgetting. So, there was a section I wrote about where there were six verbs – run walk jump stand sit and lie. I got good at them. And then I didn’t revise them – the next chapter went on to something else. One or two of them came up again in my section on prepositions. The best I could tell you is that I knew we had covered them in the past. But I couldn’t tell you what any of them meant (even though my app still has a lovely shiney 100% next to that chapter). The conscientious learner in me had a little panic. Should I go back over them and revise? Help, I learned them and I forgot them – even though I’m sure I did them the 10 times that ‘research’ says I need to in order for them to move into long term memory (but not on the right time-scale!) Now, I’m a conscientious language learner – I wonder how the typical teenager feels in a modern language classroom when the same situation arises. Here’s a word I know we’ve done but I’ve forgotten it. Oh no, I’m rubbish. I am grasping some of what’s going on but I feel out of my depth… then when my mate shouts to me across the classroom, that’s instantly more appealing.

I was at a conference yesterday about langauge learning in secondary school, and this brings me to two things that different speakers mentioned. One – that vocabulary teaching should be built up really carefully with lots of repetition, and that there’s a huge risk inherent in topic-based learning that whole sets of vocabulary get learned within a certain context, then totally forgotten again (as exemplified by my ‘stand run jump’) etc. Second, that there’s a school of thought (not empirifically justified, but worth considering), that says that language learning should be absolutely transparent. Every word needs to be understood. Aiming for approximate understanding, they say, will lead to confusion and demotivation. It certainly would have helped with my prepositions, although for other reasons I’m not convinced. More on that next time.

‘Can you write it?’

I remember many years ago going to Mandarin Chinese lessons. I lived in London and it was before the internet was much of a Thing, in 1998 or 1998 – evening classes were easy to come by. We followed quite a rubbish book, and lots of people dropped out very early on, but I stuck at it to prepare for my trip to China. And I remember a refrain that was asked of the teacher over and over again, when we were taught new words, was ‘can you write it?’

Children learning their first language don’t ask this – they learn entirely aurally in the first few years – and so some language teachers think we should do the same learning a second language. Indeed, most of us have some stock phrases in another language which we just know, and know aurally / orally much better than we could write.

My first few words of Thai through Llingo felt like this as well – the ‘hello’, the boy, the girl, the woman, the man, the bicycle and the boat. But now I’ve done three sections of the app and I’m really really noticing that seeing the word written helps enormously in getting it into my head.

So, for the most recent section, I have had a series of ‘transportation’ words – bus, train, plane, etc. In most cases the app will let me hear the word, and see it spellt, and transliterated (although I have to toggle between these last two), as it gives me a picture. TO start with I didn’t notice that I could toggle to a Roman alphabet and was trying to sound out the words with the Thai alphabet (which helps – I’m definitely clear on the letter น now, and enjoying all the varieties on the g / k / glottal stop sound that ก makes).

In my Chinese lessons I can’t remember whether I was one of the ones who was frustrated by the ‘can you write it’ requests, or whether I was asking for them. But in this case I can tell that seeing it written is really helping me.

I think there’s something about phonemic awareness going on here actually. That’s all about understanding what sound(s) a letter makes, and with it, understanding that this is language-specific – a good example is that ‘j’ says something different in English than in German, and in French it’s different again. I suspect that there are language teachers out there who refuse to ‘write it’ when asked specifically because they have noticed that a lot of their students are not phonemically aware; instead they simply apply the pronunciation rules of their first language onto whatever they are reading, and in doing so, at the very least totally butcher the language they are trying to read, or worse, make themselves utterly incomprehensible.

Because this is something that really needs to be taught, and worked on, and revised, and worked on some more. It takes time to unlearn the reflex action of making a certain sound when one sees a certain letter, and to remember that the rules are subtly different here. It’s a really big job to get it sorted, and it needs constant revision, and it’s much easier to lay the foundations right than to try to fix it after errors have become embedded (even fossilised) – it’s a constant thread in my own teaching, and I’m so proud of my year sevens whose pronunciation is so good.

Seeing it written is helping me enormously. I can even picture the words written out in some cases (rot-yan = car) – although for other words I have a sound-memory of the word. How weird is that? Why is the word for train being stored auditorally but the word for car is being stored orthographically?

Anyway – can you write it? Yes. Just remember when you’re reading it, that it’s not English!

Image result for chiang mai sign

What gets retained

After my long learning episode on Friday, I didn’t manage to do any yesterday, but I thought about stuff. What I could remember and what I couldn’t. And I can totally remember phuying (apart from all the diacritics) and dekphuying – woman and girl (google translate tells me that dek means child – so girl is child-woman). I can remember reux for boat. I am much shakier on man, boy and bicycle, and I wonder whether it’s because I didn’t write about learning them – I didn’t reflect on my learning. I also didn’t seek out their transliterations – and seeing the words written down in a familiar alphabet has helped enormously.

I am making connections with other sounds, other languages in which I have dabbled. I know (explicitly, not implictly) that man and boy sounds a little bit like ‘slušaj’, pronounced ‘shloosh-eye’, which is Serbo-Croat for listen, in the command form, I think. And bicycle sounds a bit like what I remember being Arabic for thank you – shukraan.

There’s a theory which says that the more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn new ones. I wonder whether my experience with listen / man and bicycle / thank you is tapping into this. I have already met, and internalised, sound-letter combinations with which the typical monolingual English speaker would not be familar. Weirdly, too, both ‘slušaj’ and ‘shukraan’ had been well and truly dormant until those new words woke them up.

As for those verbs, though – they’re totally gone. I know I did six verbs – sit, stand, walk, run, lie… I can’t even remember what the last one was. I still remember that lie is palindromic – has a ‘n’ I think, and sit ends in a ng. So again – I remember the things I wrote here.

I did some Memrise on the alphabet again this morning, and was rubbish again. But now I’m thinking: ‘man’ and ‘bike’ might both start with the same letter in Thai if I’m lucky. And I’ve done one of the ‘s’ sounds in Memrise. I think it looks like this:ช (an aside – these letters are so bloody small! The twiddly bits are minute! What on earth were they thinking when they invented this alphabet?).

So I’m developing a strategy. I am going to cross-reference llingo, with the new letters I learn in Memrise, helped by Google Translate (even though I don’t quite trust it), and do some writing down. I am going to note the letters I think I might have learned, and when I learn a word which has those letters in it, I am going to write it down. This is all very explicit though, and not very automatic. Is this explicit, methodical approach to learning the basics going to set me on an explicit, methodical path to learning more generally, or is it going to faciliate a more automatic, implicit learning, once the foundations are laid? Because I’m an experienced language learner, and I’m floundering, and feel like I need more structure.


Image result for thai ruins

Natural and man-made. And Thai right in the middle. Can this grammar-translation fan get herself learning implictly? Is it even possible to deliberately learn implicitly?