Process, not product

Did my strategy use just prevent learning? Acquisition? Or is it that the strategy use is bringing about explicit learning, rather than implicit acquisition? Let’s see…

Spurred on my my brilliant first chapter, and a glass of Friday-night Vermouth, I embark on chapter two, catchingly entitled ‘verbs’. The course-designer in me could see right where this was going – having learned ‘the woman’, ‘the girl’, ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’, it made sense that the next chapter was going to have these chaps actually doing stuff. And lo, I was right. Here they are standing, sitting, lying, walking, running and even jumping all over my tablet screen.

The app runs through the six verbs, and fast. On the first pass I don’t notice that the English is at the top, and was busy looking at the pictures, and listening and trying to read the Thai word. I wanted it to slow down so I could take in the new words a bit better.

And then I get a series of sentences, illustrated by one of six possible pictures, and I have to decide what it is. Is the man sitting, or are the boy and the girl jumping? That sort of thing.

I am a canny strategist. Does this make me a Good Language Learner or a less good one? Because I tell you what happened next – I totally ignored the new verbs that it was trying to teach me, and honed right in on who was doing it. I’m good at ‘man’, ‘woman’ and the rest of it now, and that gave me a pretty good chance of working out what was being done, because to start with the pictures had different people doing stuff. Later it got harder: the right choice of people but two choices of verb:  I knew they were talking about ‘a boy and a girl’ but I had two pictures of boys and girls, and had to decide whether the mystery sound said ‘running’ or ‘lying’. So I would guess – I had a 50-50 chance after all.

Image result for elephant jumping the beach

The fact that I don’t know the word for ‘elephant’ notwithstanding (it’s ช้าง / Cĥāng), course designers need to come up with pictures like this instead, and force me not to use inference as a strategy, but instead to begin to work on my new words. Using inference allowed me to comprehend, but I don’t know how much it allowed me to acquire. Of course, some kind of very basic word-knowledge might have been acquired – or so the theory says – but I can’t even sense where it is, and it’s higgeldy piggeldy. Let me tell you what I’ve picked up:

Jump is a long word and it’s got a double letter at the end – this one ค or this one ด.

Lie is a palindromic word of three letters and I think the first and last letters are น

Sit and one other verb both end in ง

I’m not always very good at telling from a picture whether someone is walking or running.

At the second pass I definitely concentrated on trying to ‘read’ the words – insofar as ‘read’ means try to look at the whole shape of the word and in some way, associate it with the meaning of the word. I wasn’t sounding it out – again it was very much about whole-word recognition. I also tried to listen hard to the verb, trusting that I knew the nouns better. But I had to (get this) come up with a conscious strategy not to use the easy strategy – ie to come up with a strategy not to comprehend (and get the right answer), but to learn. Process, not product.

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Author: Kedi Simpson

I'm a teacher of modern foreign languages in a UK school and have nearly finished my Master's in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at Oxford University. Former journalist, doula and childbirth educator.

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