Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dealing with Intermediate Dialogs

My move to Chinesepod's Intermediate level coincides with the discussion between Steve Kaufmann and Ken Carroll about the best way to learn a new language. As is almost always the case, these apparent disagreements eventually resolve to "your mileage may vary". In other words, what works for me might not work for you. I don't doubt that this is true to some extent, and a reasonable way to calm potentially heated discussion. But for all our differences, I think we humans are very much the same when it comes to language.

I have read that Steve doesn't believe in Chomsky's universal grammar. I don't know if his skepticism extends to disbelief in a human biological language faculty - language centres in the human brain. (Personally, I am completely convinced by the argument that says that such a capacity must exist in order to explain our children's astounding language learning capabilities.) To those who do accept that our ability to learn and use language is part of a universally human genetic endowment, the obvious corollary is that there is probably a set of principles that apply universally to language learning, that should work for anyone, from any culture, at any time. (I don't know what those principles are, but I'd sure as hell like to find out!!!!) In any case, this would seem to suggest that Ken and Steve can't both be right.

So, from the general, to the specific:
Here's what I think, and what I plan to do, as far as the Intermediate lessons are concerned:
  1. Listen over and over again for the first few days. I do this in the car, in the supermarket, wherever I can bring the iPod.
  2. Only when I can't gnaw any more meat off the bone do I turn to the pdfs provided by chinesepod, and the transcripts provided by Yves (what a guy!) Incidentally, if it weren't for John's English interventions during the Intermediate lessons, I would have to switch over much much earlier to the transcripts. I've just started in this level, and the speed and vocabulary is very challenging. However I wonder if after another year I will find the English intervention more a distraction than a help?
  3. I read the transcripts fully over and over, using hanzibar as a dictionary. I skip over elements that are likely to lead to linguistic indigestion.
  4. Then I go back to the lesson and listen over and over again, hopefully distinguishing, understanding and absorbing more that I did the first time round.
(I wasn't going for a digestion metaphor here, but now that it's done, it does seem appropriate).

This is very different to what I do with the Elementary lessons, where I spend much more time on the hanzi, and where I actually try to speak the dialog (I keep that activity for the car, as it's not such a great idea in the supermarket). I feel comfortable enough with the Elementary to start to get a bit academic or even adventurous with it.

And from the specific, back to the general:
A conclusion, in so much as I can offer one, is that the points of contention between Ken and Steve (importance of speech and the use of the learner's language) coincide quite precisely with the differences between techniques that I would personally apply for different levels. I'm not going make any suggestions as to why this is - I'm just pointing out this fact.

So maybe they are both right! Feck!


Steve Kaufmann said...

I believe that we all have the ability to recognize new patterns that repeat themselves, and to get used to them. That is a part of how we learn languages, as we discover patterns and get used to them. The point is that these are new patterns in different languages, and not a part of some universal grammar. Grammar in different languages can be, not only different, but opposite. Double negatives are but one example. Even in related languages like Spanish and French, the need for pronouns and other factors can be quite different.
I tried to read Chomsky's explanations and those of Pinker and just found them to be so much sophistry that will not stand the test of time. Like Freud.
Steve Kaufmann

Brendan Lawlor said...

Yes, again yes, nay thrice yes.

I agree that
1) Pattern recognition, and generalizing from the particular, is a shared human trait.

2) Language grammars differ from each other - even in apparently similar ones.

3) Freud was a fraud.

On Chomsky - the word grammar is being used in a different sense to that of an Italian grammar book for example. Grammar has a specific meaning within computer science (I'm not a linguist, but I am a computer scientist), where precise production rules can lead to an infinity of grammatically correct statements. I understand Chomsky to be using grammar in that sense: the generative grammar that produces language, rather than the restrictions on what is correct in Italian, or English or Mandarin.

Whether you believed that Chomsky's attempts to capture the mechanisms were correct, or even close, isn't what I was wondering aloud in my blog entry. I was wondering whether you subscribed to the notion that all human language is based on a built-in biological faculty (as opposed to us making use of general purpose smarts to communicate).

Steve said...

I seem to have missed your question until now.If you read Chomsky you will see that he is quite specific in terms of what her considers our innate universal grammar. It is not just a matter of recognizing patterns in phenomena that we meet in our lives, it is somewhat more structured than that. It is about verbs and nouns and pronouns and articles that are really there when they are not etc. I heap it all with Freud...a fad whose time is or will soon pass.