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Language Learning (and teaching) A mimimalist perspective

Andrew Lian School of Foreign Languages Suranaree University of Technology


We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. (Anas Nin) The universe is made up of stories, not atoms (Muriel Rukeyser) When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change (Max Planck)
2 March 2012

For some time now


I have been thinking about ways of simplifying my thinking about language learning/teaching in order to be able to think and work more efficiently Larsen This is partly because I have an interest in how we can recognise things with the least amount of information (e.g. recognise a colleague from a silhouette). What is the minimal amount of information necessary for me to recognise X where X can be a person, an object or an idea? Obviously that information will be different for different objects but the principle remains the same. I like to work with simple principles which provide guidance and a solid reference point when the details become confusing, complex and difficult to manage (as they inevitably do when you conduct research).

So I invite you to share

My intellectual journey Where I hope we can agree on some basic principles that I find valuable

About these principles

They are simple and They are few That makes them manageable Being manageable means that they are always available and therefore can easily be applied to any (or many) situation(s) as an aid to thinking and to reduce confusion

So here are
Five axioms . Well not really five axioms (self-evident truths) because self-evident truths like selfspeaking data do not exist Lets say five principle about which we may all agree on - clear to me of course We will talk about them in the context of learning And they are all based on the human condition

Principle #1

Learners are physiological beings we are made of flesh and blood The body is systematic all parts connect. Act on one part you act on others. Language is part of that systematicity

Principle #1, consequences 1


This implies a historical constraint: How we have developed as creatures (explains certain limits e.g. breath groups) How we have acquired the world or how the world has acquired us (Chai Neng). It tells us how to think and how to act. Our belief systems rule us and these belief systems are often imposed. We are less free than we think. We are pushed to conform.

Principle #1, consequences 2


The world is not sensed directly but ONLY through our bodies, through physiological systems. We have no choice. These systems are, as a matter of principle, fragile and input can be distorted or changed. What they report may or may not be the truth: drugs, injury We are not able to ascertain directly how any particular person is sensing the world, or themselves or their place in the world e.g. explaining pain to a doctor, paranoia

Principle #1, consequences 3


All action, thinking and learning, is necessarily physiological and can involve the body as a whole, not just the mind (also said to be physical) We can act on one part to impact another: low frequencies for pronunciation, dance, posture Also right-brain left-brain connections: study intonation (low-frequency training), you also study grammar AND you provide sensitivity to chunking. It seems that by studying intonation, you automatically learn grammar AND comprehension These studies are not mainstream SLA and the field is poorer for it: Guberina, Bourdieu, Latour, Derrida, Foucault, Thierry, Calhoun, Bloom

Principle #1, consequences 4


It is said metaphorically that culture writes itself on us (through practices that we are obliged to adopt so as to conform and live successfully) but did you know that it can literally do so? Culture is physical too Condon, unborn Interactional synchrony and self-synchrony We are constantly interfering with each others activities and rhythms Barthes: interference on ones idiorhythms is the most intimate form of tyranny (i.e. violence)

So
Its like the Borg in Star Trek who assimilate everything. As they say: Resistance is futile.In our case it really is futile. We have no choice (even if we rebel).

This is a fertile research field


While we may say that we are victims of our body, we can exploit the body to our advantage (brain is not entirely hard-wired but plastic) victims of our categorisations E.g. we can work on one part of the body to influence another e.g. posture to influence pronunciation; intonation to influence grammar; L1/L2 relationships (G. Thierry) Who knows where we can go by focusing on the body: BILE project Let our imagination drive us forward

The important thing is that


While the consequences of Principle #1 can be very complicated, the idea is extremely simple: the body exists and establishes constraints and connections that we must live with and can exploit We need to keep this in front of our eyes in research and learning system design The area has huge, untapped, potential

Principle #2
Principle #2 is simple, commonsensical, uncontroversial at least I think it is. However, it has far-reaching consequences Principle #2 states that almost all we do is based on acts of meaning-making If we do not make some kind of sense of the world, then we cannot do anything I am not talking here about identifying the correct meaning, just meaning even if wrong e.g. open a window or paranoia

Principle #2

Now just for fun, consider the following about right and wrong meanings

Principle #2 What does this say?


Inter alia, it says the following: Meaning-making is a culture-bound and context-bound creation of the comprehender. It is not found in dictionaries (otherwise the non-British person would have been right) It is a function of the comprehenders meaning-making mechanisms which need to go beyond the linguistic into areas like culture and cultural fluency/flexibility

And
As all is mediated through our meaningmaking mechanisms then What we call Knowledge is constructed on meaning-making And what we call Learning is constructed on meaning-making too And we see the world as we construct it, not as it really is learners build it in their heads from what they recognise from the signals around them and this accounts for many misunderstandings and subsequent poor linguistic or cultural performances

This raises questions like

How can we act on peoples makingmeaning systems? How can we change peoples knowledge? Of course, this has implications on how people learn (and how we teach)

Principle #3
The internal meanings that we create AND LIVE BY are wholly individual and unknowable by others (even ourselves??) They are influenced by environment: society, parents, activities (nurture) and nature: genes, disabilities etc. Meaning-making mechanisms, must include at very least, our personal logical and representational systems Thus, once again, everything is perception

Principle #4
Because of Principle #3, Communication in a precise sense does not work Why? Because we are imprisoned in our bodies and our logical and representational systems cannot engage in any form of direct thought transfer like the Vulcan Mindmeld (yet)

Principle #4
And maybe one day

Principle #4

So Principle #4 is: all communication is necessarily mediated by semiotic systems. We can only produce sentences, gestures, other semiotic acts and try to understand those of others (on the basis of our meaning-making mechanisms) e.g. pain in hospital So how can we function/communicate?

Principle #4, consequences 1


The answer appears to be in what we call in SLA negotiation of meaning. I find this term unclear. A better way to describe it is to say that we seem to be caught in a perpetual interpretive interplay This is not so much a negotiation of meanings but an internal verification, rejection or refinement of the approximate meanings we provisionally make, on the basis of our analysis of a multiplicity of texts (whether purely linguistic or otherwise semiotic) about the same thing. That way we can triangulate meanings in our heads, be less approximate and get to yes from all parties

Principle #4, consequences 2

Another way to put it is that we try to understand the same thing in a multiplicity of ways (reinforces Minskys notion) and At best, then, we work by approximations where near enough IS good enough This brings us to Principle #5

Principle #5
Logical and representational systems (a) are constructed through interaction (by our attempts to understand in multiple ways) and (b) consequently, contain our operational history (world knowledge, strategies and much more) Sadly, our attempts to understand are limited by our current logical and representational systems Paradoxically, these systems help us understand (without them we would understand nothing) but resist change. As adults, we are efficient understanders of the things we understand: economy of effort has formed us to reject the unknown/unfamiliar. We know what we know.

The puzzle is

How do we change this?

Here again are the 5 principles


1. Learners are physiological beings (the basis for all the other principles) 2. All we do is based on acts of meaning-making 3. The meanings that we create AND LIVE BY are internal, individual and unknowable by others 4. All attempts at communication are mediated by semiotic systems constructed on the basis of our internal logical and representational systems 5. Logical and representational systems are constructed through interaction by our attempts to understand in multiple ways and contain our operational history (world knowledge, strategies and much more)

Together, these principles tell us that


Meaning / understanding is individual. Learning / teaching must respect this Personal knowledge is both constructed and meaning-based and relies on making the meaningless meaningful how to defeat our efficiency? Awareness-raising through tailored multiple discursive interactions? It is sometimes possible to work on several systems at once

There seem to be
3 quasi-universal practical learning necessities judging from a convergence of practice from every thesis on L2 learning I have seen: Exposure to text Awareness-raising of some kind, involving interaction (external or internal), whether it is strategy-training, or focus on form or engaging in a simulation or.. Exposure alone can sometimes be sufficient (rarely) Time on task/practice I worry about this

So

for L2 learning we now have 5 theoretical principles and 3 valued pedagogic necessities (which are actually consistent with the 5 principles) Just 8 simple things to remember

And
What is nice about it is that it does not attach itself to any specific theory of current SLA fashion It will make use of anything that works: behaviorist, cognitivist or whatever Of course, it does attach itself to a postmodern view of the world and Draws on any field: e.g. sociocultural theory, culture studies, philosophy, theory of knowledge it is much richer than SLA (interdisciplinary, like life)

Taking those 8 simple points


It is possible to construct a great deal e.g. large and complex rhizomatic systems such as the one I am researching which consists of: An over-riding theoretical framework (the 8 points mentioned + studies building on them) A learner-driven operational space A complex IT support infrastructure containing many systems, including just-in-time IT-based or human-based support and social networks Low-level techniques not unlike focus on form but broader in scope There is convergent support from studies in 21st century skills (e.g. personal problem-solving) and also other literature (e.g. brain work)

IT Infrastructure Only

Feedback for listening exercise FonF + Minsky

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France

STUDENT WILL TYPE HERE

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France

Vous avez la trois Frances

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France

Vous avez la trois Frances If it was vous avez you would have heard a [z] sound between the two words: [vu zave]

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France

Vous avez la trois Frances The conventions is not to write France in the plural in these contexts

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France

Vous avez la trois Frances The word(s) in RED do not exist in the expected answer Try to make sense of the chunk in its context

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

STUDENT WILL TYPE HERE

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

Vous savez il y a trois France Not bad but a French person is unlikely to say it this way. Listen to the original <click here> and <listen to your version> Actually you are missing a word

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

STUDENT WILL TYPE HERE

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

Vous savez que il y a trois France

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

Vous savez que il y a trois France Ae pas mal mais que + il = ???????

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

STUDENT WILL TYPE HERE

Student hears Vous savez quil y a trois France Student tries again

Vous savez quil y a trois France Bravo! Continuons!

I hope that
This little contribution to the graduate seminar has helped reduce the notion that language learning research is essentially technical (it is intellectual), impenetrably complicated and difficult to handle. Given the hugely varied output in the field one might be forgiven for thinking that it is. I hope that the identification of some coherent, uniting and easily-agreed-to principles may provide comfort and the foundations for an intellectual space for L2 researchers and teachers to explore and, why not, dream.

These principles are also embodied


In the following quotes that I inflict on my students and colleagues at every opportunity. I would prefer to remember these: they seem to say it all. We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. (Anas Nin) The universe is made up of stories, not atoms (Muriel Rukeyser) When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change (Max Planck)

Thank you!