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The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2009 in challenge, English language, for teachers

 

Food for thought

 
 

Spell it like it is | spiked

Spell it like it is | spiked by Frank Furedi, author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), is a mix of sense and nonsense in my view. First the nonsense:

In essence, variant spelling is a true companion to the idea of variant truths. Contemporary cultural life has become estranged from the idea of Truth with a capital T. In academia, social scientists never tire of informing students that there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. Instead of the truth, people are exhorted to accept different perspectives as representing many truths.

The demotion of the status of truth calls into question the purpose of gaining knowledge. Celebrating variant truths, like variant spellings, is presented as a pluralistic gesture of tolerance. In fact it represents a reluctance to take education and its ideas seriously. And not surprisingly, those who do not take ideas seriously are also not very worried about how they are spelled.

Only if you like grinding axes, Frank! Talk about reading things into stuff… The question of how best to deal with errors, spelling or otherwise, has been around long before those deep cultural matters of postmodernism and relativity that so vex cultural conservatives. There are areas where pluralism is extremely appropriate, in my view — religion not least. Religious tolerance, much to be desired in the modern world, depends on such pluralism, as it not such a long step from rejecting that to deciding “You’re right and I’m wrong, so I’m afraid I have to kill you…”

But spelling?

Yes, I am in favour of people being able to spell English words correctly; always have been. But I try not to confuse issues in the manner of Frank Furedi. I do not see spelling errors as evidence of cultural rot. I do see them as inconveniences for writers and readers, and therefore to be dealt with. So I can sympathise with Frank Furedi when he complains that this is not good enough:

My principal objection to ‘variant spelling’ is that it reinforces the pernicious idea that children and young people today cannot be expected to meet the difficult challenge of learning how to use language correctly. For some time now, influential educators have asked whether it is desirable to teach children correct spelling. Some pedagogues argue that teaching spelling is a waste of time that serves no positive purpose. Others claim that an insistence in the classroom on spelling everything correctly frustrates those who suffer from learning disabilities and dyslexia.

I suspect he has never seriously considered the issues of learning disabilities and dyslexia. I have, and am perfectly able to reconcile thinking teaching spelling is far from a waste of time with adjusting my practice when dealing with those with learning difficulties.

Sorry, but Furedi really is a bit of a windbag on this matter.

Yes, you can learn about spelling on this site: I’m a poor speller. Can you help?

 

Yes, there is a problem!

I received an email the other day; naturally the first part I find very pleasing. 🙂

I thought about creating an ESL blog for my students, but now conclude that this is not necessary as your site does it all. I passionately support all your ideas on this site and applaud your remarkable work. I am an ESL/English teacher in a … non-selective independent high school. Even though I graduated with HD from my uni ESL program five years ago, I have been using my scales and teaching ESL for only the last year and I am overwhelmed with the learning needs of my students. I am from a NESB [myself], but I do not speak the first language of the students.

My school is currently going through a learning support review and I would like to seek your wisdom. The school has found that students entering from language colleges cannot cope with the demands of our curriculum. Some students have learning difficulties as well as a language barrier. What type of ESL delivery has worked best at SBHS?

Well, I doubt how much wisdom I might have, but I am glad this site has met a need.

To take the last part first: SBHS no longer has an ESL teacher, and I am retired aside from the odd job here or there, and some tuition work, but even when I was ESL teacher as SBHS we didn’t confront problems of the kind the writer mentions, as there were no overseas fee-paying students at the school and only very occasionally did someone come from an Intensive English school to us. Mostly they had already been a few years at least in an English-speaking educational setting. There were some students who had been speaking English for three years or less, however, who fell well within the five to eight years normally required to attain adequate levels of cognitive academic language proficiency.

The writer is correct in saying that some “students entering from language colleges cannot cope with the demands of our curriculum”. I base this on my tuition work rather than on my work at SBHS. It does seem that there is a mismatch between the levels students from some private language colleges attain and the basic level needed even to function in a mainstream school environment, which I would say has to be at least Australian ESL Scales 4; 5 or 6 in some subjects, even in HSC English ESL, if a decent result is to be gained. I should add that many private colleges do an excellent job, and the NSW Intensive English schools for state school students are particularly good.

Some schools have good ESL support structures; one that I know of actually runs its own ELICOS classes for newly arrived overseas students, affording limited or phased participation in mainstream classes until the right level is reached. Others have sufficient numbers of overseas students to allow targeted classes in mainstream curriculum designed for those students in many subjects, while others rely on traditional forms of ESL support such as regular presence of one or more ESL teachers in various curriculum areas, and cooperative planning of work units with the students’ language needs consciously addressed.

There is an ESL strategy document available from the NSW Department of Education that gives many good pointers, but how effective a particular school can be depends on the human and other resources it can afford. You probably know it but here it is: English as a Second Language: Guidelines for Schools (PDF).

One thing is for sure. Some schools may have, I believe, gone into the overseas student business, which is very profitable, without being fully aware of the social, logistical and educational issues involved.

When I was at SBHS I tested all new students, gathered information about them, and assessed their needs from an ESL viewpoint. This material was shared with classroom teachers. Particular cases were discussed with teachers. Some students were interviewed and given some additional tuition in some cases. With some classes I visited in various subject areas, participating in some lessons. Sometimes teachers would refer certain issues to me. This blog in its original form was a way of reaching more students than I could personally.

 

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The literacy we need but many don’t want…

I wrote a careful essay on the nature of literacy in 1998; you may read an updated version here. At one level literacy involves just learning to read and write, using whatever teaching methods work — and that is always a combination of methods. (The whole-language VERSUS phonics myth is just that, a myth; it is rather whole-language AND phonics.) Conservative critics always focus on one end of this, and berate schools if 100% of students have not mastered basic literacy by, say, the end of primary school — a great aim, but an unrealistic one.

There are ALWAYS, whatever you do, going to be those who do not master reading and writing as well as we would like them to, just as there are those who achieve literacy even before going to school. Of course we all want an outcome that allows all those who can be literate to be literate; no quarrel there, but let’s stop nonsense such as bleating about 25% of students being "below average" and let’s stop imposing standardised tests, or at least let’s stop tying too much to them, or regarding them as anything other than potentially useful diagnostic tools.

A bit less time spent on testing and bean-counting and a bit more time, funding, and effort dedicated to actual teaching and teaching environments might do a lot more good.

But there is a type of literacy conservatives not only do not talk about but positively discourage: critical literacy. My belief is that this is so important that a democracy cannot function without it.

Here is someone who knows why.

Vanessa Andreotti is a Brazilian teacher/trainer who is currently a research fellow and education coordinator at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at Nottingham University.

 

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Thanks, Antony

Even if I think Antony really misread the purpose of my entry How to Maintain Classroom discipline (1947) — not intended to elicit admiration for the bad practice shown in the first half of the video there — I am happy that he has referred his readers to this blog in his entry disgraceful teaching discipline? Perhaps Antony experienced a Mr Grimes I somewhere in his career? I know I did.

My point further is that all of us can be Mr Grimes I — the shouting, bullying, sarcastic and basically insecure person barely holding it together on classroom discipline — on occasions, especially when we are inexperienced, or when the nature of the teaching environment we are in wears us down, or we are having a bad hair day, or whatever. None of us is Teacher Perfect 24/7 week after week for forty years or so, and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise. We are in a terrible state if Mr Grimes I is the norm, however, and the point of that very old — sixty years old — object lesson on the video was to show us a better way. Mr Grimes II is of course just a bit too perfect, and the whole video is simplistic. That doesn’t mean that the lesson it offers is of no value, because what it said sixty years ago really remains true.

To extrapolate from that video some kind of view about the state of public education, or to say that a Mr Grimes I should be “named and shamed” on tabloid television, as Antony seems to suggest, is just a bit over the top, don’t you think?

Hmmm. That last sentence has raised a very interesting problem of subject-verb agreement. Any suggestions? I suspect I have got it right, but something niggles…

 

Think space 1

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2007 in challenge, curriculum, inspiration, teaching