Archive for Tag: learning process

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunters & Gatherers

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the idea of a “hunter-gatherer” society. According to Wikipedia, this is a society in which “most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals.” One feature of this kind of society is the division of labour between the sexes, with men tending to be hunters, and women more likely to be gatherers. However, the Wikipedia article stresses that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian, with women having just as much power as men. This is because equal importance is given to the role of hunting and the role of gathering.

In many ways, I think the hunter-gatherer metaphor is one that can also be applied to language learners. Some learners are hunters, some are gatherers, and some (the most successful ones) give equal importance to both. In the field of language learning, “gathering” might be taken to mean collecting new words, phrases, and structures as you discover them. However, just as an effective gatherer of food is not someone who simply waits around to be given things, effective gatherers of language need to be constantly on the lookout for new “nourishment” for their language ability. Gatherers of food actively search for it, looking under rocks, inside holes, and even in the trees above their heads. In the same way, efficient gatherers of language have to be constantly aware of their surroundings and open to the possibilities that present themselves. A Japanese woman I know who works for a publishing company once told me that she thought the secret of successful language learners is that they constantly have their “antennae” raised. In other words, they are always sensitive to new language, and they unfailingly notice it when it appears.

Another thing that food gatherers have to do is store their findings so that they can be accessed later. There is no point, for example, in picking a delicious-looking mushroom only to find out when you get home that you have dropped it somewhere along the way. In the same way, language gatherers need a systematic approach to filing away new language as they collect it. Here in Japan, I have found that students tend to have an obsession with writing things down. I suppose that, because of the frailty of human memory, we get a sense of security from making a permanent record of something that we want to remember. The problem for most of my students is that instead of being a means to an end, writing stuff down becomes an end in itself. Many students scribble things on scraps of paper that disappear into their bag at the end of the lesson. When I ask  them what they intend to do with those scraps, the most common response is a blank look. For those students, “learning” new language simply means writing it down.

Although being a good gatherer of information is an important skill for learners, I have found that most of the very successful ones tend also to have a “hunter” mentality. These people do not just wander around close to home picking up whatever happens to be lying around, they set out on journeys with the specific intent of finding new language and bringing it home. The difference between these people and unsuccessful learners can be seen in the contrast between the questions “What do I have to do for homework?” and “What can I do for homework?”

If you talk to a successful language learner, you will inevitably find that they were highly proactive in their learning. These are the people who read extensively, who watch the same DVD over and over again until they have learnt all of the lines, and who search tirelessly for new ways to “hunt” the language they want to learn. You will also often find that these people have developed their own methods of hunting. These have normally been developed through a process of trial and error, and they benefit from (and contribute to) a heightened awareness on the part of the learner of their own learning styles as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

On the subject of strengths and weaknesses, I remember some advice that Arnold Schwarzenegger once gave to aspiring bodybuilders. He told them to “spend 90% of your time in the gym working on the weakest 10% of your body.” I would say that is probably good advice for language learners too – spend 90% of your effort on the weakest 10% of your skills. In the world of bodybuilding, people often do the exact opposite, working ceaselessly on the parts of their body that respond best, and largely ignoring the bits that are slow to respond. That is why you often see men with huge arms and chests and skinny legs! In the same way, we also often see language learners who have great pronunciation but a poor vocabulary, or great reading skills but no communicative ability.

Going back to the hunter-gatherer metaphor, I think it is possible to identify three types of learner. The first is what might be called a “passive gatherer.” These people will collect language when it is presented to them, but they do not go out of their way to look for it. The second type are “active gatherers.” These are people who search for new language and make a conscious effort to store it. Active gatherers are usually more successful than passive gatherers. The most successful language learners of all, however, are the hunter-gatherers. These are the people who not only gather what they find lying around them, but who also plan regular expeditions to new and unknown places in order to hunt their prey. Which type are you?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:

“There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.”

I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of themwa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system. Of course, this is not something that is unique to Japanese. I have observed the same phenomenon with speakers of Asian languages trying to learn English articles.

Whilst it is true to say that wa and ga are mystifying for non-Japanese, it is also true to say that they are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too! Of course, Japanese people can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage.

Even for teachers, it is often the “small” words of a language that cause the most problems. I remember talking to an experienced teacher when I started my first teaching job in Singapore. Faced with a syllabus of complicated grammar such as the past perfect tense, the passive voice, and conditionals, I asked my colleague which he thought was the most difficult to teach. He did not hesitate. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, “the most difficult thing to teach in English is the word ‘the’.” (We were teaching mainly Asian students.) With twenty years of experience under my belt, I would have to say that I completely agree with him.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sowing the Seeds of Grammar

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

People often ask me how long it took me to learn Japanese, and I normally tell them that it took me about six months. When they look surprised, I add, “But it took me about two years to learn how to learn it.” This is not a joke; this is exactly how I feel about the stages I went through when I began learning the language. Of course, I didn’t really learn it in six months, but I did go from not being able to say anything to being able to survive daily life in Japan within that time frame.

The two years prior to that six-month period were not completely unproductive, but they did involve a great deal of frustration and time-wasting because I failed to grasp a number of key concepts about the learning process. The particular misunderstanding I want to focus on today is the idea I had that learning a language should be “linear.” In other words, I believed that I would study a particular item, understand it, master it, and then move onto the next thing. As anyone who has learned a foreign language will know, that is simply not how it works.

One experience that still sticks in my mind is the time when I was taught the expression shika nai, which means “only.” The problem was that I had already learned another word (dake) that also apparently meant “only,” and I couldn’t understand the difference. To be more exact, I couldn’t really understand why there had to be a difference. “English seems to manage okay with just one way of saying ‘only,’” I thought, “so why does Japanese need two?” In the end, I decided to give up trying to work it out and just use the simpler dake.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Windows, Rubber Bands, and Neurosculpting

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Recently I attended a professional development session offered by renowned educator and educational psychologist, Dr. Jo Ann Deak. Among many other interesting things, Dr. Deak spoke about the brain’s physiognomy and how it relates to language learning. It was a fascinating session; I learned some new things and found some of my long-held beliefs upheld by current research. (I just love it when both of these things come out of the same professional development session. Don’t you?)

Windows

According to Dr. Deak, everyone is born with about one hundred billion “short, skinny and naked” neurons in their brain. James Zull, in The Art of Changing the Brain, likens these neurons to a “leafless tree in an Ohio winter” because apparently that’s what they look like under a microscope. These neurons become robust at different times. This means that there are optimal time periods for certain kinds of brain development. For instance, the judgement centers of our brains aren’t fully formed until we are in our 40s. So, the window for the growth and expansion of the neurons in the part of our brains that controls the judgements we make is open until we are almost middle aged.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Just Keep Doing It

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English
Japan

Most people are familiar with the motto “Just do it,” which was introduced by the Nike sports company in 1988. This slogan struck a chord with so many people because it is simple, but incredibly powerful. If followed, it could be a life-changing piece of advice.

There are many fields in which “Just do it” could be said to be an effective philosophy, and language learning is definitely one of them. However, I think that this motto can be made even more appropriate for language learners by changing it slightly, and that is what I want to discuss in this article.

There are basically three stages that successful language learners will go through:

1) Decide to do it.
2) Do it.
3) Keep doing it.

The first step on the road to eventual success is deciding to embark on the journey. All of us have limited time on this earth, and we constantly need to make decisions about how we are going to spend that time. These decisions have particular significance when they relate to an activity that requires us to invest a huge amount of time in the hope of reaching a desired goal at some point in the future. The decision to learn a foreign language is therefore not one that should be taken lightly. Partially learning a language (and then forgetting what you have learned) is a bit like partially building a house—you may learn some things through the experience, but there are probably lots of other ways in which that time could be better spent.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What’s the Brain Got to Do With It?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

The Magic of Flying

I am not a nervous flyer, but I really have no idea how a plane actually manages to stay in the air. I mean, if you drop a rock, if falls. So, how on earth does an airplane, which weighs so much more than a stone, even manage to take off from the ground? Of course, there is a scientific explanation for this, but as I strap myself into my tiny little seat on the plane, I am just glad that I can get from my home in Belgium to my mother in Western Canada in hours rather than days.

Similarly, for a long time, I was content with being ignorant as to how learning physically happens in the brain. Just like I can fly all over the planet without understanding exactly why I am able to do so, I had been comfortable teaching without understanding exactly what was happening in students’ brains as they were learning (or not). However, in recent years, I have come to learn that this learning isn’t something opaque or magical. It is physical, and it can now be seen with a microscope because, “[t]hanks to neuroimaging, scientists can now see inside a living, thinking brain.” (Zadina, 2008) How exciting is that!

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Move Over Learning Curve! Bring on the Learning Square!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

In the middle of a lesson about the second conditional, I was calling on students to check a routine grammar exercise from the text that they had just completed in pairs. One student, Guy, shared the correct answer and I praised him, “Well done!” At this, he assumed a slightly philosophical air and said, “Well, yes, it is correct. But this is difficult when it is not in the book.” In other words, Guy was making the complaint I have heard many time from students; filling in the gaps is (sometimes) easy, but remembering grammar rules when one is in the middle of a spontaneous conversation is an entirely different matter. Guy and all the other students who have similarly grumbled are absolutely right. This is usually the point in the semester when I dust off my handy Learning Square.

The Learning Square?

I learned about this depiction of the learning process from Linda Grant (2008) in her talk about how to teach pronunciation. However, she said the chart was not her own invention. Rather, it came from somewhere completely unrelated to English Language Teaching, and is applicable to mastering any new skill in general. Once I get up on my little Learning Square soapbox, I remind students that if they are learning any new skill, it takes time. For instance, if they decided to take up fencing out of the blue, they would go through a similar learning process as they are with learning another language.

The Goal: Unconscious Competence!

The Learning Square looks like this:

Stage Consciousness Competence
4 - +
3 + +
2 + -
1 - -

My explanation (which I must caution might be a distortion of what Linda Grant said two years ago) goes like this:

  • When a student is just beginning to learn new target language (for instance the second conditional), he/she doesn’t know the rules and can’t correctly use the target language. This is stage 1.
  • After a while, the student learns the rules, but still has trouble using the target language accurately in either written exercises and/or conversations (stage 2). This is the stage Guy is at, in my opinion. He knows how to form the second conditional (if + simple past + , + would + base), but he still has questions when he does his homework and he has trouble remembering the form in the less controlled conversation activities I assign in class. (For example, If your house was on fire, what one item would you save?)
  • The third stage is reached when the student is consistently accurate whenever he/she is thinking consciously about the grammar rule.
  • The fourth, final and most coveted stage is when the student uses the target language correctly without thinking about it, or unconscious competence.

Quality Input

Progressing up the ranks from level 1 to level 4 depends on continuous quality input. In terms of language learning, this could mean continuing to take ESL classes or it could mean listening to the radio or making English-speaking friends. Of course, this square does not describe the learning process of ALL students. Moreover, a student might be at a level 3 when it comes to the present progressive, but a 1 when it comes to the passive voice. Also, a progression up the chart is never assured. Even when they receive quality English input, we have all seen fossilized students who never progress past the second level; and there is no “schedule” by which the Learning Square operates. One student may jump from 1 to 4 quickly, while another student might be stuck at a 2 for years. However, the Learning Square helps students to see that even if they can’t master a skill completely within 2 or 3 lessons, there is still hope for them. If they continue to receive quality input, at some point, they may find themselves unconsciously competently using the second conditional.

Grant, L. (2008) Teaching Pronunciation: Meeting Individual Needs, paper presented at TESOL 2008, New York.