CHERYL BROWN MITCHELL
Retired from a professor emeritus from Brigham Young University, uh, was a professor of Applied Linguistics. Now a professor emeritus.
Well communicative competence is a concept that arose in ideas, in, in the 70’s and the idea of communicative competence is that uh, a speaker of the language or a learner of the language is able to do and achieve with the language whatever that speaker wants to. For example, if I were an adult and I wanted to be able to, uh, call, make reservation on an airline… if I could do that, and make the operator that spoke to me understand that, make uh, sure that I got the ticket I want to the right place, uh, and with the right cost, if I can do that, and not leave the person on the other end so angry or confused or upset then that’s probably, I’ve got communicative competence in that area. For children, communicative competence might be something similar but different. Let’s say a child wants to ask a question and comes and talks to the teacher. If the teacher can understand the question and not think ill of the child, then the child’s probably achieved what he or she was trying to achieve. And so that would be communicative competence for a child. The whole idea is to be able to do what you desire to do with the language. That’s communicative competence.
Uh, there have been different view of what it means to be proficient in a language over time. Early language teachers uh, back in past centuries were essentially looking for an achievement of proficiency in being able to read or right and there has been a pendulum that has swung back and forth, it’s that says Yes, it’s all reading and writing and then No, it’s all speaking. And then it’s with all reading and writing. And back and forth. And so what people have been trying to achieve has been different through the years depending on sort of what the context has been for the language learning. And uh, in more recent years, people have finally taken a more global look at it and said, “Hey, you can have both the reading and writing and the speaking. You can develop them as you go along together. One doesn’t have to preceed the other one, doesn’t have to follow the other. And, and the consequence, the, the ideas have changed in that they have become much more global. Much more connected, um, and people have also at the same time become aware that you are not going to be proficient in all ways in all things unless you do achieve native language proficiency. Usually, in your own language you are pretty proficient. But in a second language proficiency, maybe, uh, for example, the language for an academic purpose that students are just trying to learn the language so they can go to school-- Then that’s what they need to be proficient in and so they can be proficient in reading and writing and speaking and listening but all applies to one particular things like the academic. Or they can be applied to a vocational, um,. I’ve seen classes for example, English for uh, housekeepers for hotels, and so they probably don’t need a lot of writing, but they do need some reading, so they can get the right things, these people are requesting them, and they do need to be able to listen and speak some and so their proficiency is in a limited area, but if they can do those things, then they can be proficient in those areas. A global proficiency, there has been work with the proficiency guidelines now that say Ok, at a very basic level, you can say the colors, you can count the numbers, you can say good morning, good bye, things like that. And then it goes clear up to what an educated native speaker would be able to do. So they talked about those proficiency guidelines that give you the list.
Uh, we know quite a few things about how to teach second or foreign languages, but the most important thing that we already know is that we don’t know enough. We don’t know everything. And so, some of the things that we know we’re still working with, uh, we know it’s an amazing process. One of the things that we know about it is that it’s not uh, uh, I had a colleague that described it… he said, “This is not uh, uh small sprint. This is a marathon.” And so language learning, one of the things we know about it, is that it’s a long term thing and that it just doesn’t happen over night. If somebody says they can teach you to speak a language in two months, they can’t teach you to speak a language in two months. They can probably give you some pretty good skills so you could at least get into a country and do something with it, but, uh, what they’ve really done is given you just enough of the basics so you could go out and continue to learn as you interact with people. Um, so, the first thing that we know is that it’s a long term thing and that it can go over that, this long period of time. We also know that there are several ways to learn languages and that people differ, um. Some of the things we talk about are just learning in general-- the principles of learning in general. For example, I think about, um, uh, you have to always remember that learning goes from the known to the unknown. And so you have to start with where people—what they know already. And that’s something that applies very much to language learning—that you start with what is known and then you move to the unknown. It’s been described by experts in our field in various ways, um, one of the common ones has been to talk about I + 1. Meaning in the input that goes to the learner you have to start with what they already know, that’s the “I”. And then you go just one just one step higher to get the I +1 and that’s a concept that came from Steve Krash and several years ago – decades ago now. Uh, but that’s a concept that applies in all learning and it’s just been given that term by Krash and we’ve continued also. We’ve talked about scaffolding for learners. That you scaffold and you build for them a structure so that they can put the new concept on things that they already know until they get the whole thing built up. Um, with some of the people that have been working with artificial intelligence and they’ve also had strong connections to language learning, they’ve talked about what they call parallel distributive processing. And they have um, the concept that you learn things and they are in various parts of your brain and then at the same time these various parts may be working in the things that you know and then that we get connections between them and become, come to have new things. And so there’s, there are different concepts that way. But the whole idea’s that you go from the unknown, no excuse me, from the known to the unknown. And that’s an important principle in language learning that you remember that.
A second principle that I think is a really important one with regard to what we know about learning is that learners are different. They do it differently each, each learner comes with his own, or her own set of ways of going about it. So people really differ and they really differ in the way they learn languages. I had a student, well I had a group of advanced students one time at a university I was working in South America, and these students were the very top, they were the best in the country, they were just about to graduate, ready to go out from the University. And in the class, they , they were similar in many ways, but they were so different, and, the one example that is so clear to me is there is one student that was totally tuned into Oral. He learned so much better through oral things. And one of the reasons was, that he had learned a lot of his language by going to English speaking movies. And so, he loved oral things and he was very verbal and when we did learning activities, I was, I was doing a study at the time whether they learn through the written word, or oral, or in various other ways how they pick things up. And it was obvious that everything he picked up was oral- oral. Most of the other students were quite heavily written. They were using reading and writing, but he was using all of his skills in the other ways. And I think we’ll find that with every student in one way or another that they learn differently, and that they need to be approached from a multitude of ways if you are a teacher because they have all those differences. And that’s interesting because teachers themselves are stuck in they have ways of teaching to so that may apply so you have to get some diversity for the teachers.
Uh, another thing we know is that the social and emotional makes a huge difference in language learning. There have been quite a few theories um, advanced—John Schumann from UCLA’s advanced theories, about why that is so with language learning. And one of the things that they have been able to show is that as you create a positive atmosphere around a learner, things feel good, things, things feel friendly, there’s a warm association with friends or teachers or somebody, that uh, what happens is there are neuro-transmitters, actually, that are different in the brain. And so, it opens up one part of your brain that causes you to pay attention. And so as you get these neuro-transmitters going up higher levels, then you get the ability for your brain to be quote “more awake” or whatever, and you pay attention better, and as you pay attention better you learn more. And so the emotional-social atmosphere makes a huge difference in language learning, probably as it does in almost everything else.
Uh, another really important thing, and I think everybody would agree with this is memory is a part of language learning. It’s a very important part. And you have to have memory for sound patterns and you have to have memory for visual patterns so that you can get the forms of things. Uh, you also have to have memory for connections so that you can connect forms with meaning and sometimes that becomes at a more advanced level you start out with just a memory for the forms, just say simple words. But then you have to start remembering, “ah, what does this form that I’ve learned… how does it connect to this meaning out here?” And so you increase in that possibility… uh. If you are a teacher, that means activities that give you lots of repetition so you can get things in memory, ah, and it’s better if it’s not just meaningless repetition, but, but something that’s fun. Ah, that’s one of the reasons songs are sometimes fun because you can sing the same thing over and over and over and never think that you’ve said it now a hundred times in the same way you would if you were just reciting it. Or that’s why children like nursery rhymes. Cause you say the same things over, they have these same patterns. They have sound patterns that you repeat. So, uh, there’s some repetition and that helps the memory on that.
Along with memory, the other part of learning that is also a general learning principle and applies to language learning is pattern recognition. And, what you get is you get these—forms, you get them memorized and then you begin to see patterns how the forms fit together. And as you begin to see those patterns as the forms fit together, then you begin to start to make sense of things and then the learning becomes a lot easier, uh, they’ve said, with memory for example, that they always talk about 7 +/- 2. that’s about how much you can absorb in your memory when you are trying to learn something. But if you start getting patterns, then that immediately goes up--- I was thinking about this as I was coming to the interview about some of the memory things and if you just take your random set of letters and tried to learn them, for example if I said, “y, a, w, h, g, I, h,” and then I said, “Ok, can you remember that?” And you’d say I don’t know. But if I just reversed those and say, “h,I,g,h,w,a,y” that spells something—I don’t know if you noticed what it was, but if you noticed what that is, it’s “highway” and you can remember that very easily now because you can say “h,I,g,h,w,a,y” because you’ve recognized a pattern and so that pattern becomes a chunk that you can put in memory and if you can put the chunks in memory rather than individual parts, then suddenly you can learn a lot more. It’s obvious that we can’t learn every instance by itself so we have to have pattern recognition or we don’t learn.
Um, also, with language learning, meaning is crucial. And so the more we can work with making sure that what we do is meaningful to the person doing it. F-whether that’s a child, a teenager, so meaning is crucial. So that means they need to understand what’s going on. It goes back to the I+1 kind of thing from the unknown to the known and often we can make that without any kind of language—we can do it visually, we can do it in other ways and then if we do it in those ways, then you have—suddenly the “voila” experience when um, they can see it, put it together, and move on in those ways-- But meanings got to be there.
And another very crucial thing for language learning is if you want people to actually ever not just listen, read – even if you have, if those are the only skills you are aiming at, you’re still going to get a lot more out if you can get use—if you can get them to use it for something that is meaningful to them and so and once they use it, once they produce it, it’s more theirs. Those are really general principles for learning that they apply really strongly in language learning.
Um, I think that some of the things that we’ve just said are true. There are some other things—there are some principles that I was thinking about it, it’s really kind of more vocabulary that language learning experts know—and ways of talking about things that would help public school teachers or K-12 teachers, whether they’re public or private. And some of them have to do with things like sounds. Um, if they know how to recognize some of the sounds, when they teach reading they have written versions. They have these graphings of that they teach or phonics they sometimes talk about—but uh with speaking a language we call them phonemes and they are the basic units of sound, meaningful sound, that is, so if I change from one phonemes to another I get a different word. If I say “rat” that’s a different word than “cat”. And so the r and the c are different phonemes that—phonemes it’s really not the spelling it’s those sounds for learners who haven’t talked about. So the ability to talk about sounds helps. Now uh, let me give you an example with um, “t”. We could say, rat, cat, tat. Ok. That tat, also that t at the beginning of the word is slightly different than the t at the end. And sometimes if you make them a like, you get funny kinds of accents and so you could learn something from language experts that would help you help somebody else pronounce better. And part of that may be that you need to learn what the individual sounds are and how they’re made is slightly different and then you can (beeping sound) pass that on. So knowledge of sounds is one thing.
Another thing is knowledge of grammar. We talk about, sometimes it’s called syntax and uh, to be able to say, “Ok, when this happens, this happens.” And so some of that knowledge, just a basic understanding of syntax in a slightly different way than you have learned it in your own English class or in your own language class is very helpful. For example, we probably don’t talk very much in regular English classes, for native English speakers, we don’t talk about how important it is whether a noun in animate or inanimate. Whether the noun can, loo—eat, speak, etc. – but that’s a very important concept for people when they start learning a language. Because, you cannot put inanimate nouns with verbs that require animacy. And so, uh, a very famous, but funny sentence that uh, a linguist by the name of Nonchomski made up was “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Now that’s a perfectly sound sentence as far as all the parts of the sentence are there, but it makes no sense because the other issues with syntax aren’t met. Ideas don’t sleep. Metaphorically they could sleep, we say. But, and we use language sometimes metaphorically, but, but you have to know things about different kinds of words. Uh, different languages count things differently. So you have to know if nouns are count or non-count. For example, a strange example in English is um, we talk about, fruit and vegetables. Ok. We don’t generally say fruits. We say get me some fruit. Or get me some vegetables. So the one we keep sort of in the mass and the other we keep sort of accountable and there’re no really logical reason for that but we have to know that concept. Same with rice. You can actually count rice, but it’s not a count noun. We don’t say 1 rice, 2 rices, 3 rices, and you have to know that about rice or you can’t use the language right and so sometimes there are grammatical, syntactical things that language experts know.
They also some principles that -- we talked about the general learning principles. Uh, teachers know many of those. They, they’ve learned them for other reasons. So that’s not so different. But the application to language might be different.
Um, I think we know something about the way things structure, the way words go together, the way words are formed, and also we know quite a bit about what happens when children are starting to learn their own language and we’ve had a lot of chance to observe—although like I said, we don’t know everything. Second language learners and, we hope we get better at that. We hope that knowledge is progressing. But that’s something that language experts can bring to the teachers. The teachers can bring to the language experts the good questions. And good observations that say why does this happen? And then that produces good questions that then produces good research and hopefully produces good answers. I don’t know. We hope.
Ok, there are several kinds of activities that you do in language learning. A mechanical activity is one that is kind of a repetition activity and the students can actually do it and get the right answers without even knowing what it means. And so, for example if we were doing an exercise and I have the students saying “I am sleeping” and they report – repeat I am sleeping, and I say, “walk” and they say “I am walking” and I say “eat” and they say “I am eating” . Ok, what they are learning is there is an automaticity. It’s giving automaticity to the I am and then this “ing” thing on the end. And it puts that form, it puts that structure in memory. It sort of comes out. You get the physical muscles going that way automatically so that they’ll start out saying, “I am—“ without having to stop and think I, is, are, were, whatever. So they, they get the automaticity with that uh, with the mechanical drill, but it obviously doesn’t make sense, like I said, I said “walk” and they said “I am walking” but I could say, “mott” and they’d say “I am motting”. No meaning. It doesn’t mean a thing. But it’s the practice to get that.
Uh, meaningful drill you have to know, the, a little bit, you have to have some meaning. You have to have some concept of what is going on or you cannot do the drill correctly. But the teacher knows the right answer. And so the teacher always knows what’s the right answer. So, I’m in front of the class and I have a clock and I turn the hands somewhere and I say, “what time is it?” And the students say 2:15. or it’s 2:15. I turn the hands and I say “what time is it?” And they say, “It’s 4:00” Well it’s meaningful because they have to look at the clock to know what time it is. And they’re doing something but I’m in control of what the answer is and what the correct answer is. Uh, that is helping them learn meanings. Learn the patterns of meanings and how it fits, so it’s putting that together. That’s obviously why they call it a meaningful drill.
A pseudo-communicative drill is one where I don’t know for sure as the teacher what the answer is, that I’m going to get back. I know whether it’s an appropriate answer to the question, but I don’t know for sure what’s the right answer. So, I say to the students, “Johnny, what time did you get up this morning?” and he says “ 7:30”. Ok, I didn’t know if he was going to say 9:00, 6:00--- but if he answers with a time, then I assume it’s right. Sometimes it’s fun with pseudo-communicative drills to stop and make sure that they are giving you the right answers. You say, did you really? Or why so late? Or, suddenly it changes from this language thing that you’ve been doing ah, and it makes it more real because the student adds some information in.
A communicative drill would be to go out and use the language—or a communicative activity would be go out and use the language in some honest, real achievement of something that you want to get. For example, um, I’m thinking of teenagers and you’re trying to teach them the concept of time--- and so you give them the activity and they can do it in groups or as chil-or single or over the phone, but say, “Call the drivers license office and find out what time they are opened for people who are trying to get a new drivers license.” Now you give that assignment to 15 year olds, that’s suddenly a very real—a communicative activity—where they really have to communicate to make that happen. So that’s a communicative activity in… and so it’s just progressing from no meaning, just form, to full meaning and form.
Uh, adults and children are really, has to be approached in quite different ways generally speaking. Let’s talk about children—how they learn language. They watch what’s going around them, they play with the language, they listen, they follow, they watch what the other little kids are doing, they follow along and they do that. Um, mother’s when they teach their children are very good at pointing at things and asking questions like “What’s this?”, “What’s that?”, um, and children pick it up. They’ve given the term acquisition to what children do. They acquire it… it’s not as if it’s a conscience learning in any sense of the word. So it’s just this pick it up. And uh, it is a coming, they have good memory. Children have very good memory and they can hold a lot of things in their mind without having the full meaning to them yet. Uh, they are learning hundreds of words every day when you look at the way they go from the time they are a baby to the time they graduate from high school and they are literally learning hundreds of words a day. It’s even stronger from 0 – 6, that’s the strongest period. Um, so they’ve got incredible memory and incredible ability to hold things just the forms without a lot of meaning there, uh, they are learning how to begin to recognize patterns and see and do and doing fine. They also are very flexible. The neural patterns in their brains aren’t fixed. They haven’t sent the same signals through them so many times and so children are a lot more capable of producing a lot more sounds. They can change sounds much more easily than adults. And that’s one of the reasons why if you start a child learning a language, they are going to end up, usually, with less accent, then when you start an adult because the adult has these neural pathways already through and the minute they start in the direction of the sound, the brain says, “Oh, I know where that goes and goes (whew) right out” And the muscles move and it’s not quite right or it’s a little bit off because those pathways are very strong. So the adults already have these neural pathways and so sounds are sometimes harder for them to get and new sounds are harder for them to get and they produce things with accents more than children do. Uh, but they have an advantage also. And that is, they have what is called a meta-cognitive ability. That is, they can think about thinking. And so, adults you can help with pattern recognition. In other words, you can actually talk about it. “Do you notice, that all of these start with I am?” Or you can say, “Ok, here’s this pattern, you know, I am sleeping.” And they can recognize it in a way, you can short cut it in a way that, with children you could give it to them visually and they might get it, and begin to see the pattern, but to talk about it and say “Ok, the rule is, with third person singular present tense (laughs) you put an ‘s’ on the verb.” And that makes sense to an adult and to a kid it’s glb, glub, -- it’s just gobble-de-gook. And so, adults have meta-cognitive abilities that can help them short cut the pattern recognition kind of thing-- although they will have trouble in application with sound because they’ve already got the pathways. Whereas children have quick memory and very great flexibility in producing sounds, getting things out, but they may be a little bit slower than other. One other difference—there have been some studies done—children are your best sound learners. They are the sound learners. Adolescents, interestingly, adolescents are you best grammar learners. They seem to pick up the patterns in grammar fastest. Uh, but vocabulary learning goes on all the time, and it’s the one thing that never stops. And so, you’ve got vocabulary learners all the way through those but, the one essentially adult thing that goes on is vocabulary learning forever. That’s the one that continues even though they have trouble with the others.
Uh, we did some studies…. I talked about being in South America and working with these adult um, college students that were quite advanced and we had them do some diary studies. We actually had them keep journals and then we went back and studied them after. We did the diary study, they did the diary. And what we did with the journals was just have them uh, record on a tape 5 minutes was the required minimum of anything they wanted to talk about at all with the teacher. And they would talk about it, then they’d turn the tape over to the teacher, the teacher would listen to it and respond back to them, talking about the subject they wanted to talk about, asking questions, whatever, there was no correction of any kind… this was—unless they asked for correction, unless they said, I don’t know how to say this word, how do you say this word. And then the teacher would give them that. Um, so they were doing that orally. At the same time, they were keeping a journal in written form and they had to write 3 times a week and then they would turn those in once a week and the teacher would write back in the same way, write about the thing. The things that were most interesting to me, as we did those jour-uh, journal studies, the diary studies, was once again that I’ve mentioned previously and that is how individual the learners are. It was just amazing how individually they responded to various kinds of things. And I could see some of the strategies they used. I mentioned that we had the one learner that was so oral, he just did everything orally, and everything that he picked up and learned came from the oral source. It came from the tape, it did not come from the writing, at all. Had another, uh, learner who was very interested in a particular psychological subject and so focused right in that area and we had all the exchanges going back and forth about psychological subjects. Others chose different subjects so the things they wanted to talk about, the things they wanted to learn were different. That was very, very clear.
The second thing that was absolutely clear was how much incidental learning goes on. That is, these were only set up just to get some interaction going in the language that was not their native language. And as we got that interaction going, the learning just started to happen. WE went back and did some studies on it and uh, there’s uh, a huge percentage of the words that they didn’t know, at least as far as we can tell we didn’t have—you can’t have a full register of it—but it’s pretty obvious that there was quite a lot of learning of vocabulary. Uh, some other studies have shown that that incidental turns out to be something between 15 – 20% of the unknown words that people will pick up--- which is really remarkable when you start thinking about all the number of words they might not know if it’s a second language. So they were picking up all kinds of vocabulary. They also were picking up grammar, syntax, kinds of things. Some of the ones that were the very hardest to teach, these were very advanced students, and we only looked at a principle that is a very hard one to teach because we cannot easily explain the rules… and that’s for how we use the article ‘the’. And so, we looked at that and saw also the improvement in their ability to use that. So this patterning comes through in some unconscious way that trying to explain it doesn’t work, but exchanging it back and forth does work.
Uh, probably the most important thing that happened there was affective. We talked about how social and emotional effects learning. Well one of the things the diary did was produce um, a feeling between the teacher and the students that made the students open to what the teacher taught in classes as well as open to, saying to the teacher, talking about things they wanted to talk about, things they wanted to learn, and what happened is, you get a learning that is much more individual, much happier, uh, and the students are happier with it, and it’s , there’s a lot of growth, there’s just a lot of growth.
Oh, now you—when you start talking about the role of vocabulary development, one of the things that there has been a lot of focus on in various kinds of language learning things has to do with um, whether the most important thing of language and learning—learning a language—is the grammar or whether it is some other magical thing—it’s reading, it’s writing, it’s whatever. I would argue that there’s no way we can argue anything but the vocabulary learning is at the very core of language learning. We had some examples that tell us that vocabulary is core, but we, there kind of homely things so we don’t think about them being that important but…. For example, if you talk about a child learning it’s first language, what do parents record in the baby’s book? They don’t record the first sound the baby made and they don’t record, usually, uh, the first full sentence, although sometimes they will put two word sentences. But the most important thing is the first word. That is what we use as a sign of knowing a language, is the word itself. And so that’s where we begin to say, “Ah, the baby’s learning language.” Well, we see in a different way with second language learners. Uh, what do language learners carry around with them all the time? Not usually grammar books, it’s dictionaries. Why? Because the words are there. They need those words. So much. Another really, I like it… it’s one of my favorite examples of the fact that um, one of the ways to tell that vocabulary learning is so prime, is if you use the words, let’s say, you use English words but you pronounce them with the German sounds or you put them in an order that is a German order. You can do all of those things, and it’s still if you have English words, you’ll be speaking English, not German. If you put German words in there and speak them with an English accent, we’re speaking German. And so, the word is kind of the center thing. In recent years, there’s been a lot of work with changing from the argument for so many years, um, people thought that “Oh, what we need to do, is learn the rules and that’s learning the language.” And so they focused on learning the rules… there’s a lot of patterns, working with grammar, this and that and the other. And not much focus at all on vocabulary. It was sort of shoved to the side as people thought, “oh, uh, what we are really talking about here is we need to get this finite set of rules then we can produce this infinite set of sentences.” Well in recent years, there has been an argument that actually the acquisition takes place from the word level and what we get is we acquire chunks—lexical(?) phrases is what it happens. And so you get a lexical (?) phrase uh, and for example a child might learn “Give me the book.” May not distinguish between that whole phrase as having words – “Give – me – the – book.” But “give me the book” he knows he’s trying to get the book, right? Uh, and then he learns “give me the ball”. So now he’s at least separated out ball, he knows there’s a different chunk that goes in that place, but he may think “Give me the” is just one word. We don’t know. And so gradually, from this lexical (?) phrase, this word chunk, he starts coming to see how it separates, and as he starts coming to see how it separates, he begins to see slots, which are syntactic kinds of slots, and he begins to see the patterns of things that go in that slot. And he acquires grammar. But it starts with the lexical chunk. So, vocabulary learning, I think, is pretty central to language learning. The other thing that we um, we know, is that vocabulary learning goes on your whole life. It doesn’t matter how well you speak a language, even your native language, your still learning words. I, I’ve learned words in the last week. You’ve learned words, probably, in the last week and so vocabulary learning is the one that just continues always, all the time that we are capable of learning.
Oh, when we know a word, there are several things that we know about it. And we may not know all of these things about a word, but they are things that we can know, and uh, sometimes we talked about, uh, the issue of it’s always important to go from the known to the unknown—and so we may know one little aspect of that word and that may become the impetus to learn the other parts about it. One of the things to talk about, anytime you are talking about learning vocabulary words, is they are, they generally come in a domain or a context. And a word in one domain may have different aspects then it would in another domain. And it may have different meaning. Uh, I like to use the word monitor as an example. If we’re talking at a elementary school, the monitors can be a couple of things. It can be the child who helps in the hall, or has the hall pass, or something like that or it could be the monitor that goes with the computer. K? and when you talk uh, the domain of computers, that’s obviously the one meaning you get most. When you talk the domain of language learning, we use monitor in a very special way. We talk about people monitoring their own language, which means they produce something just out of their spontaneous automatic ability to do it, and then they go through it and they say now did I say that correctly or not. And then they fix it. So if I say, “Me and Tom went down to the store.” And then I think, oh wait, me and Tom, that’s not quite right, and so I go back and I monitor it and I say, “Tom and I went down to the store.” And so that’s monitoring. So, anytime you talk about learning a word, you have to talk about it within a domain or a context and things change within the domain or context… what you might use and you need to know about a word—how it fits in a particular domain or context. Some of the things that happen—we’ve just talked about it, the meaning changes because of the topic or the notion or the script that it’s in. It also changes because of geographic location. In the United States, the same kind of pan is called a skillet in one place a frying pan in another place a spider in another place. And so geographic location is part of the domain and you have to know where you are to know what you, what the word means and where it’s going to be used. Um, you can get a soda in one place, a pop in another place, um, I understand that back in New Hampshire so they call a frap for a milkshake. So, you just get different words, uh, because of the geographic location. Words change. Temporal era—the words have different meanings as you go from one time to another time, um, people used to talk about spooning with their sweetheart or they’d talk about courting, making out, and sometimes these have various meanings. I always laugh -- my mother used to talk about “how did you make out?” and I knew she wasn’t talking about the same thing I was when I’d come home from a date or something because she would not be asking that particular thing. So that’s a temporal difference. Uh, some words we use in writing much more than we use, in, in oral language, and so uh, people need to know that this is an oral word or a written word or it has a greater domain. Um, sometimes second language learners who have learned a language, not in a place where it is spoken natively will sound like a book. Because they learned it from a book and so that’s the way they use the language. And so they sound very, different uh. Also something that’s very important is we use language to uh, get other people’s views of us --- to raise or lower and so we choose some words because they have value in putting our place in society and we choose not to use other words because they change that. We don’t use ‘ain’t’ if we want to be seen as educated. Uh, and there are other kinds of words that we have meaning that we are careful with because it will say oh they belong here, or they belong here in this society. So we have this whole big issue of domain. Now that being true, the other things that we learn change according to the domain.
But the other things that we know about words, uh, it’s been clearly shown that we have a sensitivity to how frequent words are. If I were to give you a list of words and say, put this in order from the most frequent to the least frequent, if I had given you some that were say even a thousand words apart in how frequent they are, you would probably be able do it almost 100% if shown that. And we don’t know how it works, but we do know there is some kind of a counter in our own brains that tell us this is a very frequent word. This is an unusual word. Um, and I’ve worked, uh, with research with students who are reading words, reading passages, and when they come to an unknown words they’ll say, “uh, I’ve seen that word before or I’ve seen that word a lot in this domain” or, so without recognizing it, we’ve got these counters going on. So we know how frequent words are. That becomes something that’s known that helps move us to the unknown because when that number builds up, then we start learning the words. We say, “I’m going to run into this again, I’m going to learn it.” So frequency is something we know.
We also learn, have to learn the form of words. And this is something that people don’t think a lot about, but uh, you don’t know the word until you’ve actually got a phonological way of pronouncing it or when you hear it you recognize it. Even if you don’t know the meaning, you have to have that, that form there—that can be spelling or sometimes we can tell with readers that they actually look at a word form and have this sense of what it looks like uh so there’s a visual pattern to it as well as a phonological pattern as well as a spelling. Uh, we also can learn what we called derivational relationships like sign is related to signature is related to signify, things like that. And we also know route and affect relationships similar to that. So those are the forms kind of things. Uh, I’m skipping the one we most think of which us, the, um, meaning. I’m going to come back to that.
We also learn syntactic behaviors, the kinds of things like is this countable or non-countable, if it’s a noun. If it’s a verb, is it transitive or intransitive. Uh, and various other aspects like that. Those are things we learn with a syntactic behavior. Does this take an animate or inanimate uh, noun to go with it if it’s a verb. So. Various kinds of things we have to learn about words that way. We also learn the way words fit together – what other words go with it. Um, if I were to say things like, uh, in American English we’d say, the good, the bad, and the ____ and almost everybody would come up with ugly, just because those are words that are commonly seen together. But we get those patterns all over—they are very strong. They are called collocations—which words go together with it. And we pull out these chunks with those collocations it might… that we talked about that we learned not to sever words, but that you have words that go together. And so, that becomes a chunk in a way and we learn that those words go together.
Now the meaning. With the meaning, we learn core meanings, um. For example, if I say ‘run’ --- the first thing that probably pops into your mind is the idea of a person moving their legs very fast (laughs) and like that. But there are all kinds of other runs. Like uh, a run in a nylon stocking or the run on a bank or a home run and so we learn core meanings and then we relate the others to them. There’s a famous study that uses the word break and it shows how people as they learn a second language tha-uh-it was Dutch learning English, and they use break in almost every single way we did, but thy would only translate it and use it in English in the most core of those meanings—the most like uh, the things that are the most basic kind of break—Which would be “I dropped the cup and it broke.” That break as opposed to “the waves broke over the—rocks.” So, uh, most of those would work but they just wouldn’t do it.
We also learn that words have multiple meanings. And so, uh, we’ve talked about a run on the bank, but what about a bank of the river? Now, those are the same word and so we learn that words have various meanings and we begin to see what the various meanings are for the words. We learn a hierarchal structure. Uh, there are words at a basic level. For example, table. That is a basic word. Uh, but it has words above it and words below it in the structure. So table is a basic word and above it is the word furniture. And so it fits in the category of furniture, that’s a general thing. And so do chairs, and…. But table itself there’s also different kinds of tables and so there are subordinate words. And so we learn that about table also. We learn that there are end tables and coffee tables and dining tables and…. Various things like that. So that’s part of the meaning. Uh, we learn synonyms and antonyms. Uh, the things that mean the same other words that mean it. So if I say house, what other words might we have? Well, we might have cabin, we might have bungalow, we might have whatever—those are kinds of synonyms. Maybe not exact synonyms… but pretty close in there. Uh, and then we also have the antonyms. What’s the antonym to mother, we’ll father. Black, white. Those are things that we have to learn that go with the meaning of the word. And, then there are cultural connotations. And we don’t think about this, but this becomes a problem for second language learners. One of my favorite examples, an easy example, is the word ambitious. And usually, in English when we use that word we say ‘He’s a very ambitious young man’. We’re thinking of somebody that’s got a lot of energy, lot of drive, wants to get up and go. And it has positive cultural connotations for us. Whereas, the word which is it’s cognate…. In Spanish “ambitiouso” (sp?) uh, it does have sort of the idea of energy to go, but it’s also got the idea avaricious, grabbing money, trying to take advantage of somebody else so that you can get where you go. So it’s a negative word. And so, a student learning English from Spanish has to learn ambitious is a positive word and not a negative word. And so we have those cultural connotations, um. We were looking for an example at Grandma and the cultural connotations that were-went with that word, and one of the studies that we did which Chinese students. And when they said Grandma, they thought of um housework, um, they thought of kindness, they thought of, um, things in her home. When the American students thought of Grandma, they thought of cookies, and white hair,(laughs) and so they were slightly different, the kinds of things they thought of. And at what point does a Chinese student learning our Grandma associate that with cookies? That’s a cultural connotations. So. All of those things, frequency, the form, the meaning, and the syntactic behavior are all related to the domain and the context that change because of the domain and context. But there are lots of things to learn and you can start from any one of those and go to any of the others. So you start from the unknown and go to the known. I did it backwards--- you start from the known and go to the unknown.
Mmmm. um. We know about vocabulary acquisition that it continues throughout life—it’s the one part of language learning that goes on in your own native language and it also goes on in second language learning. We also know uh, that frequency of encounters helps… Uh, if you get as much as two encounters with the word, you are more likely to learn it then if you had none, obviously. Uh, but if you get up to five, then you really, it makes a very significant difference in how much you’re likely to learn it. So frequency matters and teachers can do something about that. Uh, we know that difficulty in pronouncing a word will make it difficult to learn, and so if a word has some kinds of sounds that are hard for a person trying to learn it, then they might need some help to get past that if you really want them to learn the word. Uh, we know that um, re- uh, there’s a difference between receptive vocabulary and productive vocabulary and that our, that you can learn words that you are just going to read and understand at a much lower level with not as many of the aspects in there and still be ok. But if you are going to produce it, you’ve got to learn more and that um, we have fewer words in our productive vocabulary than we do in our receptive. We know that um, ---- one of the um, things that helps people learn words is to have a gap and that’s a knowledge gap where they have, they know the meanings, they know something, but they just don’t have the form for the word. If you give them a situation where they’ve seen something and they don’t have the word and they want to talk about it, they will learn that word just like that when you give it to them. We did an exercise where we had, uh, the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and they watched that movie and they did a lot of things with it. And the first, because it’s visual, they were watching it and nobody ever used the word shovel and yet they were out in the desert shoveling if you remember this. And nobody ever said he’s got a shovel or anything. The minute we in the exercises gave the word shovel, they learned it just like that. (snaps finger) Cause it was just – they knew the meaning, they just didn’t have the word and then they got the word. So that kind of a gap, if you can give them a meaning, that they like, and then give the form of the word, that one’s a – that’s a very powerful kind of learning.
Uh, we also know that um, when they use the word then it becomes theirs. And it has to be—a lot of vocabulary exercises in text books have you, you know matching this word to that meaning or they give you a sentence and you fill in the blank with the words you know… and those do help, but the most meaningful thing- kind of exercises were different than that. They were a broader kind of use of -- one of the best ones that I’ve seen was where a teacher showed a movie, or a little clip of a movie, and then uh, gave the students and said, write a paragraph about this aspect of the movie and use these words in it and would give them three or four words. And so, the students had to come up with the talking about the movie and the words that they were supposed to use were there. And when they did that, they had them. They learned them. And they retained them. And so the use of the word really makes a difference. So those are some of the things that we know about word acquisition and learning.
Ok. The roll of vocabulary acquisition or teaching instruction uh, becomes an issue because one of the most important things that we know is that we can only learn a certain portion of the words through instruction. The majority of words that we have to learn we have to learn incidentally. Uh, we learn ten times more words incidentally than we ever learn by instruction. And so one of the things we need to learn about instruction is to choose carefully which words we are going to instruct on. Because uh, that’s using some very precious time when lots of other things can be done. So, one of the things about instruction is to choose carefully and there are about 2,000 words in English that are kind of basic and so you have to do kinds of things that you would learn those. And uh, with children, you’re going to learn them gradually, bring up doing things in the school, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, most of them, although not all of them. And we sometimes have to jumpstart elementary school kids because they are behind the other kids that already know them. But as we interact, they will learn those kinds of words and they need those 2,000. And then vocabulary learning is a very basic part of learning any subject. So if you are going to learn science, you have to learn the vocabulary of science. If you are going to learn math, you have to learn the vocabulary of math. If you are going to learn social science, you have to learn the words for history, you have to learn. And so, as much as possible for children and adolescents to put the learning of those words in the subject matter, uh, is a very important kind of thing. And to instruct as best you can on those. There is also some sort of spontaneous unplanned vocabulary learning that goes on, but it can also be instructed. And that’s a word comes up or something and if that happens, um, the teacher uh, I think Bernard Seal is the person who said that what you need to do is, there are 3 c’s to it. And the first one is…. Whatever the word is, you have to in some way convey what the meaning is. So you convey that, and then you check in some way to see that they understood that meaning. And then you do some kind of consolidation so that they have to use it. And so, what you do is you convey the meaning, you check to be sure they got the meaning, and then you do an activity that causes them to connect that meaning with them.
Um, there are 5 steps to really getting a word in the model that we’ve had. The first one is you have to encounter the word. And so, if you want people to learn words, you’ve got get it our there where they can see it as many times as possible. The second one is you have to get the form. Somehow you have to memorize it, you have to write it five times, you have to say it 10 times – whatever you have to do. Sing it… whatever you need to do. The third thing is you have to get the meaning, obviously, or you don’t have much. And a lot of our memory work is based on getting the meaning so that people understand it. And you can do that through a dictionary, you can do it through actions, you can do it through pictures, uh things. The fourth step is to consolidate the form and the meaning in memory. And it’s got to stick. So, I’ve heard that word before but what does it mean… No. That’s this step. And the fifth one that takes in many things is one I’ve mentioned just right now, and that is using it. And those are sort of five steps that can help people get the words and anytime you increase the number of words that get through any one of those steps, you’re going to increase the number at the end.
K. Inter-language is a term that we have applied to the language of learners that is systematic uh, it’s not exactly like the native language of the person speaking it and it’s not exactly like the target language—the one they are trying to learn, it’s somewhere in between. It’s an inter-language. And it’s an important concept because at any state a learner will have certain rules in their inter-language, some of which will be correct and some of which will not be correct. And so, one of the things you do when you study the inter-language, when you look carefully at the language that that student is using you can tell where the rules are coming from usually. What has happened that has made person make the errors they do, and what have they, how have they picked up what’s correct. And so it’s an important concept because it’s not just random… they are not just out their randomly making mistakes or doing it correctly. It’s, it’s patterned and that’s the inter-language. So it’s an important concept to look at what the learners doing.
Uh, there have been several research paradigms and we’re still moving forward, not very many of them. Uh, back when there (rustling sound) was the, language teaching methodology that was called audio-lingualism or MimMem (sp?) There also arose research that was contrasting analysis and the idea behind contrasting analysis was to compare the system, the language system of the target language with the language system of the native language and then you could predict what would be easy and what would be hard. Uh, because some things you could perfectly transfer from one to the other and say ok, this one’s easy it’s going to be just like that in the other language. Like, say, the, ‘Mmm’ in Spanish it’s going to be the same in Spanish and English and so a student who speaks Spanish isn’t going to have any trouble making that sound coming across. So that’s a positive transfer. Uh, and but some of the other sounds aren’t going to be there to distinguish between, for example, ‘iii” and ‘eeh’ is going to be very hard because they just got the “E” and so, they’re n—excuse me it’s between, distinguishing between, “eee” and “iii” is going to be difficult because they’ve only got a “e” that’s sort of in between there and so they can’t hear the difference. They sound like one sound to them. So contrastive analysis can tell us that. It was used quite extensively for sound systems, used a little bit for vocabulary, not as much for vocabulary although it often worked with they looked at cognates, false cognates, uh, different words, various kinds of things, there are some patterns there. Um, and they did it with structures also. And so the idea of that was to say ok, where are the differences? Where can we expect problems, etc, etc?
Uh, it moved into error analysis which uh, also built on contrastive analysis. Error analysis looked at what the learner was actually doing and then said, what is happening here? What are the patterns? What is this inter-language is what error analysis did. And how can we uh, explain why this happened and what can we do to make it so it doesn’t happen.
Then discourse analysis is really quite a different kind of thing, although it also helps. Discourse is a larger unit of language then a sentence. So uh, a paragraph can be considered discourse, but a conversation can be considered discourse. And um, what happened with discourse analysis was to analyze what was happening in the chunks of language as well as in the sentences and that hadn’t been done before. But you could then do a contrastive analysis on discourse or you could do an error analysis on discourse. So, that’s where those have gone also.
Ok. Errors are really important when you are looking at learners because they tell you where the learner is and uh, one of the things that you do is you say, Ok, here’s what the native language is, here’s what the target language is, where in between there is the learner? And yo- the errors tell you that. There’s a difference between systematic errors and random errors. If the- if they keep making the same error over and over, you know it’s in their system… it’s a rule somehow. All of us, even native speakers make random errors. And so, with systematic errors um, they can be form errors, that is they slightly change the—with words, they mispronounce it. Uh, let’s say they mispronounce every word—well we always make uh, jokes sometimes I guess about the mispronunciation of the “r” in the “l” with the Japanese speakers. Uh, that’s one of the things so that you get “Rats” and “Lats” and get that whole confusion there. Rice and Lice and things like that. Uh, those are form errors. Where the sound is either wrong, or uh, slightly mispronounced. And they can be consistent and if you look at those, then you look at the native language you can see where it came from. It’s those neural pathways that have been made in there they just come out automatically. That’s a form error, if the, if the form structure is not quite right. A meaning error is where they use it for something slightly different than um, what the other language would do it. For example, in English, we use the passive tense when we are trying—we don’t know who actually did the action or we are trying not to put blame on it or in the discourse we want to focus on the result of the action and not the action itself. Uh, in Japanese, there form which is most similar to our passive, is an adversative passive and it’s when you use it, it’s saying “Oh, we are so sorry that this happened.” Or “We’re so sorry for this person. It’s a very sad thing.” “this is a tragedy.” (coughs) So, for example if we said, “America was discovered by Columbus in 1492.” If they are thinking of their meaning with that it would be saying, “Oh, poor America to be discovered by Columbus.” And so that is a meaning error if they are transferring their meaning into our use of it. And you can see that where a Japanese students will come and use English passives and it will have that kind of a meaning to them. And they will make sentences passive that can’t be made passive, because for us they are not a transitive verb, but they will make passive with intransitive verbs because they are