Category: Language issues

Affective changes, the CPH, and memories of language learning

As I correct hoework assignments in which my trainees explore the relationship between emotions and the CPH, I’m reminded of my own middle school, high school, and college language learning experiences.

I studied Spanish for a year in middle school and for 2 more years in high school before switching to Latin. It was a big mistake, but my reasoning was that Spanish III would be too difiicult for me since I hadn’t learned any Spanish so far. It was better to start off fresh than to continue a more advanced Spanish course that I wouldn’t be able to follow.

In some ways I blame my emotions for slowing down my language learning although the real culprit is probably the grammar translation method and the teachers who used it.

I didn’t do well in middle school Spanish. I was afraid of making mistakes, a common problem for kids going through puberty, particulalry boys who have a crush on the teacher and a few girls in the class. Then I was caught cheating on a quiz.

I wanted a more efficient way to study the colors than the list of translations in my notebook so I labeled various book covers, notebooks, and my “Jaime” name tag (that name tag didn’t help my emotions since I ended up getting called “hiney”) with the Spanish words for the various colors. The teacher saw amarillo on my yellow book cover, took my quiz, and gave me a zero. That was discouraging, of course.

Anyway, learning Spanish was always stressful and never fun or interesting. I was never given a chance to overcome my puberty-related hardships (my desire to appear cool and smart, my shyness, etc.). When my parents decided I needed a Spanish tutor to get my grades up I went to her house and got tested on translations for a while. She wasn’t attractive like my middle school teacher and there was no one else there so I felt pretty secure. I still didn’t learn enough Spanish but I think I did learn something with the more comfortable environment.

Then it was on to highschool where the bully behind me would kick my chair (or me) while the teacher pretended not to notice. Talk about bad learning conditions. Eventually I stabbed his hand with my pen. He threatened to kill me but stopped kicking me. No surprise that I couldn’t learn in that classroom, is it?

Latin was far worse, but I’ll blame the Latin teacher I despised for that. Mrs. Dartmoth or Dortmouth or something like that.

Apostrophes are important?

I don’t teach most of my students possessives. This is a natural order issue that advanced learners will begin to pick up naturally according to Krashen’s Natural Order hypothesis. I don’t asgree with a lot of things Krashen says, but since the apostrophe doesn’t convey meaning I think we ahve the luxury of time – we can just wait for learners to “get it”.

What made me think about this was an article on apostrophes and professionalism.

SLA: an anology that shows why learners should focus on meaning rather than rules

Learners always complain that linguistic rules are too complicated and that there are too many exceptions to memorize. They are right. One way to explain why children learn language better is to say that they focus on meaning, not form.

When children learn about the moon, they don’t care about the rules that says we need an article when we say the moon. They care about the bright white ball in the night sky.

Imagine that language rules make up a jungle. A child will follow a trail through the jungle and come out of the jungle with good language skills. An adult will stop to examine every single tree, take some notes, describe it fully, try to memorize the description, etc. This will take forever, and the adult will never leave the jungle. In fact, anyone who tries to do this will become hopelessly lost.

Similarly, if an adult stops to memorize every linguistic rule, he or she will die before they finish language learning. To me this tells us that we need to learn more like children. We need to focus on meaning. This is oversimplifying things to be sure, but we don’t want to get lost in the jungle of SLA linguistics do we?

Does competence equal performance?

A recent question from one of my SLA students regarding competence and performance: I am still confused about you mentioning that competence equals performance. In general, we can see that even native speakers make mistakes while they are speaking. If so, can we say that his competence is still equal to the performance? Also,it is said that competence is measured by the test. Does the test result represent the competence 100%?

Native speakers do make mistakes, but do they make the same mistakes repeatedly? Imagine that you listen to a native speaker talk and that person uses correct subject/verb agreement 100 times. Then you hear that person make a mistake with subject/verb agreement. After observing the performance, what can you determine about that native speaker’s competence?

While I’m happy that you’re considering the issues, please remember your main focus: to come up with an analogy that shows that competence generates performance and use your visual to help the class understand the relationship between competence and performance.

Lending Library Analogy

When talking about Cognitivists and their view of FLA, we have to mention the environment as a source of input. Here’s an analogy that we use at SMU-TESOL:

Input can be compared to a lending library, a place where you borrow books. People go to libraries to borrow books that interest them. But this is no ordinary lending library. In fact, it is filled not with books, but with rules – linguistic rules. This library has shelves filled with the totality of all the rules parents use. This library is not visited by adults. Rather, it is visited by young children. When children go there, they take the books that they are biologically ready to take. That is, when a child reaches a certain age, s/he will reach up and select the rules that are right for that stage.

The lending library analogy is really good at capturing the relationship between environment and child. Here, parents make rules available. It’s the child who makes the selection.

Reasons for the cognitivist approach to first language acquisition

The three most importantapproaches to first language acquisition (FLA) are Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism. Here at SMU-TESOL we deal only with Behaviorism and Cognitivism. We stress that Behaviorism is no longer supported and that Cognitivism is the dominant theory when it comes to explaining FLA. Next semester, when I am head teacher of SLA, I may try to alter the curriculum to include Constructivism. Constructivist theory has influenced numerous approaches to SLA.

Before going any further, a few definitions:

Behaviorism focuses on behavioral changes. Behavioral patterns are repeated after positive feedback until they become automatic. What might or might not be happening in the mind is not considered. The idea is that FLA can be explained without reference to mental activity.

Cognitivism focuses on thought process. Changes in behavior indicate what is going on in the learner’s head. Interestingly, Cognitivists do acknowledge behavioristic concepts such as repetition and reinforcement. (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187) stress that rather than focusing on behavior, “cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information.” This indicates that to a cognitivist repetition and reinforcement affect thought processes.

Constructivism focuses on learning as an active process based on individual experiences. Negotiation of meaning is critical. This is not to say that each person has a unique reality. Constructivists argue that people interpret the physical world roughly the same way.

The main reasons we stress cognitivism is that language is an instinct and every (normal) person succeeds in learning their first language. Differences in the environment are simply not important.

Also, everyone learns language without getting taught. 5-year-olds have pretty much mastered L1 grammar without a teacher. We stress that mothers don’t teach their children and that even if a few do, it makes no difference.

Language does consist of rules (grammar, vocabulary, phonology) that everyone knows. People don’t think about the rules when they speak (remember we’re talking about L1). Rules existing in the mind and being used to create novel chunks of language can only be explained by talking about the mind. Behaviorists try to explain language production as a habit.

Finally, children acquire language at pretty much the same rate regardless of how much repetition, reinforcement, etc. they are exposed to. Exceptions (for example I said my first word at 2 years when the norm is 12 months) prove the rule.

Racism in popular culture

I’m not sure if this was really done on the popular TV show hosted by David Letterman but I received a forward that may encourage an interesting discussion about racism in popular culture and be suitable for my Popular Cultures in English Speaking Countries class. I must say again that I find it hard to believe this was actually part of the show. I can imagine that some created their own top ten list as this is not an uncommon activity in America:

David Letterman’s Top 10 reasons why there are no black NASCAR drivers: (I bet his life will be miserable after the NAACP sees this!)

# 10 – Have to sit upright while driving.

# 9 – Pistol won’t stay under front seat.

# 8 – Engine noise drowns out the rap music.

# 7 – Pit crew can’t work on car while holding up pants at the same time.

# 6 – They keep trying to carjack Dale JR.

# 5 – Police cars on track interfere with race.

# 4 – No passenger seat for the Ho.

# 3 – No Cadillac’s approved for competition.

# 2 – Can’t wear helmet sideways.


# 1 – When they crash their cars, they bail out and run.

Message board behavior vs. face to face communication

I’ve been realizing that people behave very strangely on English message boards in that they argue over what was meant when someone makes a post. For example I just made this post:

You ask who has the problem since 3 people made the same mistake you did. If you had read my link about illocutionary force and uptake, you’d realize that a misunderstanding is not a situation where someone has to be at fault.

People who refuse to resolve misunderstandings on the other hand are at fault. Allow me to paraphrase the conversation to illustrate:

Me: The new stadium won’t help our team.

NNYGman: I agree, the Maras are too cheap.

Moose: Trotta thinks the Mara’s are cheap.

Me: No I don’t.

Moose: Yes you do!

So instead of saying “Sorry I attributed what NNYGmen said to you” you’re arguing “Trotta implied the Maras are cheap.”

Interestingly, I have never experienced anything like this in face to face communication. However, on a message board, people will argue over very very stupid things. This is a case in point: You and I are arguing about what I meant in my original post. In face to face communication, have you ever argued about what a speaker meant? Probably not.

How did we reach that point? In a dialogue that would never have developed the same way in face to face communication:

Hard to get excited : jamestrotta : 2/10/05 9:44 AM

about the stadium business because it seems unlikely to affect the team. It’s not like the Maras will spend more money to get better scouts/officials with income from extra luxury boxes…

I agree : NNYGman : 2/10/05 9:45 AM

The Maras are too cheap to buy better officials.

Sigh… : Shawn in Jersey : 2/10/05 10:15 AM

will it ever stop?

trotta- : Da Moose : 2/10/05 10:17 AM

no wonder you’re offering to pay people to write for your site (this is a reference to an earlier post I made about paying for article for my other site, You’re calling the Maras cheap and the Giants scouts bad.


Shawn : NNYGman : 2/10/05 10:18 AM

I doubt it. I know fans who think the Maras are too cheap to exceed the cap.

Ho Hum… : River Mike : 2/10/05 10:25 AM

Every year that the Giants don’t win the Super Bowl it’s because the Maras are too cheap, don’t care, yada, yada, yada.

Moose : jamestrotta : 2/10/05 10:33 AM

What are you talking about? You said “no wonder you’re offering to pay people to write for your site. You’re calling the Maras cheap and the Giants scouts bad.”

How is paying for writers even remotely related to my opinion about the Mara’s?

And I never said that the Mara’s were cheap or that the Giants scouts were bad. All I said was that extra income from a new stadium won’t be spent on scouts and the like.

That’s why I don’t care about the new stadium.

trotta, I think Moose is alluding to the fact : Randy in CT : 2/10/05 10:34 AM

that you write like an 8 year old and thusly NEED writers.

And, frankly, : Randy in CT : 2/10/05 10:35 AM

I wouldn’t go to an Eagles site and tell them that I don’t care about their stadium. Seems…What’s the word? retarded.

What do you think the Maras spend the money on? : Da Moose : 2/10/05 10:41 AM

Tiddly winks? Your implication was clearly that the Maras were cheap and didn’t care about the betterment of the team on the field.

You need to pay writers for your Giants site because it’s clear you haven’t got a clue about the Giants yourself.

Randy, : Da Moose : 2/10/05 10:41 AM

thanks for filling in the blanks. Subtlety is lost on these mooks.

The issue : jamestrotta : 2/10/05 10:56 AM

The issue here is not subtlety. It’s reading too much into what someone says. When I say that income from extra luxury boxes won’t be used to hire more scouts, that’s really all I mean. I just don’t see how a new stadium will make the Giants a better team. It’s not a knock on the Giants – I read before the 2004 draft that they spend more on scouts than any other NFL team.

You can imagine that I mean something I didn’t say, but you should at least admit that it’s in your head, not my words.

As for writing like a child, I’m not the one hurling insults that I haven’t heard since high school.

jamestrotta : johnclarke759 : 2/10/05 11:01 AM

Don’t sweat it too much. Its pretty much all he does and all he’s capable of doing on this site.

Nice. Eagles fans : Randy in CT : 2/10/05 11:07 AM

defending Eagles fans on a Giants website.

John : jamestrotta : 2/10/05 11:09 AM

Are you talking about Moose or Randy? I was just starting to like Moose because I liked about half of what he said on the thread about English as an official language thread…

Anyway it happens all the time but things develop differently on message boards. In a face to face conversation, when there’s some conflict between what the listener gets and what the speaker intends we generally work it out. On message boards people get very aggressive and there’s usually not much effort made to resolve misunderstandings.

Illocutionary force and uptake (new window)

When it comes to players salaries and : Dave in Ft Lauderdale : 2/10/05 11:23 AM

bonuses, the Giants are not cheap, never have been. Bad at cap management maybe. In any case, no team is going to take the extra income from luxury boxes and put it into salaries. The salary cap prevents that. Now, paying more money for coaches, scouts and organizational improvements that’s a whole different story.

This crap about the Giants being cheap and not caring about winning; can we put this point to rest already? There’s a BIG difference between wanting to win and knowing HOW to achieve it. That’s REALLY the point! As an organization, they’ve been relatively clueless for a LONG time now.

Some things seem to have improved the last 2 years (better drafting, in some ways, a better idea about free agents, not overpaying for their own players), so lets see how this off-season goes.

The Maras are not cheap : LT56 : 2/10/05 11:50 AM

If they were, Lawrence Taylor would have defected to the USFL for the big money Donald Trump was offering him back in the early 80’s. If anything, the team is loyal to a fault.

My pitch : MtChas : 2/10/05 12:03 PM

Since we are usually always fighting the salary cap, it means we are spending as much on players as possible.

Granted, we do seem to invest too heavily on some few individuals, at the expense of the rest of the team. So we end up with a few extremely highly priced players, and then we are forced to fill out the rest of the roster with mediocre types. No where even close to how Belichec seems to operate. He let that All Pro DB go, rather than pay the hugh increase.

Looking back now, at our dismal record, it may be argued that paying Strahan (like Sehorn before) that hugh salary, cost the rest of the roster dearly.

There is no limit on paying for staff. I don’t know how the Giants treat their coaches in relation to the rest of the league. But I remember when Scott Gragg went to SF he remarked how much better the treatment of the players was at that team.

From my observations what is killing the Giants is the old ‘cronyism’ where the personnel department ‘oldtimers’ are not held responsible for the seemingly poor scouting, rating, drafting and paying we do.

The ‘oldtimers’ there even got a new director fired. Inmates running the sanitorium.

jamestrotta… : Da Moose : 2/10/05 12:12 PM

since three other posters inferred the same thing I did from your statement, who has the problem?

yawn : djm : 2/10/05 2:54 PM

it’s been firmly established that the Mara’s have done a poor job earning revenue and the Giants, despite the fact that they play in a HUGE market, or run like a small town franchise. They cannot financially compete with the big bonus spenders in the NFL. This is fact. Why jump on the guy’s opinion? It’s reality.

typo… : djm : 2/10/05 2:54 PM

or should be are run

Where has it EVER been shown… : Da Moose : 2/10/05 2:56 PM

that the Giants don’t pay their coaches, scouts, front office, or players very well?

maybe “cheap” is the wrong word : djm : 2/10/05 2:57 PM

how bout fiscally antiquated?

do the Giants have the best practice facilities? : djm : 2/10/05 3:04 PM

Do the Giants have the best scouting system? Do the Giants have enough money so they are able to pay the best scouts in the business? Can the Giants compete financially with the Skins and Broncos of the NFL or was Accorsi just blowing smoke?

I tend not to believe… : Da Moose : 2/10/05 3:08 PM

anything Accorsi says. It doesn’t mean he never tells the truth, it just means that I don’t take any of it at face-value.

djm : Mike fr Warwick : 2/10/05 3:09 PM

I suggest you look at the signing bonuses the Giants have handed out the last 6 years or so. Start with Eli, Strahan and Sehorn. People just make it up as they go along.

Going into : Mike fr Warwick : 2/10/05 3:12 PM

2004 had one of the highest payrolls for scouts. Can’t remeber what paper reported that. Remember just a couple of years ago the Giants expanded their scouting staff.

djm… : FatMan in Charlotte : 2/10/05 3:14 PM

You might also want to look at the fact that each year the Giants scouting department is compensated in the Top 5 of the league. Whether that money is well spent can be debated, but the fact that it is spent nullifies any argument on cheapness.

never said cheap : djm : 2/10/05 4:46 PM

and I never said that Giants don’t spend money on scouting. What I did was question if the Giants have the cash at their disposal that the heavy hitters of the NFL have. I know the Giants want to win. I know the Giants spend bonus money that is on par with the NFL. What I don’t know is whether the Giants earn enough revenue to financially compete with the big spenders. Why this topic is considered taboo is beyond me.

FatMan : djm : 2/10/05 4:47 PM

interesting to know that the Giants spend that much on scouting. Thx for the insight.

Again I am merely questioning, not accusing.

Eagle fans? Here? : mgorga : 2/10/05 5:52 PM

They ought to be writing on Eagle sites demanding McHeave spend more time throwing passes and doing cardio work than making his body so thick he can’t catch blow enough between plays to run a friggen hurry-up offense.

STILL RINGLESS!!!! 45 years.

Moose : jamestrotta : 2/11/05 1:38 AM

You ask who has the problem since 3 people made the same mistake you did. If you had read my link about illocutionary force and uptake, you’d realize that a misunderstanding is not a situation where someone has to be at fault.

People who refuse to resolve misunderstandings on the other hand are at fault. Allow me to paraphrase the conversation to illustrate:

Me: The new stadium won’t help our team.

NNYGman: I agree, the Maras are too cheap.

Moose: Trotta thinks the Mara’s are cheap.

Me: No I don’t.

Moose: Yes you do!

So instead of saying “Sorry I attributed what NNYGmen said to you” you’re arguing “Trotta implied the Maras are cheap.”

Interestingly, I have never experienced anything like this in face to face communication. However, on a message board, people will argue over very very stupid things. This is a case in point: You and I are arguing about what I meant in my original post. In face to face communication, have you ever argued about what a speaker meant? Probably not.

My fellow Giants fans

I am a New York Giants fan (the Giants are an American football team) and am active on a Giants message board where an offtopic post recently sparked a heated discussion about immigrants in America and English.

Sadly, many of the responses were along the lines of this one: “Its ridiculous learn the languge or suffer the consequences. Whatever they may be. WE speak English here end of story.”

I responded:

Actually the basis of this thread is that “we” do not all speak English. The question seems to be “what should we do about it?”

Young immigrants (children) to America usually do learn English. ESL programs help. The suggestion that we should take non-English speaking children and throw them into regular classrooms (I remember reading that in this thread but don’t remember who wrote it) will lead to incredible problems for not only the student, but also the teacher (imagine the history teacher trying to explain causes of the Civil War in English to a student who doesn’t understand English – of course the teacher will fail to reach non-English speaking students). And when the teacher has major problems so does the class.

Adult immigrants have a much tougher time than their children. Where do they go to learn English? How do they find time (adults of course are expected to work and earn moeny)? How can they afford the langauge lessons (outside of public school there are only a few free programs so adults often have to pay a private school)?

Yet some of you expect all immigrants to speak fluent English. It’s not possible. Between raising and providing for their families, many immigrants will not have the time or money required to learn English. And learning English takes a huge time investment – years and years. This means that even immigrants with free time and extra money who make an effort to learn English may not speak it. It will take them a few years.

For waht it’s worth, I disagree with what Moose said; he said starting in 7th grade is too late. Actually adult learners can become fluent in English even if they begin learning later in life. There is no doubt that it becomes more and more difficult as you get older especially after 40 or 50).

English in Malaysia

An interesting message from a Yahoo group I joined recently was written by someone in Malysia about an emerging variety of English there that includes characteristics of British and American varieties as well as a few words from Malay, Cantonese and Tamil.

Reminds me of a post from a while back about defining World Standard English and one about differences in English ability between Malaysian and Thai people. While I’m reminiscing, how about one from my travel blog about Kuala Lumpur.