Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Further thoughts on language learning.

The discussion I mentioned yesterday that Phil and I had about language teaching and learning began with this episode in the lift. Phil started with an introductory phrase about the fine weather, a stock phrase that we both taught to our pupils years ago. I responded and then we took it in turns to add a detail. 

Phil: "Par un beau jour d'été... 

Me: ... où il faisait beau et le soleil brillait ... 

Phil: ... dans le ciel bleu ... 

Me: ... et les oiseaux chantaient dans les arbres... 

Phil: Pierre et Jean se promenaient dans les beau champs. 

Me: Ils allaient à la rivière ... 

Phil:... car ils allaient à la pêche. 

Me: Soudain Pierre est tombé dans l'eau. 

Phil: "Zut alors," a dit Jean (correction: ... s'est exclamé Jean) 

Me: "Que dois-je faire? J'ai laissé mon téléphone portable à la maison." 

At which point the lift reached the ground floor and we exited, only to continue talking about language teaching and learning. We were just messing about, beginning with comments on the hot weather but anyone who has had anything to do with the old 16+ French exam will recognise the style of the famous picture essay. Students had to respond to a series of pictures which told a story and write it out in French, demonstrating their knowledge of tenses, their use of good expressions and their general ability to put things together in French. Of course, they learnt a whole lot of "good expressions" which they knew would win them brownie points; well, the bright ones did anyway. The thing was that they used them appropriately and it gave everyone a chance to show off what they knew. And it worked. 

It was replaced with something much more watered down, a piece of writing on a topic agreed by the teacher and the pupil. As a rule this was prepared in advance, corrected and sometimes improved by the teacher, learnt by heart and then written out at school under exam conditions. It doesn't sound bad until you come across the student whose parents, older siblings, next door neighbour who happened to be a French teacher had written the piece for them. Oh, yes, they had to learn it but some did so without having much of an idea of what it was about. 

Occasionally I would show my A Level students examples of the old exam papers and they declared that they could not have done it. Their horror increased when I showed them the passages I had to translate from English to French of vice versa! 

Still reading Richard Feynman, I got to the point where he describes going to a Physics conference in Japan. Before he went, he learnt a few stock phrases in Japanese. All the American physicists who went were instructed to do and, indeed, were given a military phrase book to help them but he was the only one who did so. This was fairly typical. He wanted the whole experience. On arrival he was disappointed to be lodged in an American style hotel and insisted on being transferred to a traditional Japanese one. 

And he continued his Japanese learning until he hit a problem with levels of formality, which put him off the whole idea. He discovered that the Japanese use completely different words for the same thing according to the context, in other words, the person being addressed. For example, the verb "to see" translates in a variety of ways. If you want to invite someone to see your garden (I suppose you might do that in a country with elegant formal gardens) you would say, "Would you like to take a quick look at my lousy garden?" If you want to see theirs, you ask, "May I gaze on your elegant garden?" And if you are dealing with the gardens at some temple you ask the priest, "May I hang my eyes on your most magnificent gardens?" Richard Feynman could take that but the straw that broke the camel's back was that the same level of formality and variety existed also when talking about solving equations. He abandoned his Japanese studies. 

I find myself wondering how Japanese slang works. Does it even exist? Surely it must do. Do Japanese teenagers maintain the level of formality of their forbears? Language has, after all, a tendency to simplify and no amount of insistence on sticking to the old rules (and I recognise that I am one of those fuddy-duddies who protest about ungrammatical English) will make any difference.