Friday, 31 August 2012

That's handy!

Blimey, is it almost September already?
Well, I've had a pretty good summer - largely involving travel, mountains, beaches, rain, lots of food and wine. And not a jot of study, work, students or anything resembling work.
No wonder I feel jaded after just four days back in the office. However, I can take advantage of the current lacuna before the students return to bring this blog back to life, and on to a subject I promised to bring up ages ago.
I am fascinated by the question of why some students seem to be so good at learning languages while others would lose a fight with an auxiliary verb. As a subject, it is one I keep returning to - what is the difference between the 'good' language learner and the 'bad' one? What do the 'good' ones do that the 'bad' ones don't? How can I make the 'bad' ones 'good'? Why is it that students get to an intermediate level of English, then the numbers who continue with their studies tail off?
Now, I have discussed some of this in previous posts - intermediate students hitting a wall, trying to motivate people through the tedious slog of learning, affective filters, the 'fuzzy' handling of language, discussion of whether there is such a thing as active and passive grammar and so on. All of these are part of this one question, of why some people learn languages so easily and others don't. The key, I suspect, may lie in my observation that language learners can function with limited language, but they do so in reduced, clumsy ways - what I term 'fuzzy handling'. For example, a learner will be able to express a request in the target language, but do so in a limited way, e.g. 'I want go to College. Are you know where is it please?', which works, but in a limited fashion - a native speaker would understand it, but wouldn't regard it as 'correct'.
OK, so far, so obvious. I've pointed out before that my intermediate students often continue to use language in this fuzzy way, and that a lot of language learning (and, of course, teaching) is about bringing the language into focus, to help the student use the target language in a precise, 'focused' form - in our example above, we'd be aiming to get the student saying 'Excuse me, I'd like to go to the college, but I don't know where it is. Could you tell me how to get there, please?', or something similar.
As so often happens, a possible answer to this issue struck me one night while doing something completely unrelated - you know, that 3 a.m. feeling when you suddenly wake up and know the name of somebody you've been trying to remember all day. Anyway, it all comes down to how we handle language, our dexterity with it, our......


Language use and learning displays handedness. That is, just as we have an innate preference to use one hand over another, so we do the same with language. If we are learning a new language, we can attempt to use it like our L1, but it will be in a limited way - just like trying to write with your left hand if you're right handed. In the case of beginning a new language, of course, it's as if you've grown a whole new hand and are trying to work out how to make it move. Imagine trying to do all the tasks that you normally do with your dominant hand with your non-dominant one - you can do them, but it feels awkward, odd, and clumsy - precisely how it feels when trying to use an L2 naturally.
OK, so what if you're ambidextrous? Or, in this case, someone with two or more birth languages? Well, bilinguals tend to show a preference for one language over another, or a preference for one for given situations, e.g. talking in on language at home but another with friends. Again, I would argue this shows evidence that language use displays handedness, a preference for use of language based on situation.
Well, what bearing does this have on language learning? I would argue that for some learners, especially monoglots, they have such strong handedness in their L1 that it hinders their ability to handle the new language, while others are more ready to experiment with their new 'hand', as it were. The latter are more prepared to experiment with the range of use - to reach out and 'feel' their way.
This explains why it's such a good idea to encourage learners to experiment with language use outside the classroom - the more they do it, the easier it becomes to use it.
And here's another argument in favour of handedness - people who learn a second language can sometimes perform a task in the L2 better than they can in their L1. For example, a colleague of mine lived in Mexico for several years, and while there not only learned Spanish, but also how to drive. She also bought a knackered VW Beetle that required numerous visits to the mechanic in order to keep it on the road. In order to describe to the mechanic what had gone wrong this time, she had to learn, rather quickly, the various ways of describing the thing and what had fallen off, gone 'booinng' or had exploded. In fact, she became rather good at this, and bartering the price down with her mechanic for parts and labour.
But can she do the same here in the UK, in English? Nope, not without difficulty anyway, as she lacks the vocabulary to describe the things that drop off, go 'booiing' or explode. However, were she to discover a Mexican mechanic, she'd breeze through. In other words, for a specific situation, she is showing preference, or handedness, to a particular language - just as you might prefer to use your left hand to change gears on a car while steering with the right (if you live in a country like the UK where you drive on the correct side of the road, i.e. the left :) ).
I'm not going to write much more on this subject at the moment, as it merits more than a blog entry, but I will say this - thinking about language and handedness has lead me on to something else about how we acquire our L1s in the first place. But more about that in a later blog post.

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