Three Influential Views on Learning

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B.F. Skinner viewed human learning through a behavioral perspective and that we are governed by behavior consequences. Skinner emphasized reinforcement. These reinforcers strengthen behavior and increase that behavior’s reoccurrence. In a language classroom, positive reinforcement might take the form of something as simple as a smile or a compliment. This positive attention encourages students to repeat such desired behavior such as participating, putting in effort, or being helpful.

David Ausubel viewed human learning through a cognitive lens. He describes learning as a meaningful process of relating new material to already existing cognitive structures. Under the Ausubel view, students will better remember new material if they can relate it to what they already know. For example, my school uses an American textbook for their second grade science curriculum. One chapter is about hurricanes. Trying to describe hurricanes to Taiwanese ELLs would be futile without a comparison to typhoons and a map. When introducing this word I started by asking students what happens during typhoons. We then took out a map and I labeled the areas of the world where typhoons and hurricanes form. I emphasized that they are the same type of storm they just start on different areas of the globe. Since the students showed understanding, I also marked up the map further to illustrate where they are called cyclones.

Carl Rogers brought us a social constructivist perspective. Rogers emphasizes learning over teaching and teachers are facilitators in the classroom. Probably having the work of Rogers and other social constructivists in mind the school district I grew up in approved an alternative high school in the 1970s that allowed students freedom to control their own education and write their own contracts setting individual goals and measures of achieving them. Outside of normal subjects, students also had options such as organic farming and witchcraft to choose from. Lack of organizational structures caused enrollment to plummet and the school was eventual incorporated into the district’s other alternative high school.

These three views provide a foundation for my personal view of language learning. From Skinner: The enthusiasm and care that I bring to the classroom for all students encourages individual participation and learning. From Ausubel: Knowing my learners’ backgrounds helps me relate new material to their prior knowledge so they can better learn new material. Finally, from Rogers: I create activities that allow for students to discover patterns before explicitly teaching them and design classwork in which students can work in groups largely independently from me and learn through discovery.

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What is Fossilization?

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Fossilization occurs when a learner reaches a plateau in second language acquisition and stops making progress. In fossilization, nonstandard linguistic forms become seemingly permanently incorporate into an individuals L2 competence (Brown, p. 264). Vigil and Oller explain positive feedback as the cause of fossilization. For example, my daughter, whose first language is Mandarin, after seeing a doctor may tell me, “I need to eat this medicine before each meal.” I understand that she means take medicine rather than eat medicine. Eat medicine is a direct translation of the Chinese [chī yào (吃藥)]. I respond by telling her I will remind her before dinner. This positive feedback of my daughter’s utterance could be reinforcing an incorrect form of English. Am I hindering my daughter’s development of English by not correcting her at that moment? I don’t think so. I’m just delighted she chose to speak to me in English over Mandarin so I don’t correct her. When it’s time to take her medicine, I can model the proper form by telling her, “It’s time to take your medicine.” Perhaps by the time her prescription runs out she will internalize the proper form.

I think that fossilized language forms can be corrected. A change of environment such as a student studying abroad could present the language form enough times during the day to internalize the correct form. Enrolling in a class surrounded by other motivated individuals could give the speaker enough practice using the correct form to undo fossilization. I agree with H. Douglas Brown, author of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching in that stabilization may be a more appropriate term over fossilization. Fossilization implies non-changing afterwards. Fossilized trilobites will at no time come back to life but a person’s second language acquisition can reach plateaus and break through them in the correct learning environments.

Reference:

Brown, H. D. (2014). Principles of language learning and teaching: A course in second language acquisition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

The Nurture of Communication

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American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed the theory of Universal Grammar in the 1960s as a reaction to B.F. Skinner’s argument that children learn language based on reinforcement principles. Skinner’s ideas of how children acquired language were grounded in John Locke’s philosophy that the mind is a blank slate and that all knowledge comes from experience or perception. One can place Locke and Skinner on the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate. Chomsky’s theory falls on the nature side – that humans are born with innate faculties related to the acquisition of language. I do not believe that children are born with language universals, there is no language acquisition device, and that a child’s general cognitive abilities are more than powerful enough to acquire language.

Animal communication is governed by stimulus-response. Bird calls and songs, bee dances, and non-human primate gestures and calls are all used to communicate about the present. As far as we know, they do not have the capacity for displacement. Their communication systems are non-creative and they don’t change from generation to generation. A grizzly bear will never communicate about a large salmon it caught last week, a cockatoo will never put a new spin on its song to attract a mate, and bees will never make up a story about a bee from another planet that uses its superpowers to fight evildoers. Humans have the incredible ability to communicate with language. I don’t believe that language is innate. However, our capacity for language is innate.

What are the linguistic universals? If they exist, are we born with them or simply pick them up as infants? The amount of diversity among the more than six thousand languages spoken on earth is dizzying. The word orders of languages may be subject-verb-object, subject-object-verb, verb-subject-object, verb-object-subject, object-subject-verb, or object-verb-subject. Chomsky would have us believe that all these rules are hardwired into our brains and this allows us to pick up the language of whatever community of speakers we are born into. It is difficult to fathom that our brains already have so many foundations of language pre-installed before birth. Could linguistic universals such as all languages having vowels and consonants simply be the result of humans being physically capable of creating these sounds? Roughly 100,000 years ago, human mouths began to shrink, our tongues became more flexible, and the larynx lowered. At the expense of being able to swallow large pieces of food quickly, the variety of sounds our species was able to produce vocally increased dramatically (Masterson, 2010).

Researchers’ understanding of our brains continues to grow. Chomsky’s proposition, of the language acquisition device hardwired into the brains of children that propels them to learn language has been criticized recently based on our current understanding of the brain, which uses many parts to process language (Rowe & Levine, 2015, p. 233). Currently, the Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, both located in the cerebral cortex have been identified as being essential for human communication. Humans differ from other animals due to our large cerebral cortex, which unlike theirs, is wrinkled rather than smooth, giving our brains more surface area for the processing power required for learning, thinking, remembering, acquiring language, tool-making, and cooperation. Although other animals such as beavers build structures and crows use tools, humans use by far the most extensive toolkit in the animal kingdom to survive almost anywhere there is land (Buskell, 2016). Humans are exceptional animals: Members of tribes have crafted boats and colonized islands that are thousands of miles from any neighboring islands; just over sixty years since the Wright Brothers took flight astronauts landed on our closest celestial neighbor; and for better or worse, we have harnessed the power of the atom.

Skinner believes that children learn language through imitation which is then positively or negatively reinforced by their caregivers. As Chomsky noted, it is easily observable that in many cultures caregivers give positive feedback no matter how phonologically or grammatically inaccurate the utterances from the child they care for are. Chomsky would have us believe that inappropriately giving positive reinforcement for phonologically or grammatically incorrect utterances would result in children unable to successfully learn language. However, for every time that a child makes a grammatically incorrect utterance that is not explicitly corrected, he or she likely hears grammatically correct utterances several thousands of times before syntactic rules are subconsciously internalized.

Just how much language is an infant exposed to? Imagine if you will that every word spoken within hearing distance of an infant were spelled out using the letters from a can of Alphabet Soup. A single can would be used up during an extremely brief conversation that a baby may overhear, such as a parent accepting a package from a delivery person or ordering take out. Now imagine all these conversations over the course of days and weeks and months. Before long, you would have enough Alphabet Soup to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Depending on family wealth, a child may hear between 600 and 2,100 words per hour (Rosenberg, 2013). With all this input, it’s no wonder that children pick up language. Researchers have recently discovered a correlation between a child’s academic performance in the third grade with the amount of words spoken in the home from birth to three years old (Wood, 2009). The amount of language an infant hears daily is likely far greater than Chomsky imagined while he was writing his scathing review of Skinner’s 1957 release Verbal Behaviors.

From a young age, humans categorize. A couple of weeks ago, as I was loading the car to take my son to preschool I asked him to come outside. He responded that he was looking for a marker. I walked back inside and saw all of his markers, from multiple sets, neatly placed in different piles by color. I asked which color he wanted. He said he wanted an orange one. He picked up each orange marker, one by one, examining the different shades, and ultimately chose one he felt was suitable for drawing in a notebook on our daily commute. Chomsky would like us to believe that grammar is innate, that we are born with the universals of language hardwired into our brains. Could it be that just as my son categorized colors that our brains act as a large net, catching language that is spoken to us and around us, and subconsciously categorizing it?

Jean Berko tested children’s knowledge of morphological rules using nonsense materials in her groundbreaking Wug Test. She concluded, “The answers were not always right so far as English is concerned; but they were consistent and orderly answers, and they demonstrated that there can be no doubt that children in this age range operate with clearly delimited morphological rules” (Berko, 1958). These children were able to correctly apply their subconscious knowledge of inflectional endings to create plurals of nonsense words. Her work showed that young children have an implicit understanding of linguistic morphology. Children are born into language-rich environments armed with the mind’s incredible processing power. This accounts for a child’s implicit understanding of linguistic morphology.

The mighty pendulum of the nature versus nurture debate is swinging back to the nurture side under a new banner: the usage-based approach to language acquisition. In the usage-based approach, developed by Michael Tomasello, linguistic structures are learned through intention reading and pattern finding. Ghalebi and Sadighi summarize intention reading as, “…what children must do to determine the goals or intentions of mature speakers when they use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends” (2015). Tomasello, in his article, First Steps Toward a Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition summarizes pattern finding as follows:

When young children have something they want to say, they sometimes have a set expression readily available and so they simply retrieve that expression from their stored linguistic experience. When they have no set expression readily available, they retrieve linguistic schemas and items that they have previously mastered (either in their own production or in their comprehension of other speakers) and then “cut and paste” them together as necessary for the communicative situation at hand. (2001)

Tomasello’s argument provides us with a better understanding of how children acquire language. His theory cuts Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar completely out of the picture and replaces it with a child’s complex cognitive abilities. Tomasello’s continued research arms the nurture argument with modern findings and a very convincing model of language acquisition in children.

The ability to use language to communicate is one of several things that separate us from non-human animals. We have evolved incredibly powerful cerebral cortexes to learn and process language. We have also evolved the ability to create a wide-range of sounds. Children, using the extraordinary powers of their minds are able to subconsciously learn the language of whatever community of speakers they are born into. The recent work of Tomasello have pushed the pendulum of the nature versus nurture debate towards the nurture end of the spectrum. Time will tell if future research in fields such as linguistics, genetics, cognitive neuroscience, or evolutionary psychology pull the pendulum back to the nature side.

References

Berko, Jean. (1958) The child’s learning of English morphology, Word, 14(2-3), 150-177, doi:10.1080/00437956.1958.11659661

Buskell, A. (2016, March 03). What makes humans special? Retrieved December 02, 2017, from http://www.lse.ac.uk/philosophy/blog/2016/03/03/what-makes-humans-special/

Ghalebi, R., & Sadighi, F. (2015). The usage based theory of language acquisition: A review of major issues. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research, 2(6), 190-195. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download? doi=10.1.1.953.491&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Masterson, K. (2010, August 11). From grunting to gabbing: why humans can talk. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php? storyId=129083762

Rosenberg, T. (2013, April 10). The power of talking to your baby. Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/the-power-of-talking-to-your-baby/

Rowe, B. M., & Levine, D. P. (2015). A concise introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Tomasello, M. (2001). First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cognitive Linguistics, 11(1-2). doi:10.1515/cogl.2001.012

Wood, D. (2009, November 10). 30,000 words: Is your child getting enough? Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.education.com/magazine/article/30000_words/

Monolingual America

The majority of Americans are monolingual largely due to the legacy of isolationism. Assimilation of new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was the primary goal of school systems in the early twentieth century (Rowe & Levine, 2015, p. 253). Even into the twenty-first century, there is a sizable portion of the population who become irritated and combative when people around them speak languages other than English or because the automated call center has the option of pressing two for Spanish. According to Amelia Friedman, “Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom” (2015). This is very disheartening that so many students receive foreign language instruction in high schools across America and in the end less than one percent come out proficient. I think that if the country prioritized language learning it would be another story. If foreign languages were required from early elementary school through high school there would likely be more interest in continuing to pursue language learning in universities and into adulthood. Sadly, becoming proficient in a foreign language takes a lot of time and it is difficult for many Americans to see the benefit in something that takes so much energy without an immediate financial reward.

Speaking more than one language certainly has its benefits. Whether you are born into a bilingual environment or devote yourself to become proficient in another language you can help keep your mind sharp and according to one study can even delay the onset of dementia (Bak et al., 2014). I believe that speakers of more than one language have better diversity awareness making them more flexible at interacting with members of different culture groups. I have a lot of admiration for people who have devoted tens of thousands of hours into learning another language. My first Chinese language classroom in Taipei was an interesting group of people: Three students from Japan, two from Malaysia, one from Malawi, one from France, one from Mexico, and two Americans (myself and a retired NYC bus driver). With the exception of the other American and I, everyone else was already proficient in at least two other languages.

References

Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M. and Deary, I. J. (2014), Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Ann Neurol., 75: 959–963. doi:10.1002/ana.24158

Friedman, A. (2015, May 10). America’s Lacking Language Skills. Retrieved November 26, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/05/filling-americas-language-education-potholes/392876/

Rowe, B. M., & Levine, D. P. (2015). A concise introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thoughts on Vocabulary

As an ESL instructor, rarely do we have an entire class period that does not have time devoted to direct vocabulary instruction or guided practice. This emphasis on vocabulary acquisition is necessary for my students to comprehend text. Every student comes to school with a different sized word bank and varying levels of word knowledge. Through instruction, we can grow our students’ vocabulary base of known words. There are many strategies educators can use to help students learn content area language.
The first step is choosing words to teach. Our content area textbooks contain boxes of key words that we should focus our attention on. Since most of my classroom’s textbooks are designed for students whose first language is English, there are often additional words throughout each chapter that also require direct instruction. It is essential to select words that are important for understanding a reading selection or concept and words that are generally useful to know and likely to be often encountered in reading.
I frequently teach new vocabulary words through directive context and using the Talk Through technique. We can give students a rich understanding of new vocabulary by connecting with students’ lives to make complicated concepts within reach of our learners. Providing opportunities to encounter vocabulary words frequently and in more than one context is also essential for learning vocabulary (Diamond & Gutlohn, 2017). This could be accomplished through field trips, the use of different mediums, and by using a variety of practice exercises. The use of semantic gradients can help students distinguish the between the meanings of related words and help students (Wolfe, 2016). I find that these help my students become more imaginative in their writing and help them grow out of using tired words. Guiding students to classify and categorize vocabulary words helps students understand word relationships so that a new word becomes known.

References:
Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2017, February 13). Teaching Vocabulary. Retrieved February 25, 2017, from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/teaching-vocabulary

Wolfe, L. (2016, May 11). Using Semantic Gradients in the Classroom. Retrieved February 25, 2017, from http://www.reallygoodstuff.com/community/semantic-gradients-and-the-common-core-standards/