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Words to the wise from Holland

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Chung
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 Message 1 of 17
23 February 2011 at 5:57am | IP Logged 
I would have posted this in my log but I think that the message applies to the majority of us here who are native-speakers of or fluent only in a certain subset of Indo-European languages.

During my trawling for information on the Finnish direct object, I came across this study which examined how Dutch students were taught the Finnish direct object. The conclusion of the study is that being taught the Finnish direct object in the "traditional" way by letting direct object equal accusative (as seems accepted as gospel when teaching Indo-European languages) was actually detrimental to students' grasping or mastery of the concept in Finnish. Immersion in Finnish settings didn't seem to help either and it appeared that the attempt to teach this Finnish concept so as to fit the superficially similar Indo-European one (especially using Latin as reflecting the bias in the scholarship or pedagogy of "Western" civilization) hindered the students. On the other hand, the "non-traditional" approach of teaching Finnish direct object as not equalling the accusative (as is more common in Finland) seemed to yield better results for Dutch students when grasping and using the Finnish direct object correctly.

***

The deeper message here which can't be stressed enough is that learners must be open-minded when learning languages that are less related or unrelated to those that they already know. It often doesn't pay to make up shortcuts using less-related or unrelated languages since their use can backfire substanially and make learning the new language even more arduous. In the instance above, trying to teach a Finnish concept as if it were an Indo-European one turned out not to be a good idea.

The study's conclusions reminded me of my experiences with Hungarian. Then I found that I had to empty my mind shortly after I had begun learning and thus look at then-unfamiliar concepts such as definite conjugation or vowel harmony with as little Indo-European interference as I could manage. Trying to fit an unfamiliar Hungarian characteristic to match a feature that I had learned in English, French, German or Latin was often a dead-end and not helpful in my studies.

On a related note, it becomes a little tiresome for me when I see a linguistic generalization here based on a small sample of languages (or even from languages belonging to the same sub-group!). It reminds me vaguely of the parochial view of European scholars in the 19th century who elevated certain Romance or Germanic languages, and also had a thing for certain languages of Antiquity (e.g. Akkadian, Ancient Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit). The remaining languages that they knew of were deemed unworthy or even somehow inferior to those on "their list".
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yawn
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 Message 2 of 17
23 February 2011 at 6:26am | IP Logged 
Thanks so much for posting this. As a current student of Ancient Greek, I wholeheartedly agree with everything
you've said here. Learning a language in a completely different language family is like building a completely new
house; you need to "knock down" whatever other foundations you've already built and start fresh.
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Cainntear
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 Message 3 of 17
23 February 2011 at 9:36am | IP Logged 
The problem isn't limited to Indo-European vs non-IE though, and you kind of touch on that.

I'm convinced the current fad of grammarphobia is down to the fact that grammarians more often than not attempted to shoe-horn every language into a Latin model of grammar. Teaching of the Celtic languages (and perhaps the Indic languages suffer the same) is that the verbal noun is central to the languages. A verbal noun is a noun, not a verb, but it performs functions most IE languages use verbs for. It is often taught as though it is a verb, leading to a lot of confusion for learners.
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Chung
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 Message 4 of 17
23 February 2011 at 5:29pm | IP Logged 
I too think that the obsession with Latin as a reference point reflects more a cultural consideration/bias than any pedagogical one, and at best is of limited value when teaching languages that differ substantially from it morphologically, lexically or phonologically. For sure it's not a strict I-E vs. non-I-E thing (which is the study's focus).

This Latin bias in teaching languages has shown up in a couple of places for me ranging from harmless to questionable.

In most of the Slavonic languages that I've studied most intensively, the non-peripheral cases are often presented in local grammar books mimicking the traditional continental European sequence of teaching Latin (as if Latin should be the template of all people who fancy themselves to speak a "civilized" language :-S).

Latin: Nominative, Genetivus, Dativus, Accusativus
Czech, Slovak & Slovenian: "1st case", "2nd case", "3rd case", "4th case"
Polish: Mianownik, Dopełniacz, Celownik, Biernik
Ukrainian: називний, родовий, давальний, знахідний

Czech, Slovak and Slovenian do contain terms for the cases in their own lexicon but the fact that they traditionally assign them in a numerical order and even call them "1st case", "2nd case" etc. aping some arbitrary order handed down from teaching Latin is rather annoying but ultimately not problematic.

However a notable problem with this Latinic bias in language teaching is that I've noticed how many people today get scared off by even the mention of cases altogether (often dredging memories or just hearsay of dreary Latin classes), and so equate number of cases with difficulty or intractability. This has turned up even in discussions here with people initially thinking that Bulgarian is an easy Slavonic language because it lacks cases outside the pronouns or that Hungarian must be next-to-impossible because it has between 18 and 24 cases. Firstly, Bulgarian has tenses, aspects, syntax, lexis and pragmatics. No one here should give it short shrift just because one feature appears "easy" when compared to the organization in a cherished language. Secondly, cases in a typically fusional language like Latin don't work in quite the same way as in a typically agglutinative language like Hungarian with some people comparing some Hungarian case-endings/suffixes to fused postpositions.
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CS
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 Message 5 of 17
23 February 2011 at 10:05pm | IP Logged 
Chung wrote:

However a notable problem with this Latinic bias in language teaching is that I've noticed how many people today
get scared off by even the mention of cases altogether (often dredging memories or just hearsay of dreary Latin
classes), and so equate number of cases with difficulty or intractability.


The really strange part of this phenomenon is that Latin verbs have many more distinct forms than do Latin nouns,
so you'd think that learning the verbs in a new language would be scarier to ex-Latinists than learning the nouns.
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doviende
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 Message 6 of 17
25 February 2011 at 3:26pm | IP Logged 
Thanks for bringing this up, it was quite interesting. I've never really felt an aversion to cases, and I have no horrible experiences studying Latin (or any Latin experiences for that matter). My experience with formal discussion of cases is limited to high-school German.

My main problem is not so much the cases, but the arbitrary categories that the nouns are assigned to. In reading, I can pick out the case fairly easily, but when writing, I have trouble remembering a small percent of the noun-genders in order to properly assign the case endings.

Perhaps this part of German has been colored by my annoyance in high-school, because I have no problem accepting that I need to learn thousands of Hanzi to read and write Chinese, whereas memorization of thousands of German noun genders is actually quite easy in comparison but I still resist actively doing it. Perhaps this is also due to my English-speaker bias, since I think it's just a rotten idea to have noun genders at all.

In contrast, I'm sure there are other English speakers out there who would consider Chinese a drag, so I can't explain why it feels so interesting to me in all aspects. Somehow learning to write it is a great adventure rather than a chore. Maybe the German noun genders are just too "mundane" to pique my interest, since my natural sense for them, while not 100% complete yet, is still quite decent and almost entirely due to natural acquisition from reading. I guess Cainntear is correct in that there's some sort of "grammarphobia" at play in my mind that is preventing me from working on that aspect of my German, and it would probably lead to faster movement toward 100% correct production of genders, but I just can't convince myself yet that I "need" to do it, rather than sitting down with a nice book and reading more.

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mrwarper
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 Message 7 of 17
26 February 2011 at 11:54am | IP Logged 
I had written something much longer, but I've changed my mind. Summing it up:

If any two given things differ in a non-essential way, it is my deepest conviction that the most efficient way to explain the new one is to say 'A Y is like an X, only with one leg instead of two'. Certainly not a great starting point to explain an O... if it applies, use it for your explanations -- and please don't if it doesn't. But hey, are we just monkeys or what?

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Cainntear
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 Message 8 of 17
26 February 2011 at 5:44pm | IP Logged 
Ook.


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