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Bakunin
Diglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
outerkhmer.blogspot.
Joined 3236 days ago

531 posts - 1126 votes 
Speaks: German*, Thai
Studies: Khmer

 
 Message 145 of 170
09 January 2015 at 9:13am | IP Logged 
I applaud your stamina, and I certainly hope you will be able to answer the questions you set out to address with this experiment. However, please allow me to offer a critique of your approach from a natural language acquisition point of view; my comments are, of course, based on my own convictions and experiences with natural language acquisition and necessarily subjective.

In my opinion, there is a confusion between natural language acquisition and the TV method (which is basically what you're doing: watching TV until proficiency). I don't think it does the ideas of natural language acquisition much good to be identified with the TV method; to the contrary. Natural language acquisition, as far as I understand it, is based on the way humans naturally acquire languages, and that's decisively different from watching soap operas or cartoons aimed at already pretty proficient speakers of the language. Here are a few principles I associate with natural language acquisition (NLA), the most important ones of which the TV method (especially when used with L1 subtitles) can't deliver:
- focus is on meaningful interaction, either with the purpose of transmitting/exchanging information about people or objects other than the speaker and the listener, or with the purpose of initiating certain activities or behavior; language acquisition is a by-product of that process
- consequently, NLA requires, and ensures, good levels of comprehension at all stages of the acquisition process, meaning that most of the time most of the intended meaning/purpose is successfully communicated and understood; to make it more tangible (but without being precise what those numbers actually mean), I would say that NLA requires comprehension in the 70%-100% range most (or all) of the time
- NLA doesn't use translation whatsoever
- NLA doesn't force speaking, avoids language and grammar analysis, doesn't know the word 'study' and is generally about fun - that's where the TV method seems to be in line with NLA

In particular, I would emphasize the point about comprehension. Devising a good NLA approach is all about getting comprehension up to 70% or more right from the start. Suffering through hundreds of hours of incomprehensible soap operas might work as an experiment for extremely dedicated souls but won't be much of an inspiration to people trying to develop NLA methods which can be applied by the average language learner. I personally wouldn't be able to endure 5 minutes of incomprehensible gibberish, and I believe most people are like me in that respect.

Another point which is dear to my heart when it comes to NLA is the avoidance of translation at all cost. There's nothing natural about translation, full stop. It is not required and there's good reason to believe it's actually detrimental to the acquisition process.

Now it may well be that I'm thrown off by the name of your institute (The Natural Language Institute) and the whole experiment isn't meant at all to have much to do with natural language acquisition. If that's the case, then please disregard the above. However, in case you are interested what kind of tools may ensure good comprehension right from the start, thus aiding and accelerating the 'natural' acquisition process, have a look at a (drafty) write-up I did summarizing how I approached learning Thai. To really get NLA going, those activities would have to be complemented with lots of TPR-type interaction (which I was fortunate to get as well, albeit only once I started speaking after about two years into the process, due to being in a relationship with a Thai).

To summarize: (1) there's no doubt the NLA works; it does work for kids, and it can be made to work for adults with good results; (2) the TV method is in violation of key NLA principles and doesn't seem to be a credible approach for the average language learner due to the low level of comprehension and the resulting frustration potential.

Sorry if the above sounds a bit harsh. It is not meant to be harsh, it's more meant to be a well-meaning critique of your approach. I'm all in favor of running all kinds of SLA experiments, and your's certainly is one to be done at some point. I also hope that you continue to enjoy what you're doing as you seem to have been until now!

Edited by Bakunin on 09 January 2015 at 9:31am

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Ari
Heptaglot
Senior Member
Norway
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 Message 146 of 170
09 January 2015 at 9:41am | IP Logged 
Bakunin wrote:
There's nothing natural about translation, full stop. It is not required and there's good reason to believe it's actually detrimental to the acquisition process.


I fully agree with you that it's not natural, but of course natural is not the same as good. There are loads of things that are unnatural and good, and loads of things that are natural and bad. I'm intrigued by your mention of "good reasons". I've heard countless of times that translation is bad, but it's often just stated as a fact. What good reasons are you referring to? Are you aware of studies on the subject? I'd be very interested if you could expand on this point. If this thread isn't the place (i.e. it will take more than just a little post), maybe you could start a new thread on it?
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Bakunin
Diglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
outerkhmer.blogspot.
Joined 3236 days ago

531 posts - 1126 votes 
Speaks: German*, Thai
Studies: Khmer

 
 Message 147 of 170
09 January 2015 at 12:52pm | IP Logged 
I have basically the following two reasons:

(1) What we really need to do when using language is to mentally connect the things we speak about with the words/language we use to speak about those things. The direct connection is possible as we all know when reflecting about how we use our native language, or how we use words from foreign languages which we've learned directly without going through translation. Translation is an additional and unnecessary step. Additional and unnecessary middle-men are inefficient.

A further comment to (1) is: it seems to be generally accepted that finally we all aspire to use any second language without mentally going through some other language (e.g., our mother tongue), and this is because it is generally accepted that natural and spontaneous language use is hindered by translating everything that is spoken or said into some other language, it's mental overload few of us are capable of managing well. From that it follows that translation is at best a crutch during the learning/acquisition process; because of (2) below, I believe it's a bad idea to use this crutch at all, with few exceptions (mostly technical terms).

(2) Translation is a hell of a challenge. The semantic representation of the things we speak about is very different from language to language, largely shaped by cultural, geographic, structural and other random factors. Consequently, a word in language A usually needs to be expressed by many different words in some other language B, depending on the context; technical terms excluded. By learning language B through translations back to language A, one is likely (but of course not beholden to, I grant that but doubt that it applies to the average Joe) to transfer specifics* of the semantic representation of language A to the new language B, usually without actually being aware of it; in other words, the new word inherits the position of some approximate and partial counterpart in that other semantic web. The result is that we start out with a distorted mental representation of the new word and need to spend the rest of the learning process fixing that. Clearly possible, but seems utterly complex and a von-hinten-durch-die-Brust-ins-Auge-type of approach.

The only interesting argument in favor of translation I've come across so far is that it gives you a fast approximation. I accept that, but I believe that undoing the negative side-effects of that fast approximation is a huge, and for me personally clearly undesirable, burden in the long-term.

I'm not aware of any papers, but I haven't looked either.

*I mean things like usage, connotations, collocations etc.
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Ari
Heptaglot
Senior Member
Norway
Joined 4688 days ago

2314 posts - 5695 votes 
Speaks: Swedish*, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese
Studies: Czech, Latin, German

 
 Message 148 of 170
09 January 2015 at 2:25pm | IP Logged 
Cool. I don't agree, but we shouldn't derail the thread too much. Basically:

1: Translating in your head from one language to another as you listen or speak is simply a problem of not being good enough at the language. I find it's easily cured with enough input, such as watching a lot of TV series. It has little to do with translating as one is learning the language. I've used translation, and still do, in learning all my languages, but I've never had any problems with this.

2: I find it very natural that the mental concept of a word in the foreign language evolves over time. It's impossible to learn all he usages and connotations at the same time. One must begin somewhere, and the easiest way is through a "quick approximation". Rather than an obstacle that needs to be overcome, I find it's a great starting point for getting to know the word. Even if you're not learning through translation, you'll still connect it to a limited concept at first, which would later have to be expanded.

I've never found translating to be a hindrance. It's one of the most effective tools we have in learning a language. Building new knowledge on previous knowledge is a cornerstone of learning and intentionally circumventing it seems to me like putting unnecessary obstables in one's way. I remember reading about NLA and finding it reasonable, with the result of being terrified that I would somehow "damage" my language skills by learning the wrong way. Fortunately I've come past that and all my experience since has proven to me that the idea that translation can damage your language skills is not only wrong, but dangerous. That's why I'm always interested in any studies on the subject, and I try to argue against the NLA approach when I see it mentioned, because it interfered with my learning at one stage and I don't want that to happen to others.

Damn, this post was a bit longer than I planned. Sorry for the threadnapping!
4 persons have voted this message useful



Bakunin
Diglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
outerkhmer.blogspot.
Joined 3236 days ago

531 posts - 1126 votes 
Speaks: German*, Thai
Studies: Khmer

 
 Message 149 of 170
09 January 2015 at 3:05pm | IP Logged 
Fine with me, thanks for your thoughts, and I'm sure that you represent the majority view here on HTLAL. However, I think I haven't expressed myself clearly, so despite the risk of threadnapping allow me to quickly react:

1. Since you write that translating relates to not being good enough at the language, we basically agree that translation is undesirable in the long-run. We only seem to disagree on 2., i.e., whether translation is a good crutch or not.

2. My experience is that (a) when I employ translation to get a quick approximation of the meaning, I tend to automatically transfer a whole lot of usage, collocation and connotation knowledge applicable to the translation over to the new language (unfortunately, that's largely unconscious and can't easily be assessed or controled), and (b) when I learn a new meaning through comprehensible input, pictures, action or context, this type of transfer described above doesn't tend to happen. Also, going forward, no mental capacity is spent on comparing the foreign concept to the native one.

Of course it's impossible to learn all the usages and connotations at the same time, but nobody aspires to that and I didn't suggest that at all. The difference between the two approaches is that without translation the meaning grows, and with translation something weird gets transplanted which then needs to be fixed/reshaped/corrected. I prefer to grow the meaning, I don't like to start from a distorted base. This subtle difference is maybe not terribly relevant within a certain cultural space (German and French, for example), but my experience with the utterly alien Thai culture is that it's much easier to grow into it, bottom-up so to speak, than to start with Thai informed by German semantic, social and cultural concepts and then slowly (and painfully) transform it into real Thai.

I also only want the best for others, so we can agree on that last note of your's :)

Looking at the failure rates of traditional language learning which relies on translation, grammar analysis and speaking from day one, I can't help but feel that the translation/grammar-camp hasn't figured it out yet.

Edited by Bakunin on 09 January 2015 at 3:07pm

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Ari
Heptaglot
Senior Member
Norway
Joined 4688 days ago

2314 posts - 5695 votes 
Speaks: Swedish*, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese
Studies: Czech, Latin, German

 
 Message 150 of 170
09 January 2015 at 3:16pm | IP Logged 
Bakunin wrote:
We only seem to disagree on 2., i.e., whether translation is a good crutch or not.

Agreed.

Quote:
This subtle difference is maybe not terribly relevant within a certain cultural space (German and French, for example), but my experience with the utterly alien Thai culture is that it's much easier to grow into it, bottom-up so to speak, than to start with Thai informed by German semantic, social and cultural concepts and then slowly (and painfully) transform it into real Thai.


This makes me want to start learning Thai again. I had a false start with it once. I haven't taken it up again because it's grammatically and phonologically similar to the Chinese anguages I know. But you're describing something I haven't experienced with Mandarin or Cantonese, where I find that the vast majority of concepts line up very well with Standard Average European. If Thai is "utterly alien", it makes me want to learn it, because I was very disappointed to find how similar Mandarin is to English.

Quote:
Looking at the failure rates of traditional language learning which relies on translation, grammar analysis and speaking from day one, I can't help but feel that the translation/grammar-camp hasn't figured it out yet.


This is definitely something we can agree on. I seem to recall, however, reading about very large dropout rates at the NLA school in Bangkok. Anyway, I'm not a fan of speaking early, either, except for shadowing.
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victorhart
Bilingual Tetraglot
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United States
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 Message 151 of 170
09 January 2015 at 4:33pm | IP Logged 
Please feel free to threadnap with such an interesting discussion!

As to the translation debate, I'm pretty much entirely on Bakunin's side of the
argument. To answer Ari's question, the reason for my view on this is not theoretical
(I would be very interested in delving into academic research on it, but have not),
but rather based on my own experience observing hundreds of language learners. Those
that used translation extensively generally ended up with stilted speaking and very
poor grammar. The "crutch" seemed to leave them rather permanently crippled! Those
that avoided translations were generally much more successful language learners in the
long run.

Even assuming my observations are accurate and more or less universal, I am sure there
are exceptions, and Ari you are probably one of them. I'm sure there are people who
can use translation extensively and avoid the pitfalls, just because of the way their
brains work.

Bakunin, coincidentally I just discovered AGL because someone who started following my
blog is using it to learn Thai. Here is his blog, which I'm guessing you may already be familiar with. I find AGL intriguing and in many ways more "natural" than what we use at my language institute, despite its name.

I appreciate your critique of my experiment. I agree that just watching movies and
shows is not a particularly natural method. However, I believe that they can be a very
important component of a natural acquisition strategy. My seven-year-old daughter, who
has never lived or spent more than a couple of weeks outside of Brazil, speaks English
at a native level. I attribute about 30% of her success to watching DVDs in English.
So one idea behind my experiment is to show the utility of the "TV method" even in an
extreme application, although it is better used on conjunction with speaking and
feedback, and in my opinion with reading and writing as well.

One point you mention that I partially disagree with you (and with almost everybody
else here) is that watching incomprehensible input is a waste of time. I DO agree it
can be very frustrating or unendurable for many people. However, I think the brain
silently gets a lot done with that incomprehensible input. This is one of the major
issues I hope my experiment will contribute to. However, as s_allard has pointed out,
my use of subtitles for a lot of my viewing (over the course of my experiment I will
probably use them for around 25% of viewing time) does confuse the experiment a bit in
this regard. And it also gets back to the translation problem you brought up . . .

rdearman, I entirely agree with you. My experiment is not truly scientific for a
variety of reasons, including the ones you mention. I am trying to make it as rigorous
as I can, but the results will not have scientific validity. Of course, that doesn't
mean they cannot contribute to understanding of the language acquisition process.

Edited by victorhart on 09 January 2015 at 4:34pm

2 persons have voted this message useful



Bakunin
Diglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
outerkhmer.blogspot.
Joined 3236 days ago

531 posts - 1126 votes 
Speaks: German*, Thai
Studies: Khmer

 
 Message 152 of 170
09 January 2015 at 5:54pm | IP Logged 
Thanks, victorhart, for your interesting response. I also believe that TV can be an important element of an NLA
approach but I would reserve it mostly for the intermediate level and above. I would predict that if you stick to
what you’re doing and reach comprehension levels in the 70% and 80%’s, you’ll experience a sudden boost in
efficiency: all of a sudden you’ll be picking up words left, right and center. You’ll be thrilled. That’s why I
believe NLA should aim for that level of comprehension at all times, because being thrilled is extremely cool.
But I see your point about exploring a particular idea and controlling the experiment.

I actually agree with you that listening or watching to incomprehensible input isn’t a complete waste of time.
It’s something I wouldn’t be able to put up with for more than a few minutes, and certainly not something I
would recommend as a learning strategy, but I’m pretty sure that it can be quite beneficial for getting your
brain used to the sound system, intonation patterns, interaction patterns etc. The challenge will be to keep
listening and not tuning out. If you’re at 80% comprehension, you’ll be listening very attentively - and it’s great
fun, but at 10% there’s always the risk to tune out that gibberish and think about something else.

Did you write about how your daughter got to her native level in English? I would be interested to learn more,
what kind of input she got at what time, and what she did with that input… It’s always interesting to see what
kids do, they’re - at least for me - the ultimate standard in language learning :)


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