More about language learning

Now that Rafi speaks Hebrew, it’s becoming clearer what parts of the language he just doesn’t understand yet. Predictably, he doesn’t get the concept of conjugating masculine and feminine verbs because that concept doesn’t exist in English. (I have visions of him being punched by some offended little boy.) Rafi also makes the classic mistake of saying “אני יש” (ani yesh) instead of “יש לי” (yesh li) (“I have,” but literally “there is to me”) even though he’s heard it the correct way a hundred times.

When I learned how to teach the Neta curriculum, the curriculum authors training us assumed that it was possible to reduce or even eliminate mistakes by modeling the correct way and not letting students make up their own sentences by translating word for word from English. But I’ve found that Rafi, who has listened more or less silently for a year, the way all children do when they learn organically, still makes the same mistakes that my high school students made, that all English speakers learning Hebrew make.

I realize that I’m comparing apples to oranges because high schoolers can understand the language structures in a left-brained way and apply the rules, unlike a preschooler who just can’t wrap his head around the idea of verbs and adjectives being masculine and feminine. I mean you can explain until you’re blue in the face but in the end what comes out of his mouth is still wrong. 

Oh wait, that’s what happens with adults too. They might understand and memorize rules of grammar, but what comes out of their mouths is still wrong.

To understand this phenomenon, you have to know a bit about how the brain works.

The brain is one giant pattern-recognition machine. We see patterns even when they’re not there (like when we confuse correlation with causation), and we do it completely unconsciously.

Although your brain can see patterns immediately, it takes time for them to become ingrained, just like developing a habit. You can recognize something is right or wrong but not be able to produce it yourself because the neural pathways for the right pattern haven’t been strengthened enough. That’s why mistakes from the primary language creep in: those neural pathways are stronger. Just think about the number of hours you spend “practicing” your native language compared to a foreign language.

When you try to shorten the process of language-learning by memorizing rules and applying them, as adults do, you run into a problem with something called cognitive burden. which refers to how many things you can hold in your short-term memory at one time, such as digits of a phone number. So when your brain is busy thinking about grammar, it can’t think about content, and vice versa. When you are feeling ill at ease, somehow your brain can’t handle as high of a cognitive burden. I experience this all the time. I’m coasting along in Hebrew until I feel nervous or upset, and then suddenly I can’t string together two words.

Hearing Rafi speak got me thinking about how students are evaluated on language learning. Students are expected to memorize rules and vocabulary, and then they get graded on whether they’ve made errors or not and how many errors they’ve made. It’s laughable! Just because they can complete a grammar exercise doesn’t mean that they have internalized the pattern enough to produce it in a stressful situation (a test).

The Neta curriculum does help relieve cognitive burden, by the way, by providing students with the content–say, a student’s daily schedule or a student talking about his or her family–instead of asking them to make up content based on their lives. Students find it boring and impersonal (because of course they really want to talk about themselves), but the exercises do work. I found that there was still a problem with grading though; the tests were ridiculously hard and half my students failed them. I don’t know about the experience of other teachers at other levels.

I guess my conclusion is that we shouldn’t grade students on grammar in the context of beginning language production. It’s fine to give a quiz on the grammar itself to see if the students have memorized the rule because learning the rules does help many students organize the patterns of a language. However, when you are asking students to produce novel sentences in writing or orally, it doesn’t make sense to penalize them for mistakes when they are just starting out learning a language.

What are you trying to evaluate anyway in a language exam at the beginning level? The students’ ability to communicate using the few words they know, or their ability to memorize the rules of grammar? If the former, ignore mistakes and determine if the meaning was clear. If the latter, test them on the rules themselves rather than their application of the rules in a situation when their brains are busy with other tasks, like producing a coherent sentence. At higher levels, when the students have had a chance to strengthen their neural pathways, then you can expect them to use grammar correctly to produce novel sentences.

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5 thoughts on “More about language learning

  1. Interesting observations! Of course you have to remember Rafi is a 4 year old, so his Hebrew won’t be flawless in any case!
    When first graders are asked to write a sentence about their trip to the zoo, you praise them for whatever they produce, you don’t downgrade them for grammar errors (though you may help them polish the final product to put on the bulletin board for parents to see.)
    The foreign language I learned most thoroughly was German, over 3 years in HS, using a LOT of language lab time. We weren’t even allowed to write it for the first 6 weeks, which annoyed me because I wanted to write stuff down to remember it. There is an unavoidable amount of study & memorization in learning a 2nd language, unfortunately…to solidify spelling, gender (German has THREE), conjugations, etc.
    I feel like when you learned Hebrew you learned a lot of words and phrases wholesale (through Torah study & songs), and the grammar came later, when you were older. That was my impression, anyway.

  2. And the concept of neural pathways explains why, when I was learning a new language in college (French, then Italian), what wanted to come out of my mouth was the LAST language I had learned. It felt like they were stored by depth! I was able to avoid English, but next in line was the previous language, which at least had more neural pathways than the one I was supposed to be learning at the time.

  3. I think we should reduce or eliminate grammar tests. Most English speakers use grammar correctly while never “learning the rules.

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