20 November 2013

Task Based Language Teaching and the Manitoba Ritz cracker

Language Teaching

A mother in Manitoba sent her children to pre-school with a warm lunch of carrots, potatoes, and meatballs. As reported in this newspaper article, the pre-school fined the mother $10 for not having included any grain in the lunch. The pre-school supplemented this lack of grain with Ritz crackers. The teachers at the pre-school were acting based on their understanding of the Canada Food Guide.

This reminds me of my dealings with the Canadian Immigration Service. I was asking them to make LingQ available as an option for immigrants who are learning Canada’s official languages. They refused and explained to me that all government financed language instruction has to conform to Task Based Language Teaching methods. Both are examples of how bureaucratic decision-making takes away choice from individual citizens.

Even if the bureaucratic decisions were better, I still believe individuals should be allowed to make their own choices. But in both cases the bureaucratic recommendations are quite unsatisfactory in my opinion.

Ritz crackers are highly processed foods that I would never feed to my children or grandchildren. Many of the recommended food choices in the Canada Food Guide are arbitrary and inappropriate.

Task Based Language Teaching is nothing more than a new language teaching fad. I have linked to the Wikipedia article explaining what is meant by this term. It is well worth reading. It is interesting that when you search Google for “task based language” there are far more pages with “task based language teaching” than “task based language learning”. The reason is that this technique is more about how teachers can control students in the classroom, rather than how language learners can learn.

Here are some excerpts:

“According to N. S. Prabhu, there are three main categories of task; information-gap, reasoning-gap, and opinion-gap.[7]

Information-gap activity, which involves a transfer of given information from one person to another – or from one form to another, or from one place to another – generally calling for the decoding or encoding of information from or into language. One example is pair work in which each member of the pair has a part of the total information (for example an incomplete picture) and attempts to convey it verbally to the other. Another example is completing a tabular representation with information available in a given piece of text. The activity often involves selection of relevant information as well, and learners may have to meet criteria of completeness and correctness in making the transfer.

Reasoning gap Reasoning-gap activity, which involves deriving some new information from given information through processes of inference, deduction, practical reasoning, or a perception of relationships or patterns. One example is working out a teacher’s timetable on the basis of given class timetables. Another is deciding what course of action is best (for example cheapest or quickest) for a given purpose and within given constraints. The activity necessarily involves comprehending and conveying information, as in information-gap activity, but the information to be conveyed is not identical with that initially comprehended. There is a piece of reasoning which connects the two.

Opinion gap Opinion-gap activity, which involves identifying and articulating a personal preference, feeling, or attitude in response to a given situation. One example is story completion; another is taking part in the discussion of a social issue. The activity may involve using factual information and formulating arguments to justify one’s opinion, but there is no objective procedure for demonstrating outcomes as right or wrong, and no reason to expect the same outcome from different individuals or on different occasions.[7]

I am totally opposed to this kind of instruction. I do not want to sit around with other learners and have teachers prescribe for me what I am supposed to pretend that I am talking about. I prefer meaningful listening, meaningful reading, and meaningful interaction with native speakers. All of this can be achieved via the Internet and doesn’t require me to attend the classroom where I am fed Ritz crackers or tasks, at the whim of a teacher.


19 November 2013

Golf and language learning – An interview with Martin Chuck

I had a chance to interview Martin Chuck, one of the most popular golf instructors on YouTube. Do you see any similarities between learning to play golf and learning languages?

12 November 2013

Word count, graded readers and fluency

How many words do we need to know? When are we fluent? How useful are graded readers? It all depends.

8 November 2013

Graded readers and word count. What do you think?


Word count and graded readers are popular talking points when it comes to language learning. There is a lively discussion thread at our LingQ forum about graded readers. This article on Wikipedia discusses the different ways of determining the readability of a text.

There is no doubt that the more known words there are in a text, the easier it is to read. However, for my language learning, that is not necessarily the overriding factor when it comes to choosing content to listen to and read. Using LingQ, I am quite happy to work my way through interesting texts with a relatively high percentage of unknown words. I am driven by my interest in the subject. I have the audio as well as an online dictionary and LingQ’s functionality to help me.

I prefer the real language, authentic content, as soon as I am able to access it. Surprisingly, often the same people who are focused on word count in graded readers also believe that less than 1000 words is enough to be conversational in a language. In reality, with less than 1000 words, the unknown words percentage in any conversation will be very high.

Personally, I find this obsession with word count a little excessive. As an indicator of difficulty, it is helpful, the way we do it at LingQ. However, using the computer and online dictionaries, it is not necessary to commit to a long program of learning with graded readers. And it simply takes too long to acquire vocabulary that way. I want the real language to learn from. No simplified Tolstoy for me.

At least that is what I think. What has been your experience?

31 October 2013

What is the major obstacle to achieving fluency in another language?

major obstacle

I will be in Arizona and California for most of the next month. November is the rainiest month in Vancouver. My wife and I often head south for the month to play some golf and visit with friends. I will try to keep the videos and blog posts going.

But I have a question. Let me know what you feel is the major obstacle you face in trying to achieve fluency in another language.

31 October 2013

How to memorize vocabulary

I don’t memorize vocabulary. I rely on exposure to the language to acquire my vocabulary. I read, and listen a lot, and work the vocabulary using flash cards with all the information on the front of the cards. Exposure works better for me and is more enjoyable than trying to memorize, but to each his/her own.

28 October 2013

Multilingualism and the brain. A conference at McGill University, Montreal

I attended a conference at McGill University in Montreal. There were many presentations about multilingualism from a linguistics and neuro-scientific perspective. I am not sure of the connection with language acquisition. Check out the website.
Videos of the conference will be posted.

22 October 2013

Learning multiple languages – Part 2

Can we learn multiple languages at the same time? I prefer not to do this, but obviously many people do like studying this way. It seems that many people like to study a second language via a third language.
I spend most of my learning time in the target language. The language of the dictionary, or of any grammatical explanations, is not that important to me, as long as it is as clear as possible. Therefore I prefer to use my own language or a language that I know well for the dictionary or for any reference material. I tend not to learn a second language through a third language, although this seems to be a popular approach with many people.
But to each his or her own!

18 October 2013

Learning multiple languages at the same time

Can we learn multiple languages at the same time? Yes, we can, but I don’t do it. I prefer to focus on one language at a time. I devote at least 80% of my learning time to my major language, and 20% to one or more others. We can all learn more than one language. We need to find the ways to do it that work best for us as individuals, in my view.

11 October 2013

Language goals and frustrations

Most people in language programs don’t achieve their goals, assuming they have some. In any case many learners, or most, eventually drop out.