Wednesday, August 12, 2009

thinking about rules

The answer to my last post, what else causes damage?, which was given in the first comment by Thomas, is thinking. Here are some more excerpts from Dr. Brown's book:
And, like the ‘speakers’, none of the ‘dictionary flippers’ or ‘note takers’ ever made it. We had been saying “Don’t speak! Don’t speak! Don’t speak!” We now changed this to “Don’t speak! Don’t look up words! Don’t take notes!” But over the years we found an occasional ‘non-speaker’, ‘non-dictionary-flipper’, and ‘non-note-taker’ who still didn’t make it. What else could be causing the damage?
Dr. Brown discovered the answer when he tried to learn Swatow Chinese by his new method.
What an experience! I had hoped not only to find out what it felt like but also to learn fluent Swatow. I got neither. But I got something even more valuable something I couldn’t have gotten in any other way. I found out what else could have been causing damage— what else besides the terrible four: speaking, questions, dictionaries, and notes. I avoided the terrible four faithfully, but I still failed. I had discovered the terrible fifth.
And then Dr. Brown goes on to answer Reineke's question.
You see I’m a lifetime linguist. I can’t listen to anyone speak in any language without noticing all kinds of things. After two days I had noticed that Swatow had five tones: rising, falling, high, low, and mid; and syllables ending in a sudden stop (like p, t, k, or a glottal stop) could carry only two: high and low. Then after two weeks I had noticed that all these tones turned upside down in weak position: rising changed to falling and falling to rising, high changed to low and low to high. And, of course, mid stayed mid. That was wild. How could a linguist not notice something as wild as that? And not only was I a linguist; I was the best. It would have taken other linguists months to work this out, and I got it in two weeks— without even wanting it. In fact, I was trying not to notice things like this—but I couldn’t help myself.
Sometimes, to be sure, a happening was so overpowering that it drowned out the language, and whenever this happened, I learned right. But more often I had time to notice and think, and I learned wrong. So I soon had a headful both of things that worked (overpowering happenings that drowned out the language) and things that didn’t (anything I was free to notice and think about). As an example of each, I’ll tell you how I learned the word for ‘white’ and the word for ‘hundred’.
Then he goes on to tell you about each way in two examples. In one example the learned word pops into his head whenever "one of those stories about beautiful women popped into" his head. In the other example, "The expression wasn’t tied to any special experience, so it couldn’t pop up— I had to think it up."

A few paragraphs later, he goes on to write:
Now look again at the terrible four. “Don’t speak. Don’t ask. Don’t look up words. Don’t take notes.” I wasn’t doing any of those things. A new prohibition was needed. What? It seemed obvious. Don’t think!

But wait. ‘Don’t think’ covers them all—not just the linguist’s meddling. Obviously you’ve got to think about the language for these three: asking questions, looking up words, and taking notes. But what about speaking? After the language has been built, you don’t have to think it up—it pops. But before the language has been built, it can’t pop—if you want it, you have to think it. “Don’t think about the language” covers all of the terrible four.

The terrible fifth then becomes “don’t analyze”, and the terrible five become one: “Don’t think about the language.” But there’s still something different about the fifth. While we could easily see and hear the students speak, ask questions, look up words, and take notes, we couldn’t see them analyze. I had to experience the terrible fifth myself in order to discover it. And not being able to detect it from the outside makes it all the more insidious. It explains why the occasional student who was avoiding speaking, questions, dictionaries, and notes could fail. We now have the answer to the question posed at the end of the preceding section: “What else could be causing the damage?” It’s “Don’t analyze!”
The above quotes are all in Chapter 7 of From the Outside In.


  1. I try to follow the ALG approach for Thai, but not being in Thailand I have to resort to using news clips from VoA or Radio Japan. I can create the necessary context by becoming familiar with the stories beforehand in my mother tongue or English. However, even after having watched David Long's video and read Mr. Brown's book, it's still unclear to me whether it's ok to guess at the meaning of words ("ah... this expression must mean 'industrial production'...") using my mother tongue. Actually, sometimes it's unclear whether I really go back to my mother tongue or directly to some kind of (non-verbal) mental image.
    In an ALG classroom, students also guess "ah, this word must mean 'horse'...", I suppose. Is it ok, or should we avoid it? And if we should avoid it, how does that work?
    What do you think, Keith?

  2. You need VERY interesting material. It needs to really draw you in. You can build an even better environment than the ALG classroom (minus the teacher which may be both good and bad) but you'll need heaps of material.

  3. i found something similar with my math classes...when i was in lecture, if i spent the whole time trying to make notes and look things up, then i didn't really absorb a lot of the content. The trick was to do lots of work before hand, to get immersed in the topic, and then to have closed books in class so i could have real interaction with the prof.

  4. @bakunin: The thing is, when you're learning a word this way at the beginner stages, you will hear the word so many times and probably see the object most every time too, that you won't need to think any words except the one you hear. Just keep in mind that the word might not be exactly what you think it is. And you are not trying to memorize so you can just let the words disappear. When you hear it again and see the object again, or if it is not an object you will see the same situation, and you will understand again. Just try to take a relaxed approach. As long as you are not trying to remember what something means, even though 'horse' might pop into your head when you see one, I think you will avoid any problems. If you are at the beginner stages, you'd better use audio-visual, not audio-only, material.

  5. Keith, I am extremely interested in your posts on this subject, but I just don't have enough (yet) to add to the conversation. Please forgive me while I lurk?

  6. @Catherine, thank you for visiting. Take your time. You are under no obligation to buy anything here. We sell only the highest quality goods. When you see the finished product you will not believe your ears! I always say, the product should sell itself. So feel free to do some comparison shopping before you make a purchase. We're confident you'll come back!


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