Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Language Learning for Dummies



I decided to learn some Arabic. Paltry choice of books for the purpose at Waterstones, so I bought ‘Arabic for Dummies: the fun and easy way to start speaking Arabic’. Normally I can do without the ‘For Dummies’ series and its relentless chumminess. ‘Windows for Dummies’ left me poker faced and not a lot wiser. This time I decided I would try to ignore the buddy-buddy style and concentrate on the language, but it is not easy to tune out the chirpiness, especially where it makes matters ten times more complicated than an even slightly more academic approach would. The section on pronunciation is so eager not to scare you off with technical terms that it is virtually opaque:

Name of letter: Daad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘d’ sound, the exact same sound as a Saad, except that you use a ‘d’ instead of an ‘s’.

Got that? What do you reckon a ‘deep’ /d/ sound might be? ‘Deep’ is way too subjective an adjective to describe usefully the quality of a phoneme, no more helpful here than ‘chewy’, ‘bitter’ or ‘medium-sized’ would be in its place. And how can a /d/ be ‘exactly the same’ as an /s/?

Name of letter: Saad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘s’ sound you can make if you open your mouth really wide and lower your jaw.


I’m trying to visualise this. Can you open your mouth without lowering your jaw? I think not. What you certainly cannot do is open your mouth really wide and produce anything that sounds like a /s/, ‘deep’, or ‘crisp’, or ‘even’. This is not the only contortion of the vocal tract one is required to attempt. Try this:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

You might want me to run that by you again:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

If you manage this, do please leave me a comment and explain how. I mean, you don’t need a degree in linguistics to work out that the ‘th’ in ‘those’ (a dental fricative) is phonated with the tip of the tongue brought close to the upper front teeth in order to narrow the passage for the outgoing air. So how do you ‘draw this to the back of your throat’ unless you swallow your dentures?

The writer also seems to think that English is a Romance language and tells us that in Arabic, adjectives follow nouns, ‘unlike in most Romance languages’. Is there a Romance language in which adjectives do not usually follow nouns? I do wish people would check their facts before making such pronouncements about language. I’m sure ‘Windows for Dummies’ would have been assiduously purged of technical inaccuracies before it was inflicted on the public, so why should language books get away with this sort of sloppiness?

****

About twelve years ago in Athens, I became fascinated by Albanian and began to learn it with occasional help from my kind neighbour Violetta, an ex-actress from Tirana. To start off with, I had only one little book of parallel texts, ‘Dialogë Shqip-Greqisht’ one page in Albanian, the facing page in Greek. The texts were all flat footed teach-yourself-book dialogues of the sort parodied in Ionesco’s ‘La Cantatrice Chauve’, where a Mrs Smith, in casual conversation, informs her husband what the two of them had for dinner and how many children they have, as though this were news to him. In my Albanian book two people fall into conversation on an airliner and as it goes bowling down the runway one tells the other ‘the aircraft is gaining speed’. Still, I reasoned that even if the writer lacked any ability to reproduce natural-sounding human speech, I could still get a fair amount of vocabulary from his little book, which was in any case the only one on offer at the time. There was another eccentricity that took some forgiving, though. The writer created dialogues in which, for example, a foreign visitor to pre-1990 Albania is being shown around a farming co-operative and learning of the proletarian joy that reigns among its members: ‘bujqësia po lulëzon!’ (‘agriculture is blooming!’) Then someone, perhaps the writer, perhaps the editor, had arranged the lines of the dialogues in alphabetical order according to the first letter of each line. Thus, if a dialogue opened with ‘tungjatjeta!’ (hello) and ended with ‘mirupafshim!’ (goodbye), the farewell would always precede the salutation, with the rest of the exchange at once ordered yet scrambled all around them, or between them, or above or below, depending on the letters that kicked off each line. It was incredibly frustrating to read, and all the more so because it was perhaps inspired by an addled memory of legitimate language practise tasks where scrambled dialogues are presented to be reordered, but with recognition of the need for judiciously-placed contextual clues, the limited value of the task, and the limited attention (and life) span of the learner.

American travel writer on Albanian: ‘Occasionally a French sounding word surfaces, like qen meaning dog, but otherwise Albanian is completely unlike any other language’. (My emphasis) Oh, for God’s sake… French chien and Albanian qen both derive from Latin canis. Albanian forms a single branch of the Indo-European family. It has a considerable amount of Latin-based vocabulary and its grammatical structure is unmistakably of the Indo-European stripe. So let’s have no more of this nonsense, or I shall be handing out lines and order marks.

*****

In the mid nineties a colleague and I wrote two practice test books for Greek schools. When the first book saw the light of day, we were dismayed to find that changes had been made without our permission. I had included a dialogue, based on my own experience, in which a man in a book shop is trying to find a copy of the relatively rare ‘Colloquial Albanian’ by Isa Zymberi, a book that does actually exist but somehow never made the best seller lists. Our editor had decided that a textbook with any mention of Albanian would never sell to Greek schools, and changed ‘Colloquial Albanian’ to ‘Colloquial Mexican’. Somewhere there will be teachers who suppose that it is Costas and I who don’t know that Mexicans speak Spanish and that whole gondolas of teach yourself Spanish books are to be found in any book store.

A feature of our test books was sets of questions prompting students to reflect on how they arrived at their answers to listening tests. The hope was that Greek teachers would, finally, start to focus their charges on the thought-processes that lead them to a response rather than simply rewarding them for being right or slapping them down for being wrong.* These meta-cognitive questions were a bugger to devise in such quantity, and so it was galling to find that the editor had amended some of ours to such ink-wasting banalities as ‘which is the right answer?’ Some changes were necessary for the sake of the pagination, but others seemed merely to demonstrate that editors have egos too. We learned that inaccuracies and absurdities in language textbooks are not necessarily the fault of the writer whose name appears on the cover, but may be the work of those who get to monkey about with the text once the writers are safely out of the way and it is too late for them to protest.

Teachers’ feedback on our books was positive. People thought the listening scripts were funny, nobody spotted the ‘Colloquial Mexican’ solecism, or if they did, they did not mention it. Everyone simply ignored the meta-cognitive stuff, having no idea what it was intended to accomplish.

EFL books have a short shelf life, a couple of years or so. Not only do Greek language schools get through test books the way whales get through krill, it also doesn’t take long before the photos look dated and fourteen-year-old students are unable to focus on the language because they are too busy hooting at the characters’ quaint clothes, naff trainers and clunky mobile phones. Our books are still around somewhere, many probably frayed, damp and termite-munched in third world classrooms. You can buy them on Amazon, but nobody does. Last year’s royalties: one euro and fifty cents!

(* ‘Τους δέρνεις, τους μαλώνεις, δεν κάθονται να μάθουνε...’)

3 comments:

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Can you now recommend a good dentist? I need to get my dentures from my throat...

That had me in stitches.

AV
http://netherregionoftheearthii.blogspot.com/
http://tomusarcanum.blogspot.com/
http://thingsthatfizz.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

I remember the first textbooks I was handed and told to use. Even a saint would have been driven to boredom never mind the pupils ! From what I have seen from the latest editions things really haven't changed !!Roll on the textbook revolution............

Mac

vilges suola said...

The revolution ain't going to happen - it's the teachers in Greece who need educating. Until they give up the quest for the Perfect Coursebook, it's all going to be the same old shite.

That will be all, now run along.

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