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2006-02-23 4:45 p.m.

part 1: on instructing young children about fundamental principles of psycholinguistics

I think I’ve already mentioned this, but I’m really pleased with the way my little English conversation class has progressed. They consist of a 5 year old (we’ll call him Dragon), a 7 year old (Dragon’s sister- we’ll call her Nokia), an 8 year old (RahRah), and a woman in her 60s (let’s call her Ms. M), all of whom knew virtually zero English when I started teaching them (RahRah is the quasi-exception). Recently I’ve really been seeing some of that supernatural language learning ability that kids have. It’s not always immediately visible, though. For instance, if I teach the group a set of new vocabulary and quiz them on it at the end of class, Ms. M will do just fine and the kids won’t have a clue. However, if I teach a new set of vocabulary one week, review it the next week and the week after, and then give them a pop quiz at the beginning of class on the fourth week, the kids will totally kick Ms. M’s ass. The kids take a while to get it, but once they do get it they’ve GOT IT. (Ms. M has been making gratifying progress, as well, especially considering the age at which she started, but not the spectacular leaps that the kids are making.)

Yesterday I asked Nokia, “What did you see yesterday?” With very little delay, she said, “I saw a table yesterday” with beautiful pronunciation. I was surprised and impressed and happy and so pleased. Most of my middle school kids, for instance, would likely not remember to put “see” into past tense, and virtually every Japanese person I’ve ever taught (not to mention the Japanese teachers of English I’ve known) would not remember to put an article before “table” and would likely choose the wrong one even if they did. I’d have to review article usage beforehand if they were to have much chance of saying it right. Oftentimes with adults, even if I clearly state “I saw A table yesterday” and have them say it back to me, they will still say “I saw table yesterday,” no matter how many times I have them repeat it. Their linguistic conditioning just seems to force them to see the article as optional if not completely unnecessary and devoid of any meaning. In the case of Nokia, though, while we had reviewed the past tense of “see” that day, we hadn’t discussed articles (and we haven’t discussed them that much to begin with- I certainly haven’t given them a formal explanation- though I have mentioned it on several occasions). I was absolutely amazed when she spouted off that beautiful sentence.

And it is beautiful to hear a sentence like that. We have this ingrained mechanism in us that makes us cringe slightly when something ungrammatical, like “I saw table yesterday,” is said in our native language, and in teaching English as a second language you’re basically in cringe mode by default. That just makes it all the more refreshing and wonderful when a student says something that makes the subconscious grammar nazi go “Ding ding ding! Correct!”

All the kids have been surprising me like that lately. Yesterday I asked Dragon “What is your favorite animal?” and without delay he responded “I like dinosaurs!” How many teenage or adult Japanese people would think (or remember) to make “dinosaur” plural? (How many adult Japanese people know the word “dinosaur?”) Virtually none, which is another of those constant cringes that seems to keep popping up no matter how many times you correct it. It’s just amazing that he mastered it so quickly. I mean, if I were to explain to him in Japanese what he’s done, saying, “Child! Do you realize what you have just accomplished? You have understood that when speaking of the concept “dinosaur” in the general sense, and not of a specific dinosaur, that you must use the plural, “dinosaurs,” and not the singular, “dinosaur!” Not only that, but you have done it effortlessly and without any prompting! Do you realize how many Japanese people two, three, four, even fifteen or twenty times your age are completely incapable of doing this? You’re a genius, a prodigy!” he would have no clue what I was talking about. But the thing is, in a way he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He is a genius, and all children are.

Being the most generally studious, RahRah’s probably the best of the three, but sometimes Nokia manages to outshine her. RahRah’s making good progress towards actually being able to read. Nokia knows the alphabet and most of the sounds of the letters, and Dragon is on the verge of knowing the whole alphabet. After class yesterday, an adult who had just found out they were studying English asked them how to say samui in English, and they all immediately shouted out “Cold!” I was so proud of them!

Their pronunciation is getting really good, too. They’re certainly the best of all my students at that. In fact, they’re getting pretty near the best pronunciation I’ve ever seen from a native Japanese speaker. They do much better than most of the Japanese English teachers I know. (And Ms. M is pretty much hopeless, unfortunately.)

It’s not always easy to teach them, though. RahRah is an awesome student, but Dragon (and to a lesser extent Nokia) has zero attention span, zero patience, and zero ability to sit still and be quiet. He’s always interrupting and he has to shout everything he says. I mean, that’s just the way that kids are, so it’s pointless to get angry with him about it (not to mention he’s just so happy and enthusiastic it’s impossible to stay mad at him for long), but it’s so annoying sometimes. But last night I finally hit on a pretty good solution, which is similar to a trick my mother used to use on us when we were little to get us to behave at the grandparents’ house. I brought candy to class, and at the beginning I told them that if they worked hard and paid attention, I’d give them candy at the end. It worked great. Certainly Dragon wasn’t transformed into a little study machine, but he was definitely trying. (At the end I made him tell me he tried hard before I gave him the candy, though.) I’m quite confident, both from my experiences as a child and my experiences working with children as an adult, that positive reinforcement is the way to go.

These three kids are the main, perhaps the only, work related reason I would want to stay on the Rock for another year (besides getting paid lots of money to do virtually nothing, of course). I feel like they’ve just barely started to get that mental/neurological foundation where they have something of an intuitive feeling for how English works, a feeling that could be nurtured into real fluency. Their collection of vocabulary and grammar patterns is still fairly limited, but I feel like they’re on the verge of rapid progress. I feel like if I could keep spending 90 minutes a week working with them like this until, say, they graduated from middle school, they would be truly jaw-droppingly good at English by the time they finished. In fact, if I stayed here that long I could probably start them on the middle school English textbooks in another year or two. (It’s kind of a shame that so many educational systems wait till middle or high school to start serious foreign language education.)

Obviously that’s not going to happen. I’ll be leaving in about five months, and it’s too late to change my mind about that even if I wanted to. What makes me more depressed is that, due to the merger with Bigger City, it’s starting to look like no one will replace me on The Rock. Their weekly 90 minutes of English class will probably end when I leave. I hope I will have helped them build enough of a foundation that it will prove useful when they start studying English more formally in middle school, but… There’s a long time between now and then. I’m worried they’ll forget. (And that’s a legitimate worry. My aunt spoke fluent French as child- she spoke French better than she spoke English- but she doesn’t speak a word now. My grandfather was the same with Czech (though he remembered it all just before dying of brain cancer), and I knew another JET last year who was the same with Japanese.) I’m worried they’ll start copying the English pronunciation of the Japanese adults around them and lose their beautiful way of speaking.

I’m extremely fond of these kids as individuals, as well. They’re just so cool. I’m going to miss them a lot when I leave.

Last night, at a time when all the Japanese adults were out of the room, I assumed a conspiratorial air and gave them a little talk. I told them never to copy the grown-ups’ English. Grown-ups can’t pronounce English correctly; only children can. They should copy me, and they should copy other native English speakers, but never copy Japanese grown-ups. I told them that if, after I’m gone, the way other Japanese people pronounce English is different from the way they (my three kids) think it should be pronounced, then they should ignore the other pronunciations and trust their own feeling for how it should be said. I and other native speakers are the ultimate authority, but after people like me, those three kids know better than just about anyone else how things should really be pronounced.

They asked me how it could be that children are so good at pronunciation and grown-ups are not, since this is obviously a big exception to the general rule of grown-up superiority. I told them that it’s because children’s heads are made to be good at it. Babies have no language, but they have to learn one to be good human beings. That’s why children are so good at it. But once they become adults they can’t do it well anymore. Grown-ups’ heads are made to learn other things. As an example, I asked them if they thought it would be a good idea to copy me if they wanted to learn how to pronounce Japanese. They all immediately agreed that it would not. I have been practicing English since I was a small child, so my English pronunciation is perfect. But I started practicing Japanese as a grown-up, so my Japanese pronunciation will never be perfect (despite the fact that I’ve been practicing Japanese pronunciation longer than Dragon has been alive). As children, they should copy my English pronunciation but not my Japanese pronunciation. In the same way, they should copy the Japanese pronunciation of the other grown-ups, but not their English pronunciation.

I know when I was a kid, it would have given me great pleasure to know there was something I could do infinitely better than a grown-up, that there is at least one thing that I should never trust them to know better than me. I hope my talk made an impression on them. I hope they remember.

It’s a little galling to me to admit that my Japanese pronunciation is imperfect and that my kids were immediately willing to point this out to me, but that’s the way these things are. Nokia actually tossed me a bone when I said my Japanese pronunciation is bad. She said, “But my mom says your pronunciation is good!” Aw, thanks, sweetie. But what your mom means by that is that my pronunciation is good compared to other foreigners. Isn’t my Japanese pronunciation bad compared to Japanese people? She agreed that it was. Related to that, every once in a while WTF will say, “Wow! You sounded just like a Japanese person when you said that!” While that’s a compliment, the implication is that the vast majority of the time I don’t sound Japanese at all. [sigh]

The thing is, most of the time I can actually hear the difference between the way I say it and the way the Japanese do, which is a lot better than most second language speakers can manage and is probably why my pronunciation is relatively quite good. When I listen to recordings of myself speaking Japanese my gaijin accent is crystal clear to me. I know how it’s supposed to sound, but I just can’t get my mouth to do it. Most of the sounds in Japanese have close analogs in English, which is why English speakers tend to be extremely lazy about their Japanese pronunciation. But the way the Japanese move their mouths when they speak Japanese is completely different from the way we move our mouths when we speak English. They barely move their mouths at all, whereas speaking proper English requires a great deal of mouth (including lip, tongue, and jaw) movement. If you hold a pen between your lips, such that you are unable to move your lips when you speak, and then try to speak Japanese, it will be a little fuzzy but still perfectly understandable. Try to do the same thing with English, though, and you can produce only gibberish. When you’re used to speaking the Japanese way or the English way, it’s extremely unnatural to try doing it the other way (though it’s much easier to go English to Japanese, which mostly involves toning down and constricting your natural movements, than it is to go Japanese to English, which involves making all kinds of big crazy movements that you’ve never used before).

Anyway… One take home lesson from my experience with these kids is that, even if I stayed in Japan and married a woman who doesn’t speak English, my kids would still have a good shot at fair fluency if I took the time to work with them. It’s also encouraging that I seem to find that kind of work fairly rewarding.

Oh, incidentally, if you’re interested in these sorts of things- the way children learn language and the way the human brain handles language, generally- I highly recommend The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker. It was originally recommended to me by the great Borogoves, and it’s one of the most valuable nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It taught me how to think about language.

Funny. This conversation class seems to have become my own personal psycholinguistics laboratory.

the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,


P.S. Here’s a Japanese translation of Jabberwocky. (Is it weird that I now find Japanese much harder to read when it’s written in Roman letters than when it’s written in Japanese? Actually, now that I look at this... I could totally do a better job than this. Hmm. A challenge.)