Mind your language. The language of COVID-19. The language of instruction. Language and cognition.
Hope I did not startle you with the imperative: mind your language. I do mean you personally, but I do not mean to imply that you have said something inappropriate. It’s simple: all of us should be mindful of the language we use. All the time. I know this is hard to do. I have failed miserably. Too often. It is more something to strive for, to be aware of. We are focused on What we want to say. We inform, explain, promise, declare, question, list, pray, or baptize. All by using language. We rely on our utterances when we teach, train, coach, or mentor. And it is this area I want to focus on in this blog post.
Personal confession: I have been studying language, teaching it, and teaching about it for many years. I enjoy thinking about language and texts. Taking them apart and putting them together (again). Language or the way we communicate is one of our characteristics that makes us who we are—human, so I believe. Language and thought – or more technically: cognition – are inextricably linked in many different and complex ways. And yet, we are all able to use a language we grew up with without ever having to necessarily learn about it, think about it, or reflect on it. What a luxurious gift!
So, we all got a gift. Would it not be better to take good care of that gift? One polishes it to make it shine for the joy of others. Another monitors it to make it a precise and useful instrument. And a third ensures that no injury or misunderstanding results.
And if each of us strives to do all three at least most of the time, then I would call that being mindful about how we use language. This can improve all of our social interaction, and I will focus on the role of language and how we use it when we teach, train, coach, or mentor in this series of blog posts.
For the last 30 or so years, I have been working with computers. When working with machines, input is an important concept. In the nineties, I read, heard, and thought a lot about input in the context of language learning and in – what Stephen Krashen called – language acquisition. I struggled with his input hypothesis and his no-interface hypothesis. In all discourses after that, researchers in Applied Linguistics and trained language teachers focused their attention on more applicable and theoretically better founded concepts. In other words, all quiet at the input front … until recently when I started working in the world of teaching of languages labeled less commonly taught, heritage, community … and often also – in the US – critical and strategic. Here it re-appeared; comprehensible input, the whammy of the 1970s and 1980s, is left, right, and center in these classrooms and discussions. So, how come, and why am I worried about it?
Input is a metaphor that has been borrowed from the world of machines. Machines receive input, and then, if you are lucky, they produce output. For humans, we do not talk about input when we eat, when we breathe, when we drink. Why would anybody want to do this when we listen or read? Why would language teachers conceptualize language, texts, utterances as input for their students? I really don’t know. What I do know is that my students are not machines that I need to feed with input so that they produce output. Language learners are multilingual subjects, which implies that they have – what theorists call – agency. They make their own decisions what text or utterance they take in and which ones they do not; and they decide whether to say anything and what it is they are saying. Only for a machine, some input will trigger some output.
But perhaps the meaning core of ‘comprehensible input’ is in the adjective? I am not sure. I find that ‘comprehensible’ is not very comprehensible [pun intended]. So, teachers want to expose their students to some language, which they in turn can learn; but how do teachers make these texts comprehensible?
There are two main strategies – appropriate selection and pedagogic augmentation – and neither one can just be derived from the concept of comprehensibility. Appropriate selection: Teachers select linguistic units – words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts – that are relevant to the students’ learning and their current or future life contexts, so that they are motivated to engage with them. Teachers select these linguistic units such that they optimally impact the language use of their students by selecting texts that reflect current language usage in a variety of genres, give priority to vocabulary, grammatical constructions, and communicative functions that their students will need in realistic interactions in the language they are learning. Teachers select the same building blocks – words and grammatical constructions – as frequently as is needed by their students and pay attention that these words and grammatical constructions are repeated in different contexts, that is in different places in a sentence, in different texts, in different genres, and both spoken and written. Students need to encounter these words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts repeatedly in chunks that are conducive to language learning. Sometimes pauses need to be left between words (each word is such a chunk), sometimes students need to have the chance to study a sentence word by word, sometimes a text can be better understood if read paragraph by paragraph, a video clip might have to be interrupted a couple of times, so that students can iteratively engage with each chunk.
Selecting appropriate texts is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Since most texts that teachers select contain material that is new to the students, the (linguistic) information contained in the text needs to be augmented. In other words, information needs to be added. How? Each text contains parts that are less salient, which means students – or anybody else for that matter – will find it more difficult to notice them. Well, and if we do not notice something, our chances of learning it or learning about it are pretty slim. Grammatical features such as prepositions or, in a number of languages, verb inflections are very difficult to notice because they are not always salient. Augmenting means here making them more salient. In a written text we use graphical means (underlining, color-coding, bold-face print, …) and in spoken texts we use sentence and word stress, intonation, and pauses to make the words and constructions we want students to notice stand out. Multimodality is the second important concept when it comes to augmenting texts to which language learners are exposed. When a text is presented just as such it is in one mode – printed or spoken – only. The students have to rely on only one “channel.” Providing captions for a listening text or reading aloud a text students also have in front of them gives them the same information through two “channels.” Even better if the text is accompanied by pictures or a video. This redundancy – information being given more than once – is very useful for cognitive processing and hence (language) learning, particularly if the information is in different modalities – printed, spoken, pictorial, video. As providing the information in different, complementary modalities augments the text from which the students are supposed to learn something, so does additional linguistic information. The most obvious ways of scaffolding the students’ understanding of a text are providing monolingual or bilingual glosses or captions, the use of a dictionary. The same also works for grammatical features – word morphology and syntax – with the help option to look up declension and conjugation tables. Online texts can have the additional functionality of providing the base form for each infected form. In a language like German it is difficult to distinguish between proper nouns and other nouns because they both have a capital initial letter. The opportunity of looking up who Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany, was, as opposed to looking up the word Kohl in a dictionary and finding out it means ‘cabbage’ means learners do not get distracted from the actual language learning.
Of course, there would be more that could be said about selecting and augmenting texts for learners, and other strategies can and should be used. So, is it really better to replace one phrase – comprehensible input – by a set of strategies?
selecting utterances, constructions, words which are necessary to learn, relevant to the learners’ cultural, social, and biographical contexts, and pedagogically appropriate;
selecting texts that are socially relevant and that reflect current, appropriate language usage in the speech community of the learned language;
repeating linguistic units frequently and in different textual, communicative, and genre contexts;
making the texts and smaller units teachable by chunking them appropriately, that is breaking them up into a pedagogic sequence of smaller parts;
augmenting texts by
making the words and constructions that are in the teaching focus stand out (saliency);
exposing learners to multimodal texts – combining text, picture, animation, video, gestures effectively to help them notice new information and obtain through different channels;
providing the necessary (meta-)linguistic help and scaffolding so that learners can handle the new texts successfully.
I realize it took me far more words than just a simple phrase to express what I think is necessary when exposing learners to examples of how the language they are learning is used. Well, I would think sometimes more really is more. In my experience, teachers find it much easier to apply this detailed information in their daily classroom practices. Admittedly, many of these strategies also get listed when teacher developers or trainers explain ‘comprehensible input’, but why use a machine metaphor first and potentially lead them down a garden path, when you can start with practically applicable strategies?
I had posted this on my personal website in April 2018. Now it is the last post that I am transfering to this blog. Promise: future posts will be new, now that everything has been tidied up.
She is fluent in English. I am a native speaker of German. I am not sure he speaks Pashto well.
I am not sure what any of the sentences above mean. The other term that gets thrown around in the circles in which I move – often – is language proficiency. It is a useful concept, but what does it mean?
In Applied Linguistics, proficiency is operationalized – for research, teaching, and testing and meaning getting ready to be measured transparently – as a collective variable that consists of complexity, accuracy, and fluency as are evident in spken or written texts. Each – complexity, accuracy, and fluency – are also collective variables, which means each is made up of a relatively stable configuration of smaller variables. The make-up of complexity is diversity (a larger range of vocabulary (lexical) and a larger inventory of linguistic constructions (syntactic) are more complex) and sophistication (longer words with a more elaborate morphological structure (lexical) and longer sentences with additional adjectival phrases, modifiers, and sub-clauses (syntactic) are more complex). Linguistic constructions, sentences, and texts that deviate less often and less significantly from an expected norm are more accurate. Uttered texts that contain more linguistic constructions, for example words, per time unit or task unit and that are more coherent and cohesive are perceived as more fluent by listeners and readers. Increasing complexity and fluency of learner texts normally correlate; for example, learners with a larger accessible vocabulary tend to be more fluent. On the other hand, there are trade-off effects between accuracy and complexity; when students focus on producing more complex and longer texts, they tend to make more mistakes proportionately.
Some time ago, I collaborated with my colleague Chris Brown on outlining the approach to language instruction in our short intensive language training courses. His contributions and the many discussions I have had with colleagues such as Shahnaz Ahmadeian-Fard and Farid Saydee informed my thinking and are gratefully acknowledged; shortcomings and gaps are my own. The following sketch is a slightly adapted version of an excerpt from the text that resulted from this project.
Over the years, our instructional approach has been built on two pillars: sustained student engagement and systematic language proficiency orientation. Student engagement has been achieved through lesson plans and learning processes in the classroom pursuing the strategy of gradual release of responsibility. The gradual release of responsibility follows the schema of I do > we do > you do together > you do alone and progresses in six dynamic steps: orientation, presentation, guided practice, collaborative practice, independent practice, and reflection. First, the teacher orients the students towards the learning goal(s) of the lesson, by providing a schematic conceptualization of the learning goal. In Sociocultural Theory and its pedagogic practice, Concept-based Instruction, such a schema is called SCOBA (Lantolf & Poehner, 2014). SCOBAs are multimodal, student-centered representations of the concept to be learned. Such concepts are, for example, a communicative function (greeting, introducing oneself and others), a semantic field of vocabulary (kinship terms, food and cuisine), an abstract grammatical construction (subject-verb agreement and verb conjugation, definiteness and indefiniteness), and a cultural concept (social respect and honor, a holiday tradition). SCOBAs need to be multimodal, that is, they need to incorporate two or more of print, spoken word, image, sound, animation, and video, in order to facilitate students’ cognitive understanding, to succinctly provide them with the ‘why?’ and ‘what-for?’ context, and – most importantly – to engage them successfully and to boost their intrinsic motivation. This comprehensive orientation is also important because it facilitates the students’ focusing on learning goals during the subsequent phases; this in turn enables them to notice features and facets of the language and culture, which they have not yet learned or with which they are not yet comfortable. After the orientation, the teacher can present more concrete examples of the concept. In the presentation phase the teacher models target language use and makes important features more noticeable and transparent, always engaging the students as active participants. During guided practice, students try out the new vocabulary and grammatical constructions, or they work and talk in pairs and small groups. Often this is done in direct student-teacher interaction. Throughout, the teacher provides individualized guidance, support, and feedback. More responsibility is released to the students during the collaborative-practice phase. Students interact with their peers and engage with and learn from each other. In the last practice phase, each student works independently, so that they have the opportunity to check their own knowledge, abilities, and skills. This phase or the final reflection phase can be combined with formative assessment. In the reflection phase, students publicly demonstrate their work and achievements, monitor their learning outcomes, and plan actions to further deepen their knowledge, abilities, and skills.
With all class sessions following this six-step lesson plan progression, target language use in the classroom is made increasingly possible and productive, as learners quickly become accustomed to teacher expectations, and they are able to tell for themselves if they are having success, or if they need more support. In this lesson plan structure only the first two phases – orientation and presentation – are instructor-focused. All other phases have the students at the center of the interaction in either an interpretive, interpersonal, or presentational mode, consistent with the ACTFL National Standards and recognized language teaching best practices.
Sustained, productive target language use is also achieved through a parallel progression in students’ learning activities, which is based on the dynamic phases:
reception (understanding the orientation and presentation, listening to the teacher’s explanation or feedback),
verbal imitation (repetition of teacher models, response to recasts),
material manipulation (accompanying words with associated gestures, total physical response, manipulating words and sentences by hand),
verbalization (explaining word choice or a grammatical rule while applying it in target language use, explicitly stating personal or transcultural contexts of a cultural concept),
private speech (students make explicit their planned and current language learning and language use steps only for themselves), and
inner speech (students are actively aware of their newly acquired learning material when they apply it in communicative situations).
This sequence, which again is rooted in the sociocultural theory of Vygotskian provenience, ensures that learning always moves from the social plane – student-teacher and student-student communicative interaction – to the psychological plane – the internalization of newly learned material. Instructors, and students, intertwine these two dynamic sequences to maximize learning success.
A lot of things have changed since then. We have been doing some more work on structuring the daily schedule of our intensive language training courses, we have worked on lesson plans and syllabi. But the main premises of the sketch above still stand. Their refining, adapting to different (daily) contexts, and their implementation are part of a continuous and complex process.
This exploration of a concept in teaching and pedagogy in general, I wrote in 2018 for my personal blog at matschulze.net. I am reposting it here — after some minor edits — as the first post on training, teaching, and learning.
Let’s start off with the word itself—as I often like to do. Student centeredness. A compound noun with two constituents that are both nouns. We will talk about student some other time and just accept any prior, also pre-theoretical notion of what a student is. Centeredness is, of course, derived from the past participle centered. Past participles in English are used to form the perfect tenses: past perfect (I had centered sthg. yesterday), perfect (I have centered sthg.), and future perfect (I will have centered sthg. by tomorrow). These verb forms all denote an action was (past perfect), is (perfect), or will be (future perfect) complete with a result relevant to the speaker/writer. The past participle is also used to form the passive voice (Sthg. is/was/has been/had been/will be centered). Why is it important to consider all these verb forms? Because—as all past participles—centered retains some important meaning facets from these forms, even if it is used like an adjective as in the construction student-centered. Thus, centered denotes a process of centering that has been completed in the past and the result is part of the speaker’s/writer’s reality now. In other words, whatever has been centered was not in the center before and is in the center now. Centered also retains its passiveness. So, in student-centered, students are not the actors or carriers of the verb event (the grammatical subject), they are the (passive) direct objects; they suffer the event the verb describes.
The metaphor of student centeredness thus conjures up images of a process of her/him being moved by somebody else from somewhere that is not the center. They then arrive at the center and stay there while never actively participating in the process of moving. So does the student-centered approach in language teaching suggest that teachers should move students around like pawns on a chess board? Probably not; but the problem is the metaphor does suggest that. This, I believe, has led to some misunderstandings in classroom practice. Also, nobody would want to suggest, I hope, a student-centered approach consists of or can be achieved with a single move and the student is in the center for all time. And there is another – linguistic – problem.
Center—now the noun, not the verb—is always the center of something. Yes, the student has ended up in the center, but in the center of what? The center of the classroom? The center of the universe? The center of attention? The center of a circle? The center of gravity? Okay, I am being facetious: it is neither the universe nor the circle nor gravity. Time to leave the realm of linguistics and move into didactics, the theory of teaching.
Does the student-centered approach to language teaching imply that the student should be—metaphorically speaking—in the center of the classroom? Yes, it does. As many have suggested, students should be given the most possible time to speak, to do, to practise, to act, to apply, … They need to have frequent opportunities to come to the front of the class to present, lead an activity with their fellow students, to perform, for example, a role play, … So, students being at the center of the classroom is necessary to achieve a student-centered approach, but it is most certainly not sufficient. To put it bluntly, a teacher asking students frequently to give a presentation in front of the class or even to lead a learning activity, does not make for student-centered teaching (alone).
Students also need to be at the center of attention of the teacher. When designing the curriculum, a unit, or a lesson, not the topics the teacher likes, the linguistic constructions the teacher believes to be interesting, and the facets of the language community’s culture the teacher has experienced or finds fascinating should be included, the topics, constructions, and cultural facets that the students need to grow in their development of language proficiency and cultural awareness at this stage in their learning and with their learning goals and objectives need to be included. Not the methods of instruction the teacher finds convenient and the activities they enjoy or are comfortable with should be introduced, the teaching methods that are proven to be most conducive to the students’ learning and the activities they most fruitfully engage in need to be used in the daily teaching.
Student-centered teaching is a repeated attempt grounded in reflective practice. Teachers constantly learn about the changing needs of their students, the instructional methods through which their students learn best, and the activities through which they engage best with the language and culture. To put it more holistically, everything in the process of teaching and learning (what Russians like Vygotsky call обучение and German teachers call Unterricht—the unity of teaching and learning) is appropriated, designed, or employed such that the students make optimal progress in their development of the second language and culture.
So it is both—surface and essence. With a student-centered approach, language teachers constantly strive to give center stage and prime time to students speaking, activity, practice, and performance; and more importantly, the students’ needs, their goals, and optimal achievements are first and foremost on the mind of the teacher in everything they do when learning and preparing for class, working in class, and reflecting on learning processes after class. And with this approach, students are never passive pawns and teachers can never rely solely on what they did in the past; the center and focus of all learning processes is a teacher-led collaboration with active students that never stops …
Cognitive Personal Boundaries entail how we engage with our thoughts, particularly as they relate to ourselves. In psychology, and in cognitive behavioral therapy in particular, it has come to light in recent years that we humans are prone to a phenomenon known as automatic negative thinking. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines brilliantly in his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we have an almost overriding tendency to construct entire narratives around even the most minute pieces of information. If you want to check this, pay attention to the ways in which your mind can (over)react to the way you see someone dressed, or their apparent level of cleanliness, while making your way around in public. You see one piece of information, and you build an entire story about what it means. But, how often is this story trending in a negative direction? Now, consider how much you tend to turn this potentially tremendous source of harmful cognition back toward yourself and your own actions. Having a Personal Cognitive Boundary around this entails noticing your thoughts, particularly those that seem to emerge of their own volition, and challenging their veracity/applicability, especially when they turn things in a negative direction.
If you read the prior paragraph and mostly thought “hey, good for me, my thought patterns are usually focused on positive things about myself (and others),” well, there is room to be more mindful there as well. Just as automatic negative thoughts can build corrosive, false narratives around otherwise innocuous pieces of information, automatic positive thinking, or APT, (also a recently en vogue psychological term that focuses on the benefits APT can offer) can also have its pitfalls. Do you know anyone who is able, almost without fail, to explain away and/or twist any of their thoughts or actions into part of some larger heroic/martyrized narrative about themselves and their place in the world? Have you ever done it yourself? (hint: we all have, at least once). Be very cautious of this type of thinking as well. When taken too far, it is a step down a path to something not dissimilar to malignant narcissism, which, to quote British psychoanalyst Herbert Rosenfeld, is “a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealized.” Having an appropriate Personal Cognitive Boundary will also aid you in recognizing and mitigating automatic positive thinking that goes too far, too often.
Lastly, we turn to Personal Boundaries in the interpersonal aspect. Quite simply, these Boundaries inform the way we interact with others. As you consider the interpersonal aspect of your Personal Boundaries, it may be helpful to better understand your extraversion/introversion balance. Although there are a number of trait dimensions that help define the differences between a more extraverted or introverted personality type, the simplest one for our purposes today has to do with whether you draw your renewal, strength, and energy from contact with other people, or from time spent with yourself. People often mistakenly associate extraversion as overtly skillful interactions with others, and introversion as objectively awkward, uncomfortable versions of the same. The problem with this is the attachment to what is openly observable, as I believe that extraversion and introversion are far and away more subjective, internal phenomena. Examine your own experience and begin to answer if you more frequently draw renewal, centeredness, and vitality from sustained contact with others, or from time alone. Perhaps your answer is that it varies and is most often a mix of the two things. Whatever the answer, it comes from inside you, not from some externalized set of definitions based on others’ observations of your experience. Knowing your answer on intro- and extraversion will be essential to setting your Interpersonal Boundaries.
Another consideration for defining and holding your Interpersonal Boundaries is the way that input (also known as guidance or advice) functions in your life. How much do you either offer or seek out/accept input to or from others? How much of either, or both, is unsolicited? So many of us orient ourselves as either counsel givers or seekers. In either case, what can so frequently go unnoticed is whether or not this process is mutually consensual for all involved. No matter in which direction your preferred tendencies run, if you are not aware of your ego’s role in driving your input-giving or seeking actions, you will be largely powerless before this highly important life dynamic.
One more contrast to consider when it comes to your Interpersonal Boundaries is as follows: is your purpose to be more interested, or interesting? Do you listen to others with a genuine sense of spontaneity and discovery, or are you simply waiting for the next opportunity to reassert your “self” and find the spotlight? This question is foundational to learning to do improvisational performance where, somewhat counterintuitively, being interested is far more effective than trying to be interesting. Consider your actions and motivations in this light, and see what personal understanding becomes available to you as a result.
All of the above is in service of helping you better understand your own energy and flow as it relates to your Personal Boundaries. I invite you now to spend 5-10 minutes during at least four separate days over the coming week to further examine your Personal Boundaries in their Temporal, Kinetic, Cognitive, and Interpersonal aspects. For a different kind of reflective journaling experience, make a set of quadrants by drawing an intersecting vertical and horizontal axis on a blank piece of paper. Since there is no hierarchy among the four Personal Boundary aspects, it does not matter how you label the four quadrants, other than to put one aspect in each. Use hand-written text, sketch, clip-art, or whatever motivates and resonates to represent your understanding of your Personal Boundaries in each quadrant.
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman – A wonderfully readable, yet scholarly book on the ways we think we think, and the ways our decisions show us that we actually think…
“Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman – A foundational primer on the basic concepts and perspective that comprise intelligence as an affective phenomenon and construct.
“The New Psychology of Leadership” Haslam, et al – One of the best among more recent works on how leadership and followers hip may actually function. Important insights for anyone who seeks not only to lead/influence others, but who also wants to understand why certain things work at some times, and then do not work at all at others.
“Finding Fred” by Carvell Wallace and iHeart Media – A touching and through-provoking podcast on the ways we can choose to be in the world, and the potential impact they can have on those around us, and beyond…
It is Greek, and not just to me. I am told the translation is: Everything Flows. The first one to say this was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 to c. 475 BC). He believed — as do we — that everything always changes, that we can understand ourselves and the world around us better, if we start with the premise of ever-present change. It is that change that we experience as development. Sometimes we are happy with it, sometimes — not so much. Sometimes we like the speed and direction of change, sometimes we don’t.
Heraclitus was known as the Obscure Philosopher. He apparently enjoyed playing with words, but more importantly, he believed in the unity of opposites and assumed there is some harmony in this world. Today, we capture the unity of opposites — things are plus and minus at the same time — as one part of a dialectic. [More on that in a later blog post.] It is difficult to understand and then express opposites at the same time. Helping somebody is both positive and negative simultaneously and subsequently: it is positive because the helped benefits from the help, it is negative because the help curtails, prevents, or even disables the potential for the helped to act for themselves. We are capable of self-determination — autonomy — and make our own choices; at the same time, we are always also other-determined — heteronymy: we choose to act on our want for a nice meal in a comfortable environment and might go to a restaurant. Quite determined, we hop into the car and drive off downtown. The restaurant owner might have decided to not serve dinner at 2am at night and went to bed already. Our eating habits are also determined by that and by many other decisions and choices many other people made.
So, in large part because of these tensions between opposites, because of different factors bouncing off off each other, changing, amplifying, and cancelling each other, and because of each of us determining to some extent how we are going to act at any given moment, something or other is always happening — everything always changes.
Heraclitus also said: No man ever steps in the same river twice. We use this sentence as the tag line for this site, by only changing one word: No one steps in the same river twice. In our experience and from our perspective, change from the “outside” does affect everybody the same and differently; everybody changes the same and differently—independent of our gender.
Why doesn’t anybody step in the same river twice? The river always flows; one way of looking at it is that it is not the same river water just a second later. And we also change. When we step into the same river (if this were possible), then we are not the same; we are a little older, maybe a little wiser, maybe just a little more hungry, or already wet …
Such constant change is complex in itself, and we often perceive it as such, and, when we are in the midst of it — and we often are — we find it complex and complicated to deal with this change.
We believe it is good to think about the complexity of change, to talk about it, understand it better. We don’t want to simplify change, belittle it, or reject it. Change is all around us and all within us; we might as well understand it better. In some way or another — based on the concepts in our blog post tags — we will always look at change, and not only in our blog writing.