About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sense making in language (first and second)

Ken Allen has pointed out in the past that I tend to leave rather long messages. I left the following on his blog and realized that it could stand alone as a post.

Many of us second language teachers feel that, yes, there is some difference in learning a first and second language. However, the traditional way of teaching second language was not effective because, like learning a first language, vocabulary needs context for it to be understood.

In other words, the meaning of a word with both first and second language learners is dependent on the context in which that word is learned. In first language learners and learners as a second language (those that are learning the language within the second language environment) the meaning of the word and the boundaries of that meaning are learned through experience. A child might call anything round "a ball". However, soon they discover that there are nuances in the language. "A ball" is not an orange or a circle.

Second language learners (learning in context) also have the first language to draw from. So they know that "Fruit" can describe an orange as can the name "orange" as long as they have been exposed to oranges in their own country. However, if that concept is not in their working vocabulary in their first language, then like a child just learning the language, they will learn the meaning of the words in context. I understand what a "resume" is in French from the context of use when I studied in Switzerland. I sometimes misuse it in English as we don't have an equivalent for how it is used in English. I understand the parameters of the word which would be difficult for me to articulate to someone who has not learned it in context. I learned this word much as an infant would learn this word.

The last group of language learners, learners of a language as a foreign language, only have their own understanding of a concept in their own language to work off of. Here, I would agree that they would need to have a working vocabulary based on their understanding of meaning of that word in their own context. In other words, they learn the words that they can translate directly, with the same meaning word for word.

However, learning language this way means a person is limited to only the ideas that have the same cultural meaning in both languages. This limits the language interaction between a native and non-native speaker to culturally shared values. This is why the traditional language teaching methods don't work in preparing language learners to COMMUNICATE in a foreign language.

When I taught English as a second language, we began with language learning strategies (how to learn a language) and non-verbal communication skills. We then taught commonly used phrases and had students generate their own list of vocabulary based on listening. Pronunciation was very important and these are the skills we worked on more than vocabulary building. In fact, my students were vary comfortable communicating with very few words and grammar, but good communication and pronunciation skills.

One group we were sending to the states for training was combined with groups from 6 other countries that had been trained using a more traditional method. While our group "tested" lower, they ended up translating for their fellow students and learning much more English while in the states (many returning quite fluent after 6 months training in the US). Did they have a wide variety of vocabulary and perfect grammar? No. Did they have the ability to make meaning from a situation even if they did not understand specific vocabulary? Yes.

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