Learning


Can she still speak Czech?

czech-lion

 

Almost 60 years ago I got to know a Czech woman, Alina, quite well. She lived in a South Wales mining town, Mountain Ash, where I frequently went to stay with an aunt and uncle. Alina and her husband had become good friends with my relatives and though they were all much older than me – I was about 14 at that time – they included me as an equal in their conversations.

I learnt some of Alina’s history – part of it was quite dramatic. In 1951, when she was about 20, she escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. It was a winter night and  as she crossed the frontier  she could hear the boarder guards and their dogs searching for people. The guides disappeared, abandoning her alone in in the dark and the snow. Alina lay down and waited. A dog found her… and licked her face. Alina loved animals and maybe the dog was sensitive to that. Anyway, it didn’t bark or betray her presence.

Eventually, she made her way to Britain. Alina had been studying medicine in Czechoslovakia but in Britain she became a nurse. One of her patients was a Welshman, Alun. They married and settled in  Mountain Ash.

I wasn’t a language teacher, or even thinking of becoming one at the time, but I was curious about the Czech language and asked Alina to say something in Czech. With difficulty, she managed to say the equivalent of “Hello”, “Yes” and “No”. But when I asked her to say some sentences, she tried but was unable to do so: “I’ve forgotten all my Czech.” I was amazed that it was possible to forget one’s native language. At that time, there were no other Czechs in the town (and probably not in the whole of Wales) so she didn’t speak Czech because there was nobody to speak Czech with, but I hadn’t imaged she couldn’t. But that was what she felt.

Shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 she went back to visit her family. For the first couple of days she was able to understand most of what was said around her but not to speak. And then suddenly she could. Nearly all her Czech came back though she hadn’t used it for 40 years. Her family and friends in Czechoslovakia said she sounded a bit funny “like an old film”. She didn’t stay long enough to update her Czech but, if she’s still alive, I am sure she can still speak the Czech of her youth. After my aunt and uncle died (they were a lot older than Alina) I stopped going to Mountain Ash and lost touch with Alun and Alina.

The story stayed at the back of my mind for years because I was puzzled as to why Alina said she’d forgotten her Czech but later demonstrated she could still speak it.

Then I came across Caleb Gattegno’s distinction between “memory” and “retention”.

As I understand it, memorising information costs the learner a lot of energy to make arbitrary elements stick together. For example, the names of objects, places and people. This is part of learning a language but just a small part because only a few such words are necessary to master a language. If they are not used regularly, these words may be forgotten.

By the age of 5 all normal children (not deaf or brain damaged) are fluent in the language of their environment but that’s not because they’ve acquired a lot of words. They’ve learnt more important things. They can put the words they know into sentences with the correct grammar and say them with the correct rhythm and intonation. (By “correct”, I mean the way their family and other people around them do it.) They retain this part of the language with practically no effort – just keeping their eyes open and paying attention to what they see and hear; both the situation and the sounds associated with it. Sound and light are forms of energy to which we are naturally receptive. They carry information in the same way the water a sponge absorbs contains food. Human beings are information sponges. What is learnt this way can never be forgotten because it was never memorised in the first place.

Several of my older relatives suffered from Alzhiemer’s Disease. It was clear which parts of the language they had memorised because little by little they forgot them. They forgot the names of uncommon objects and places they never visited, and then the names of people they didn’t know very well and eventually the names of their spouse and children. But what they could say, they said correctly with the grammar and accent they’d always had.

If Alina is still alive, she’ll be in her nineties. Unless she has completely lost her power of speech, I’m sure she can still speak Czech.


If you’re interested to know more about Gattegno’s distinction between Memory and Retention it is discussed by Piers Messum and Roslyn Young on YouTube: The Silent Way, part 4c: Memory and retention; acquaintance

You could also read Caleb Gattegno on “Memory and Retention, The Science of Education Part 1, Ch 5, p153. It’s free online on Slideshare. But, be warned, Gattegno is not an easy read.

 


No coursebooks, no texts, no “tasks”

no coursebooks

I must be the slowest blogger in the world. Is there somewhere I can get a badge for it?

Anyway, after several months I’ve just finished this post about what is maybe no longer a hot topic.

A lot has been written recently on ELT / EFL blogs mainly attacking, but also defending, general English coursebooks. However, both attackers and defenders seem to share the same underlying conception of how languages are learnt: input in the form of texts, written or aural, leads to spoken output. This transmissive view of learning is not the only one and is not the one I adhere to. (Read more…)


Learning to open a door   Recently updated !

learning to open a door

A dog learning to open a door

On the 8th of June I watched Tyson Seburn’s video of his dog learning to open a door to get a toy.

A number of things struck me.

1) at first the dog, Lou, tries to squeeze through the gap but it’s not wide enough
2) however the door does open just a tiny bit more
3) at 0:31 the dog puts its forepaw on the outside of the door but doesn’t really pull the door towards itself. However, the door moves a little
4) then the man watching and encouraging the dog (?Tyson) moves the toy closer to the gap – 1:12
5) this stimulates the dog to greater activity and it puts its head through the gap, grabs the ball and retreats into the other room – 1:22
6) the man continues to call the dog which finally pushes its whole body through the gap – 1:42

How I interpret the dog story

Lou seems to be a young dog – possibly trying to get through a door left ajar for the first time. If it has had experience of other “gaps” they will not have moved in response to its trying to push through. Doors on well-oiled hinges are different – which we know from experience but a young dog doesn’t.

Lou works on the principle of “trial and error”: alternately patting the the wall and the door with its forepaws, jumping up at the wall near the door (in the inside room), pushing its nose under the door and maybe other things we can’t see from our side of the door.

By moving the toy closer the man both makes the dog more eager to get the toy and makes the task a little easier. Lou puts more energy into trying to get the toy than before and moves the door enough to get its head and shoulders through the gap.

Having got the toy, the dog loses interest in it – it drops it inside the room and returns to the door to try to get its whole self through. It does this quickly and easily – I would say, demonstrating a transfer from the first learning experience.

A cat learning to open a door

(Read more…)


A lesson in trust

 

What could be more weird than a language teacher who almost never speaks in class? Maybe a dancing teacher who can’t dance.

That’s what I did many years ago. The lesson was recorded and a kind person transcribed it but I’ve only now translated it into English and put it on line here: A Dance Lesson.  The lesson couldn’t have taken place if my student (and friend) Christiane Rozet hadn’t trusted me and I hadn’t trusted her. It also helped that we both adhered to the same conception of how people learn and what the teacher’s role is.

Most of my professional life was spent quite otherwise: teaching a skill I do master myself. I’m a native-speaker of English who is lucky enough to both speak with a variant of RP and to write Standard English with very few hesitations. I also know quite a lot about the language: grammar, phonology, history, etc. Over the years, I’ve picked up hundreds of pedagogical techniques for “getting across” various aspects of the language. But all that can be a hindrance to being simply present to a particular student and responding to their needs “here and now”. Choosing to “teach” a subject about which I know next to nothing freed me from all that irrelevant baggage. It was scary but also exhilarating.
(Read more…)


A Dance Lesson

The following is a transcript of a moment during a weekend workshop for teachers, which took place on December 14, 1991 in Besançon, France.

N. B.
– Christiane Rozet (CR) attended dance lessons with François Malkovsky for about 20 years
– Glenys Hanson (GH) has no experience with this or any kind of dance.
– X, CA, RY and SB are other participants.

****

Can we teach a skill we don’t possess ourselves?

After a long silence and in connection with the subject of study (which was “Can we be a teacher in an area if we are not ourselves experts in the field”), Glenys said ” For example, could I give Christiane a dance lesson? ”

(Silence)

GH: Because when I was thinking about what I would do, what came to me was not “What do I know about dancing?” but “If I look at  Christiane dancing, how can I know where her problems are? What should I do to help her progress? ” I think she can show me the way.
X: Mutual trust is very important.
GH: Yes, and I felt ……

– After a break –

The problems

GH: So you said you know where your problems are.
CR: Yes, I know a number of problems, yes.
GH: So what are they? (Silence)
CR: I have to choose one. Something a bit general …. (long pause) Well, let’s work on the use of body weight and the shifting of the centre of gravity.

The right time

GH: And where is the problem?
CR: The problem is that in some exercises especially, but everywhere … I can’t or I do not know how, I don’t manage to… I know I have to do two things … to correctly displace my centre of gravity: either I don’t do it at the right time, or I don’t do it enough.
GH: And how do you know it’s not the right time?
CR: Because I get to the end of my gesture after the music.
GH: And you feel the gesture is not with the music.
CR: Because I have to make an effort I shouldn’t need to… (inaudible)
GH: And are there times when you do it well?
CR: Yes, I feel that it’s almost that.
GH: And when you see someone else do it, do you recognize it?
CR: Not always.
GH: But when it’s you yourself who do it, do you recognize it?
CR: Mmmm.
GH: How do you … (inaudible)
CR: If it’s in a turning movement, because I get dizzy.
GH: If it is not done properly?
CR: If it is not done properly.
GH: So your sense of balance tells you.
CR: Yes, because, as I said, I’m behind the music.
GH: I don’t understand.
CR: I have to make an effort to catch up.
GH: Ah! In another movement!
CR: I have to cheat, you see.
GH: Is it something that often occurs when you dance, or is it all the time,
or is it ….?
CR: Oh, it’s quite often.

Ways of walking

GH: And the other times? Your centre of gravity is it where it should be?
CR: In dance, you mean?
GH: Yes.
CR: Yes, that can happen, yes.

(silence)

GH: And when you walk normally, without dancing, where is your centre of gravity?
CR: Hmmmmm. I use it a badly.
GH: And how do you know that?
CR: I know that because I know I’m not in the ideal position, if you like, for the type of dance I do.
GH: What makes you say that?
CR: Well … I know because I’ve been told, I know because when I see myself walking, if I look at myself in the mirror, it’s awful. If I see myself filmed I know it’s not right, Three quarters of the time I walk without thinking about what’s going on, so I’m not aware of it. If I have an image myself walking.
GH: But what is it….. I’ve seen you walk and there was nothing specially shocking to me.
CR: But when Malko saw me walk, he would tear out his hair!.
GH: Let me see.
CR: Yes, but if I walk in front of you, knowing you’re all looking at me, I’ll change what I do.
GH: No, but what is there to see in your way of walking that you see and I don’t?
CR: My legs do too much work. (Silence) There’s not enough fluidity in my spine.
CA: But if you pay attention, is it the same?
CR: I can fix some things, yes. I know that if I walk into a dance class, I don’t walk as I walk in the street.
GH: (silence) How many ways of walking do you have?
CR: (silence) How many…, I don’t know … I have a way of walking empty handed, a way of walking if I carry things, a way of walking on days when things are going well, I have no discomfort, There’s a way of walking in a dance class, a way of walking because I have to move fast to tell a colleague about something … I don’t know, there are an infinite number of ways.

Movements of the centre of gravity

GH: Is your centre of gravity the same in all these cases? Can you describe how it changes?
(Silence)
CR: If I carry heavy things, shopping bags, there’s a blockage in my shoulders, in the movement of the spine. I move a lot less well. In that situation, I really walk with my legs, only with my legs. If I walk and I’m in a hurry, well, I use … (inaudible word) my centre of gravity, Otherwise I wouldn’t get there. If I’m in a dance class, I’ll be careful ……….. If I walk down the street thinking about something else … spontaneously, it’s not great.
GH: When you say “not great”, that means …
CR: That I won’t use my centre of gravity enough. I’ll let myself get blocked.
GH: Do you know people who walk less well than you?
CR: Yes.
GH: And what do they do?
CR: They’re even stiffer than me.
GH: Can show us how someone who walks less well than you does it?
CR: Than me? (Laughs) Like soldiers marching. (She demonstrates.)
RY: You do it very well, all the same.
(Inaudible: laughter and comments of the other participants).
SB: Do you see anything else in the process, other than your legs and your spine?
CR: Yes. The whole body is involved …….
SB: And in particular?
CR: In particular,  the situating of my centre of gravity, and then the fluidity of movement, ….. the functioning of all the joints.
SB: What are you present to …… where is your attention when you try to walk well?
CR: There at the level of the solar plexus (she points).
GH: And when you walk well, where your is attention
CR: When I walk well? I don’t know if I can walk well, let’s say when I walk less badly. I want to say it is centred there (she points to her solar plexus), but it’s …… everywhere.
GH: When you try, it’s more centred there, but when you succeed it is more diffuse.
CR:. …… (Inaudible) it’s  spread out. It resonates everywhere.

Visualising yourself

GH: (silence) Can you see that when you make a move correctly?
CR: Mmmm! Yes, more or less, not for all the movements, but for some.
GH: If you take a given movement, when you are visualizing yourself, are you visualizing yourself from the inside or the outside?
CR: (silence) I can do both ……. I’m pretty much on the outside.
GH: I used the word “see”, but can you evoke yourself in non-visual ways – such as sensations, the warmth of your body… Is it is the same everywhere in your body at that moment?
CR: Wait a minute. I’ll choose a particular movement and see what happens. (She does a movement.) Mmmm! It’s not the same. I get the impression that if the movement is successful there is more heat in the extremities, in the hands.
GH: Can you evoke the muscle tension in different parts of your body? In that same movement?

Cut in two

CR: (silence) It’s easy in the lower part of my body, from the pelvis to the legs ….. (inaudible).
GH: What do you do with your tongue? At that moment is it tense or relaxed?
CR: If the movement is successful, it’s relaxed.
GH: And what parts are tense?
CR: (silence) I’m really aware, in evocation, of the lower part of my body. It’s odd, because I have a problem in the lower back, as if I was cut in half, you see! The problem is there, I really feel cut cut in two there..
GH: You feel what? Is it tension, is it, …
CR: I’m aware of my legs, I’m aware of my leg muscles, I’m aware of the position of my pelvis, I’m not so aware of my trunk, a little of the arms, but I’m much less aware of the upper part of my torso.
GH: And if you visualize yourself from the outside, is it the same? Can you visualize better …..
CR: Mmm! It’s complex …… a while ago it was a bit more complex and much more … global. From the outside I can be everywhere at once.
GH: Would you like to do this movement now?
CR: Of course. This is the one. (She does a dance movement.)
GH: Is what you did exactly as your …….? (end of the recording)

****

Editor’s note:

Seven months later, we asked Christiane what was left of this lesson:

CR: I was very surprised to have made discoveries with Glenys which I never managed with Malko. In particular, I had lots of insights about my centre of gravity. Now I know the way to go if I want, for example, to succeed in the movement worked on during the lesson with Glenys.

Transcription of the French recording: Lois Rose
Translation into English: Glenys Hanson

© Glenys Hanson, Lois Rose, Christiane Rozet. The Science of Education in Questions, N° 7, June, 1992, Besançon, France.

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“A dance lesson”  is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.