Thursday, November 03, 2005

"getting" it

In Phonology class we've been covering the most bewildering topics at a rapid pace. A recent concept, one that was incredibly hard to grasp, was the idea of abstract underlying phonemes: phonemes that exist in the mental lexicon and affect other phonological processes, but then get deleted before they can appear in the surface representation of any utterance.

The professor found an excellent way to introduce the concept of underlying phonemes, though, and I'm confident the only reason that I have some vague grasp now of what they are is because of how she introduced them. She had us look at data from French, a language that most of us have some acquaintance with. There's an underlying word-initial consonant that occurs occasionally in French, interfering with other phonological rules that apply to the determiners "le," "la," and "les." But the consonant, where it occurs, never occurs in the surface representations: its existence can be determined only by its affect on the sounds surrounding it.

This underlying abstract consonant is represented in French orthography as "h" (although "h" is also written in some words where there is no underlying consonant). Having a little background in French, it wasn't too hard for me to guess why some words were behaving differently than other words-- I knew that they were written with this silent "h."

Because I already, in a sense, knew that the "h" was in some sense there, it wasn't too hard to reach the hypothesis that it exists not only in the orthography but also in the mental lexicon. Even though I'd never considered the possibility of something like an abstract underlying phoneme before in my life, my group was basically able to hypothesize that one existed here.

That was great teaching. If the professor had simply started class with, "today I'm going to teach you about underlying abstract phonemes," I think I would have zoned out immediately. It's a really difficult concept to grasp. But by providing a class assignment in a familiar language, she basically tricked us into coming up with the concept of underlying abstraction all on our own. From there we were able to move on to less familiar examples like Andalucian Spanish, and then in the homework assignment, Lardil.

Because I'd been introduced to the concept in a familiar environment (French), I was able to approach the homework with underlying abstraction in mind and then actually use it to develop sophisticated hypotheses for a very tangled set of data.

There were too things the professor did that I'd like to be able to replicate in my own teaching:

1) when introducing a difficult concept, find something the students are familiar with

2) trick the students into figuring it out on their own-- or into realizing that they already know it, just have never expressed it in those terms before.

I imagine that if I were teaching Russian to anglophones, this is how I would introduce the concept of a case system: get the students to reflect on the difference between I and me, we and us and so forth; get them to come up with hypotheses as to what environments cause I to morph into me. Before too long I'd hope that they'd work out, on their own, a basic definition of the accusative case, which would allow me to go on and say "Good, OK, this thing that you've come up with is called the accusative case. And in Russian, it applies not only to pronouns but to all nouns," and use that as a springboard to a more sophisticated discussion of the concept of nominal inflection.

More tough for English teaching. One of the greatest challenges that English teachers face is the fact that our cultural backgrounds are far different from those of our students. This makes it very difficult for us to come up with examples that they're familiar with: we don't know what they're familiar with. But when we do find something, we need to seize and use it.

The second technique is easier: trick the students into figuring it out by themselves. I did this all the time teaching children, modeling the various uses of certain words, and watching them mimick, hypothesize, experiment, and revise their hypotheses based on my reactions. It really didn't take small children too long to figure out when to use you and when to use she, for example, even though Korean doesn't really use pronouns in the way English does. They couldn't tell me a grammatical rule to explain the difference between second- and third-person pronouns, but they had figured out how to use them correctly.

I'll continue to reflect on ways to teach difficult concepts by making them relevant, and by getting the students to work them out on their own.


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