Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reflections on Language Learning vs Communication

We are reviewing a Spanish program that has sent me back in time, comparing and contrasting an experience from my past with this program we are using, now. I am thinking about early autism intervention, too, and why we thought we should teach my 2-year-old the way we did at the time.

As I see and experience with my daughter the way this Spanish program (that we received in order to review) teaches Spanish, I am reminded of the Spanish classes I took in college, which were very different, and not very effective.

In college, the teacher was dry and boring. He was a quiet man, not animated at all, with no affect or enthusiasm.

We began by learning the Spanish alphabet, both the letters and blends, and the sounds each makes. I could memorize those pretty easily, probably because I was already familiar with the sounds. I was assigning a symbol to a sound I'd already learned (even though the sounds I'd learned were from my first language).

Next, we began learning nouns. I was good at learning the nouns. I could memorize nouns pretty easily, too. Woo hoo. (*sarcasm*) I could go to Mexico, Latin America, or Spain and begin naming people, places, and things. Not real helpful if I wanted to have a conversation in Spanish with someone.

You know what? After the autism regression, my daughter's first burst of language (after a couple of months on the GFCF diet) was 32 new nouns in a two-week period. (I wrote them down and counted them for the pediatrician.)

Memorizing nouns does not = reciprocity.
Memorizing nouns can get needs met.
Sure, I could make a request, as long as I knew the right noun.
But manding and requesting does not = relationship.
Getting needs met is very one-sided.

Onto verbs. We learned the root word and the conjugation rules first before ever hearing them in a sentence or using them in a sentence. Conjugating verbs to reflect a person or a group of people doing the action, making it the right tense was very confusing for me. I was constantly referring to rules in my head that I'd tried to memorize in order to correctly use a Spanish verb, and processing all of that took me forever too long to actually have a conversation. When, I wondered, would I be able to quit thinking about the darned rules and simply conjugate verbs without consciously thinking about it?

Remind you of how some programs
try to teach social skills?

When it was my turn to read a passage aloud for the teacher (and the class) to practice pronunciation, everyone was impressed. Even with my thick Southern twang, I could somehow go to a Spanish place in my mind and read the passage with almost perfect pronunciation. That still makes me smile.

If only passing Spanish class depended solely upon
appearing indistinguishable when reading a passage...

Here's a problem: I could decode the sounds and pronounce them correctly without understanding a single word I'd read. Dr. M could give me a passage well beyond my level of comprehension and I could read it aloud with almost perfect pronunciation.

Does that remind you of any
hyperlexic kids you know?

Because I knew so many nouns and roots of verbs in isolation expressively and receptively when they were written, (I could speak them and recognize them when written in text), I could translate written passages on quizzes and tests with some accuracy if you gave me a sentence or two at a time and enough time to process. The longer the exams, the less time I had to process, the more poorly I scored.

The thing that was the most difficult, the thing I hated most of all was translating spoken passages from Spanish into English. My ear and brain simply could not hear it all and process it all unless the speaker slooooooooowed way down, and that didn't happen. We were expected, as new Spanish students, to process all of the language at warp speed, almost from the get-go.

I hated going to the lab to do the listening and translating exercises and I failed (miserably) the parts of our exams where the teacher read a passage that we had to translate on the test.

"Broadband", "multi-channel" processing of the Spanish language was impossible for me. Because I was taught each channel separately, apart from one another, I could not process in "broadband".

After a year of college Spanish, I could do little more than I learned in the very beginning, label nouns in Spanish and figure out a root word of a verb. I know some adjectives here and there.

Fast forward to today: The Spanish program that we are reviewing is an immersion program, a series of videos for children, where full (and short) sentences are used in context, the verbs are already correctly conjugated, no rules to memorize, where we are learning all of the pieces simultaneously: nouns, verbs (and conjugation), adverbs, adjectives, sentence structure, pronunciation, listening, speaking, the way typically developing children learn the language that their parents speak.

I am recognizing in a new way something that I already knew. Foundations are important. Non-verbal foundations of interaction are an important base; those are the first channels of "broadband". Simultaneously learning nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, *in context* adds more layers and channels to the multi-channel processing. We learn through experience with others in relationship, not by memorizing and constantly referring to an ever-growing set of rules.

In developmental delays like autism, sometimes those foundations are ignored, and instead of giving our students lots of opportunities to learn interaction through experience with us, we give them a set of rules to memorize and refer to. We call that "social skills" training. Instead of using ourselves differently to give our children a new experience, we give them a bunch of rules to memorize and practice in "social skills groups", and we send them out in the world and hope they can remember the rules, and if they do, we call that "generalization".

I came to hate that Spanish class. I hated it because I was overwhelmed with the rules I had to memorize, rules that never became second nature. The rules were a burden, not a help.

Watching these Spanish videos (Speekee, if you're wondering) for children as part of my review crew has been a lot of fun for me, because I am learning things I never learned in that boring, out-of-context college class. Seeing the difference between two approaches in teaching/learning a foreign language is eye opening as I think about autism intervention, too.


walking said...

I'm thinking about checking these out. I think they are dovetailing nicely with what we are already doing. Do you know if they speak with a Latin American accent or Castillian or do they have a mix?

Penny said...

Tammy, they offer a two-week free trial - check it out and see if it is what you need. I do not know what accent they use. Some of the pronunciations are a tad different from what I learned (and we learned Latin American).

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