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Initial Thoughts on the Four Functions Diagram


I would like to give you today some initial thoughts on the diagram, and to do that I’m going back to a simplified form of the diagram without the flows included as yet.

langfunc2

This is just to get a clearer image of the base ideas before we get onto the various conclusions that can be drawn from it, when we will go back to the diagram including the arrows and boxes showing the auditory and the visual routes of progressing from reading to speaking.

For today I would like to offer for your consideration that whatever we do, whatever applications we use language for, for instance counting, swearing, singing, praying, shopping, skyping, reciting poems, selecting food from menus, asking the waiter what he recommends or chatting up Paul Pimsleur‘s native speaker female on the bus (the way all his courses seem to start), all these various applications and whatever others you can think of, are all based on one or more of the above gerunds: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Therefore every linguistic activity can be reduced to these four functions or skills, and the mastering of each of these skills is essential for a full ability to apply the language in all possible situations.

When we talk about “language”, we refer of course to the tongue – the words language and tongue are connected, and people tend to consider that speaking is the gold standard. “How many languages do you speak?” is the question we hear. Only people who are a bit more thoughtful ask how many languages do you read, write, listen well in and speak, however there are CV formats which do ask precisely that format. If you want to  submit a CV in World Bank format, for instance (this is one of the industrial standards when tendering for public sector work, in case any readers haven’t come across it) you are supposed to make mention of reading, writing and speaking, not necessarily listening.  If you use the Europass format you’ll see from the CV templates available here, that you are expected to give yourself a grade from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which defines what you’re supposed to be able to do to be an A1, an A2, a B1 or a B2, or in the end a C1 or C2. But you have to grade yourself on “Understanding” which covers both reading and listening, on “Speaking” which is divided into spoken interaction and production, but whichever way you look at that it’s still speaking, and finally on writing, which isn’t broken down further, but of course could be when it comes to languages like Chinese and Japanese – whether a person can only write pinyin or kana or if they can go the whole way and know the characters and word combinations which would be known at a certain level of education in the school curricula of the countries involved.

With the above I hope to have introduced the idea that these basic four functions are common to whatever we do with language and underlie everything we do, even though people commonly talk about “speaking” a language.

What are the relations between these four? We already saw above that the EU’s great minds grouped reading and listening together as “Understanding”. Obviously that’s true, but I don’t prefer to regard it that way. One needs understanding in order to speak and write also, so more strictly the distinction should be drawn that when I listen or read I am the passive recipient of language and when I speak or write I am the active generator of the language, unless I am simply copying what I have just read or heard.

Clearly it is easier to be the passive recipient of language that to generate it actively. If you do not have passive knowledge then even reading or listening with understanding will not be possible, but you don’t need to be in a particularly active state to do it. Also some degree of uncertainty as to which registers of words to use or the grammatical niceties may not necessarily block understanding, as context can be the guide and for listening intonation will guide – in the case of face-to-face listening body language also provides a lot of guidance and still as for reading you have context. Listening despite all that can be harder than just reading since you don’t control the speed of input. Not unless you have a recording with a pause button and privacy to listen (maybe with headphones or alone) so that you can repeat or slow down a listening piece all you need. In this case the degree of difficulty between listening and reading is more blurred. Listening presents issues if you have a speaker with an unusual accent or a speech impediment, just as reading presents difficulties when reading the work of someone partially illiterate, but for the purposes of our discussion here let us consider that all the material we would be dealing with is standard language of an adequate quality.

In a sense then we can look at reading as the passive partner of writing, writing being understood as either handwriting or on a keyboard, or on any of the input methods on a mobile device – maybe even voice recognition which blurs the distinction between speaking and writing, but I would class it for our purposes as writing rather than speaking.

Likewise speaking and listening are an active/passive pairing. They have in common that they don’t involve the written word, and that someone with no literacy who is a native speaker of the language could also take part. Normally conversations take place in which people take turns in speaking and listening, or in chatrooms in reading and writing. The very term “chatroom” shows how readily we can transfer the idea of speaking and listening to writing and reading respectively. We think of ourselves as “chatting” to people when not a decibel is heard in terms of auditory noise beyond the clicking of the keys on our keyboards. It’s also not uncommon given today’s technology to find one’sself in conversations with people who are sorting out their microphones where one side is talking and the other writing. This is not unusual in conventional settings either if someone is mute or has lost their voice, but can hear. People proficient in all four skills can naturally feel reading coming in as an automatic substitute for listening and writing for speaking, where the sound-based pair are not available. These days, when someone in an online exchange tells us some bad or good news, we might naturally say “I am sorry/glad to hear that”, even though we only read it, and if the other person were to even raise an eyebrow it would be either taken as an attempt at humour or as an excess of pedantry.

Allow me to bring in one spiritual dimension just for one paragraph – those not liking it can skip to the next one.  The Bible (Romans 10:17) says “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” –  this clearly shows that the hearing is something that is read. So the Bible itself puts hearing and reading on a parity. When we consider the phrase “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5 v 7) the fact that reading does involve sight rather than the sense of hearing is not conflicting, because the act of reading is like listening or hearing but by using our eyes. The “sight” which the Bible places in apposition to faith in many places is the “seeing” of experimenting. Instead of taking a promise from the Divine revelation on trust needing to probe it and see if it the case by means of experimentation. That’s not the same as testing one scripture against other scriptures, which is generally shown in the Bible itself to be the correct way to understand scriptures.

So we have two active/passive pairs, one involving an aural/oral convention and the other eyes and hands with symbols. However, these things are heavily interconnected, and can cross over. A person reading in a foreign language on their own will usually “hear” what they are saying with a kind of “inner ear” – when we are young we start out by reading aloud and are led gradually to “read in our heads” at which point we are invited to allow our voice to continue in the head, but unuttered by the organs of speech. In due course this may become a voice doing accents or having a quality that we cannot even imitate with our own voice, as we imagine the voice of the speaker.  However in the main one is limited to the voices which one might be able to make a fair attempt at imitating oneself, those of us who are at all inclined to do imitations.

In this way, the act of reading and the development of that inner voice can directly influence speaking, although on my diagram I have not drawn or even allowed for a direct route between reading and speaking, as one will never develop this inner voice from reading alone without the opportunity to listen, and I have come more and more to the view that  the more one “front loads”the listening aspects in a language learning programme, the better this effect works. That’s one of the reasons I now recommend doing audio-only, listening based courses prior to any of the reading and writing required by the Goldlist method. There may be only 10% of the material you need, but it makes perfect sense to do this part right at the start, and that’s also consistent with the way we learn the first language – we have heard it all before we ever try to write it or read it.

That’s all I’ve prepared for today’s article, but I have more to say and we’ll get onto that  during the week. In the meantime your comments are as ever most welcome.

True to Type?


Photo of keyboard and pen

The pen is mightier than the board

Over on YouTube this morning, a viewer called Fightingnate commented on the  second Goldlist film  with the following very good question:

How do you not think you use muscle memory for typing on a keyboard? how do you think some people can type 100 wpm? Why do you think there are typing lessons and programs? Typing (if you type correctly and efficiently) requires just as much memory as writing.

I knew immediately that the answer to this question was going to go well beyond 500 letters (more than 500 words, for that matter) so I left there a request to look the answer up here and I hope the asker and some others who are interested will read it here, and also commenting at length of desired is easier here, as long as you have a wordpress account, or have something like facebook or one of the other methods for logging in here.

I am ready to admit that there are memory functions associated with typing. It’s a perfectly valid observation that there are lessons and programs to learn typing which certainly require the use of memory, including long-term memory and the long-term memory will certainly be involved in learning to type.

Whether it “requires just as much memory as writing” as you claim I would suggest is an unfounded statement. It may be true or it may not be, I am uncertain that it can even be measured reliably. However what I would say is that even if typing is more demanding on the memory than stylus writing is, that still wouldn’t make it optimal for language learning to the long-term memory.

In a sense you might take as an analogy that using GPS will still engage your memory, but working things out with an old fashioned map may be a more natural way of remembering how to get to a place. Typing numbers into a calculator may help you churn numbers out faster at the cashier’s equivalent of the secretary’s standard of 100 wpm, but whether it really helps you retain the parts of maths that need to be rote learned as well as paper and pencil calculations do, well, I doubt it.

Learning to the long-term memory is, I believe, done best when we are not giving to our brains signals that we are making efforts to learn, and not making our brains feel as if they are working. A more relaxed way of writing is preferable. Maybe for Generation Y-ers and Z-ers you feel more relaxed writing in typing than in stylus writing, but that is a bit unnatural. The way of writing with a stylus developed thousands of years ago, if you include knives and brushes as well as pens and pencils in that class of implements, and it was developed in a sense “naturally” in a form basically dictated by the biological shape of the human hand as well as the workings of the human brain. The keyboard layout on the other hand is an attempt to impose a certain predictated logic onto a flat surface and in a sense we have to use an extra layer of effort and memory to remember where, in two dimensional space, a letter is. In a sense the typist can remember the shape of the word and will find that enduring typoes bear witness to the fact that memory – if at times erroneous memory – is involved in that process. But you are only feeling keys. You are not feeling a word being crafted by your hand against the paper. There is no big difference between the feel of one key and another.

The keyboard restricts the movement of your body to one place, while in stylus writing you are moving your hand forward (even in right to left or other systems that still counts as forward) across the sheet. You can also move your body in relation to the writing more easily. You can hold the book at more different angles and in different positions. You can grasp the pen and book from a standing start or take it with you anywhere far more easily than the computer. Even the tiny computers which we now call telephones bear testimony in their new stylus-imitating input methods that the keyboard is not the most relaxed or efficient way of doing things.

Even when the speed typist sits and types her 100 wpm, or his in order not to be sexist, and shows up a certain advantage keyboard writing can have over stylus writing at high speeds, can the substance of what is being typed be remembered just as well as with the typist or handwriter going at much lower speeds? I venture to suggest not. The long-term memory is a subconscious sampler – that’s a key tenet of the Goldlist method and if it were not so then the whole system wouldn’t work. But what determines the sampling rate? Is it the same rate at high speeds or is it a sample of so many passes per second regardless of the amount of material? We don’t know for sure, but I believe that the way perception works will make it a bit of both. You certainly remember more details of a street when you walk down it than when you drive down it, but the ratio of details remembered to time spent could well be lower on the walk, as at slow pass speeds some items will be sampled more than once.

Pen writing doesn’t fade like a screen when you work on it in the sun. You don’t need electricity and you can carry the book with far less weight on a walk. Writing languages in it which are full of diacritics, or writing in Japanese or other character-based languages will be for more English-speaking learners far easier to do. And most of all it will be personal. Your handwriting is special because it is your personal body language in paper form. For literacy, handwriting something rather than typing it is the equivalent to saying something with your own voice instead of letting off a recording of somone else saying it, and just listening. The printed page may be all your words but your body language has not melded with the language as it does with the handwritten page. You do not become one with it. And that is why the specific memory aid that comes with that melding and crafting of the written words in writing as nice as you can make it and done with a sense of the pleasure derived from such craftsmanship, is not really delivered by the process of typing.

Most of us do a lot of typing, sone of us are even threatened with Repetitive Stress Injury from the amount we do, and also we have fewer and fewer occasions to cultuivate the hand and as a result when we need nice handwriting it evades us. The insistence on having Goldlist Method a handwritten method is not anti-machine – it simply reminds us that there is an alternative to the machine and that the computer is not the only tool when it comes to language learning – even a language learning method that bases on a quite mathematical algorithm.

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