Meaningful content

Steve K   Saturday, September 25, 2004, 23:28 GMT
what do you language learners or teachers consider the most effective content to learn a second language from?

1) short dialogues on simulated real life situations
the post office, train station, telephone, seeing the doctor etc.
2) newspaper articles
3) short stories
4) radio interviews
5) literature
6) songs
7) discussions of the folklore and festivals of the new culture
8) other?

Does it matter?
Doogle   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 02:18 GMT
all of the above
Boy   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 06:52 GMT
To tell you the truth, as an ESL learner, I found the second option most enjoyable and then followed by the third. I'm recently trying to develop a great passion for listening to English songs.
Ant_222   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 08:57 GMT
In my opinion, the more versatile the content, the better. But it's different types must be used in right proportions. For example, songs less that literature.

Mxsmanic   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 15:01 GMT
For good general competence in the language, you'll want all of the above. If you have specific goals, you may wish to concentrate on some materials more than others.

For example, many of my students have to talk on the telephone a lot, so telephone listening exercises and roleplays are important. Others need to give presentations. Still others need to read press articles and summarize or analyze them. Needs vary. All of this is often grouped under the heading of "business English," which is a euphemism for learning only as much English as you have to, rather than learning the language in a general way.

Naturally, if you truly wish to become generally competent in English, you'll want to diversify your practice as much as possible. In most environments, learning the spoken language is more difficult than learning the written language because speaking practice requires audio and ideally also requires other people to talk to.
Steve K   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 15:48 GMT
Does it matter if the content, audio and text, is scripted and obviously prepared for a learner? Is it better if the content is authentic? How important do you think the difference is?
Ant_222   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 18:24 GMT
I think, authentity is very important. But for very beginners it can be too difficult.
Mxsmanic   Sunday, September 26, 2004, 21:59 GMT
I've been using a mixture of prepared material and "authentic" material in my teaching, and I find that students taught mainly with the former have a great deal of difficulty with the latter. For example, relatively advanced students may have no trouble with audio exercises from advanced teaching texts, but when confronted with actual, real-world speech from, say, a television show or a newscast or even a live person speaking in an unfamiliar context, they are totally lost.

To get around this, I've been using brief excerpts from things like movies as listening exercises. The speech is authentic in these for all practical purposes (yes, it's scripted, but it sounds just like the real thing in most cases—that's why they call them actors, I guess). Students struggle with this material even when they do well on coursebook exercises, but they learn the spoken language better when they are forced to hear the real thing.

I also have recorded special material for them, but on it I make absolutely no allowances for the fact that they are students. For example, in exercises using simulated telephone messages, I record them complete with background noise, and I make sure the speech is ragged and slurred and incorrect, just as real phone messages tend to be. If they can understand these, they can understand anything. The interesting thing is that most of them claim they can't understand anything, but asking them to answer questions reveals that they _did_ understand some of it. The more they practice, the more they understand.

I'm increasingly convinced that the exercises in coursebooks are a complete waste of time except for the real rank beginners. And I know from my own experience in learning French that you can understand all the exercises in the advanced coursebooks perfectly and yet still be totally unable to understand even the simplest speech in real-world situations.
Steve K   Monday, September 27, 2004, 04:53 GMT

I find the same. On our site we try to stay with authentic content but we still get requests for "situation dialogues" of 1-2 minutes to help with daily shopping, on the phone, at the bank etc. The learners are looking for a shortcut that will deal with their feeling of inadequacy in certain situations. I say the feeling of inadequacy is unimportant and unavoidable. Upgrading the language as a whole is important. I do not agree that you can memorize a short dialogue on a situation, like talking on the phone, and then be able to handle that situation. Who knows what will come up? You need to learn the whole language, naturally, from natural content.

I recently had the experience in learning Korean. I bought three different book CD sets covering more or less the same ground including what to say on the telephone.I can carry on a meaningful conversation in Korean but I still get tongue-tied on the phone. When my Korean reaches a certain point the phone ceremony will click in, not before. Meanwhile I will live with a great deal of uncertainty and imperfection.

In any case, there is a limit to what "canned content" can cover, even 12 CDs or more of it. You still have to get into the real language and lots of it. On our site, limiting content to authentic content has been one of our major objectives. It is not always possible but we come close. In theory the language itself, one gigantic corpus of the language in all kinds of situations should be the ultimate teaching resource.

I am still hoping you will have the time to check out our site and send me some comments, either on this forum or through some private exchange of information.
Mxsmanic   Monday, September 27, 2004, 18:29 GMT
Prepared dialogs encourage false confidence. Real-world exchanges can deviate very suddenly and very dramatically from the prepared scripts that some students study in detail, leaving them completely lost. They have to be able to deal with whatever comes up.

Statistically, for example, the majority of English sentences you speak and write in your lifetime will be unique--that is, you'll only speak or write them once, and never again. That's chaos theory at work. Trying to anticipate real-world sentences in advance is thus a waste of time.
Easterner   Monday, September 27, 2004, 22:38 GMT
For me it's basically four things that work when learning a new language(in roughly the following order):

Writing: short written texts (short news, jokes, even instructions of use on various products) or mid-length newpaper articles at beginner or lower intermediate levels; literature (especially poems, but also short stories) at an advanced level.
Speech: songs; movies.

With learners, I would never ever use prepared dialogues (I actually have used them, but have always found them too artificial), or at least to a very limited extent at beginner level, to give a hint of how the language is spoken. Poems or songs are very useful for capturing the rhythm of the language, and are also very motivating because of this (I started learning French in this way). Speech can be learnt very well with the help of short dialogues from movies (but you have to be careful at lower levels, some students may be put off by being exposed to "natural" language, you have to prepare such exercises very carefully). If you use a tape, you may have to rewind it quite a few times. :-)

As to content, it is usually news about the given country, and I sometimes find presentations of the target country very handy: tourist brochures, for example, written in the target language. Since these are meant for foreigners, they use a simpler language, and they usually also use illustrations, which can help in understanding the text. And it is definitely good to use texts which convey something about the way of thinking of a given culture (such as jokes, but they should be good ones, i.e. funny enough :-) ).

Something that does not work for me at all is roleplay, and communicative learning in general. It may have a lot to do with my general shyness, but also wih this method being counter-productive. I mean, too often you are expected to communicate after being given minimal feedback. It is like trying to make a small child talk on an adult level after hearing a few sentences. I think free disussions are much better, but they have to be inspiring enough to keep learners interested.

Having spoken about free talk and pictures, how useful do you find pictures as a tool? Are they a good starter for free discussion at intermediate or advanced levels? I have mixed experience about this: sometimes they have been of help to me, but other times (and more often) I felt that some teachers had an idea of their own about the picture that they wanted me to voice, and that put me off completely. I also think they don't work on oral ESL exams. I think a general conversation is much better in such situations, it makes students more relaxed than having to talk about something they see for the first time without having enough time to reflect on it.
Steve K   Tuesday, September 28, 2004, 00:50 GMT
Very intresting post Easterner. My experience is based more on my own language learning than on any teaching experience. I hated anything artificial. Thus role playing, questions asking me to remember what I had just listened to, quizzes, hangman, language labs etc. were anathema. Pictures are like many textbooks and canned content, it can only take you to a very basic level.

At some time you have to deal with the real language. You should be able to choose subjects of interest from a vast corpus. Ideally this content can grade itself based on the degree of difficulty for you the learner.These are some of the things we have tried to build into our system and I am quite disappointed that the more savvy on open-minded language specialists here like you Easterner, Mxsmanic, Tom and others have not had the time to look at what we have done and send me some comments, privately or via the forum. I really look forward to some dialogue.

I keep hoping. Maybe one day.

Tom   Tuesday, September 28, 2004, 01:08 GMT
1) short dialogues on simulated real life situations
the post office, train station, telephone, seeing the doctor etc.

I avoid those because I am always afraid they are engineered and artificial. When I hear something on TV or in a movie, then I know it's actually used.

2) newspaper articles

Yes, but the language is often hard to understand (lots of big words) and tedious.

3) short stories

Yes. See "literature".

4) radio interviews

Yes, but not scripted faux-interviews.

5) literature

Yes, preferably modern literature with lots of dialogue. Simplified books for learners are GREAT for beginners.

6) songs

Nope, weird grammar, weird usage. Nobody talks like that.

7) discussions of the folklore and festivals of the new culture


8) other?

News on TV.
Talk shows.
Reality TV (shows you how people really talk).
Forums. -- unique source of written colloquial language (normally this sort of language is only spoken)

In high school, there was nothing I hated more than my teacher giving me reading assignments. Instead of reading stuff I cared about, I had to read some boring Newsweek article. Tip for teachers: No matter how interesting it seems to you, at least 25% of your students will find it deadly boring.

Which brings me to my question for Steve K. Suppose I wanted to learn German again. Why would I limit myself to the material on your site when I have the entire Internet, bookstores and libraries? I can read what I find interesting (e.g. simplified "Krimis"), I can play adventure games in German, I can read discussions about politics on Internet forums, I can watch basketball games with German commentary. I can add what needs reviewing to SuperMemo.
Steve K   Tuesday, September 28, 2004, 01:51 GMT
First of all I heartily agree with your evalution of the suitability of different types of content.

With regard to your question on why The Linguist, let me answer this way. I began developing my site based on my own experience in trying to learn, maintain and improve my German, Chinese, Italian, Swedish, spanish. Korean, Portuguese etc. I have bookshelves full of books, tapes, newspaper articles. I have material downloaded from the Internet. We can watch foreign films on TV and at the cinema. My problem is efficiency. If I watch a movie and only understand 75%, what I do not understand I will continue not to understand.

If I listen to a CD, it is the same. What I miss is missed. It still does me good in terms of my feel for the language, but I want to learn the words and be able to use them. If I read a novel and have to look up many words on every page in a dictionary, I soon lose interest. Besides I forget these words.

So I said to myself. If I can create a vast library of interesting content which automatically tells me how many new words there are for me in that contnet. And if for every audi content, I have the corresponding text version. And if I can click on a word in the test and get the instant explanation/translation and save it into a database. And if all the sentences in my reading from then on that have that word in it are collected for review. And then if I can do the same with phrases. And if I can download the audio files and take them with me on my MP3 player.

And if all the content I import from the Internet or other sources is treated the same way by this system (except that there are no sound files). The more content avialable elsewhere the better. It can simpoy be imported into our system so that the words and phrases can be learned in context.

And if I introduce a memory system similar to SuperMemo to control the frequency with which I review these words. But unlike many memory systems ours works based on content, interesting content.

And if on top of that we tie in a writing correction system whcih gives the learner good phrases to use, and an analysis of mistakes. And if we offer other features such as goal setting and measurement.

Then I, at least would learn faster.

But each person is different.
coup d'état   Tuesday, September 28, 2004, 02:55 GMT
Authenticy is important but only once you have a reasonably good understanding of the language. I think that sometimes artificial sources such as Cds and role playing can be very helpful. Cds can help people get a good feel for the language, how it is used and pronunciation and things like role playing can familiarize students with usefull and correct model sentances that they can edit and build upon later to suit their needs in different situations.

By the way Steve K is a legend. An inspiration for all language learners.