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The world through the prism of my mind

Archive for October, 2006

Interlanguage and fossilization – thoughts of the language learner

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 24, 2006

I got suckered again. Steve Kaufmann – founder of has been asked by a learner who is also studying to be a second language teacher about the concepts of interlanguage and fossilization. Given that Steve does not hold much respect for educational theories, I thought it would be interesting to see him stretched a bit on the concepts that he must have observed first hands multiple times. My mistake. But I did spend time thinking about it, so I might as well put it down.

Interlanguage is basically a concept that while learning a language L2, a person native in language L1 will go through particular stages dependent on the original language. Interlanguage is acknowledging that those stages exist, that they can be defined and, therefore, some special rules can be applied to them.

As an example, going from Russian (L1) to English (L2) I did not have much problem with tenses and genders, because both languages have it and I just had to map the concepts. A friend of mine with Chinese as a first language has to work extra hard with he/she or future/past tenses in English, because in chinese (from what I understand) those aspects are inferred through context or through standalone words line ‘yesterday/today/tomorrow’ without affecting a sentence further on (like English he/she, went/go/will go) . On the other hand, I have major problems with a/the because Russian does not have those constructs.

So, does interlanguage matter to the learner? Steve said it does not, which I have no problem agreeing with. Learner needs to learn and the esoteric labels are not going to help in any way. However, Steve continued to say that because the concepts are not much use to the learner, they are not useful to the teacher as well. And here is where we strongly disagree.

In the business, there is a concept of Capability Maturity Model (CMM). According to that concept, a (good) company will progress through stages of improvement. Basically, the company will start with results happening because there are a couple of very good people just knowing what to do. Then, as it grows, it needs to figure out ways to not depend on just those people and being able to train anybody else to be as good or better. So the company climbs up the CMM lader, which (among other things) means it has to define terms for particular situations and best ways to react to those situations.

So, how is CMM related to the interlanguage concept in ESL? Without this concept, a teacher has to treat every student’s attempt to learn language as completely individual progress without any expected progression steps. This means no decision can be made on the sequence in which L2 concepts are presented, no expectations on how long something will take to teach can be made and no learning shortcuts (X is just like Y in your language) are allowed. This may work in one-on-one learning setup where both student and teacher have infinite time, but it is certainly not the most efficient way.

With the concept of interlanguage, one can actually look ahead and know that Chinese native speaker will need a special attention with he/she concepts and that Russian native speaker will need extra help with a/the concepts. There could be specialised learning material for a particular L1->L2 path. With smart language teaching sofware, there could even be a way to explain the concept by contrasting and comparing the constructs in L2 and L1 language.

Again, none of this meta-knowledge is very useful to the learner, but without it, the teachers as a profession cannot climb the CMM ladder and will not be able to efficiently scale beyond one-on-one mentor model that is no longer economically feasible for most people.

From what I can see, Steve’s company is currently running at CMM level 1 or – at best – 2, so they haven’t had the need to introduce the concepts of interlanguage. That, in my eyes, is not the reason to spent 10 minutes renouncing it.

Same thing with fossilization – a term for somebody’s state of learning where they no longer get better even though they are exposed to more language. For some reason, Steve thought it was a derogative term applied to a person and therefore treated it as a pep talk opportunity to convince people to never give up. Great idea, but not necessarily applicable to the question. Under the law of diminishing return, at some point the cost of studying further does not bring any additional visible benefits. For example, most of the ESL learners do not bother with past perfect tense constructs as it is not useful all that often and has subtlety that can be also expressed in simpler ways. So, when people stop learning the language, that’s their fossilization point. There is nothing special about that term, it just exists so that language teachers did not have to reinvent the term.

Of course, if a learner is not happy with the state of their language and need to have it improved, then we are talking about methods and motivation and Steve’s pep talk on never giving up becomes justified. It is just that motivation is a completely different issue than the one asked about originally.

In summary – interlanguage, fossilization and many other concepts used in L2 acquisition studies are there because the language teaching professions needed to get better as a group, rather than rely on heroic and misaligned efforts of individual teachers. To a person outside of that group (and Steve has repeatedly distanced himself from that group), the jargon may seem meaningless and useless. That does not mean, that the jargon is useless (of course, it is only useful when it does have a well-defined meaning).

Disclaimer: I am not a language teacher. I just like to understand meta-concepts involved. My position might be just as misguided to a knowledgable educator, as Steve’s position feel to me. I have tried to provide my reasoning and links and my comment box is always open to corrections.

(Update: November 13th, nearly a month later)

Gentle Reader :-), why are you here? This article – completely against my expectations – had more visitors than anything else I have written to date. Even now, I get a couple of visitors each day coming in, reading the article and leaving.

Are you here, because you had read Steve’s article and wanted to see my side? Are you here, because you googled for the term interlanguage and fossilization and opened all of the first ten results (you are probably not reading this then)? Or are you here because the topics in the discussion are important to you and I said something of interest (what)?

I do not think my article has any great wisdom in it, just connecting dots that others I am sure have done better. The topic is fairly obscure, even if important for some. Tell me, please, what is it that you are looking for here, as your continuous attention makes no sense to me, happy as I am to receive it. The comment section is open and is begging to be used.


Posted in Language acquisition | 16 Comments »

Synthravels: Let us show you the (virtual) world

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 23, 2006

Synthravels (via Springwise) is a barely nascent company that offers a travel guide experience in virtual world. You pick which virtual world you want to go to and what kind of things you want to see and they will find you a guide. Last time I visited the Second Life newbie ground, there was a number of people saying so, what do I actually do here, even though there were Welcome cards right in front of their avatars. A human guide might ease that startup confusion.

To those who read science fiction, many of these new business ideas are not so new because they had already been discussed in depth by various science fiction writers. So, a new type of business is often a sign that we finally reached a particular stage of development and can start bringing into the reality various ideas from the books. This must be quite annoying to William Gibson, who – being somewhat of a technophobe – wrote of the future he was afraid of only to get thousands of developers so excited by it that they went out of the way to build it.

So to me, Synthravel is a winner. There are just so many angles to play there. I think having a high-level player as a guide would be particularly interesting at an early stage. Having a guide with maxed-out magic and maxed-out healing (to keep me alive) to take me through normally unreachable levels of a fight game and do a show and kill would be quite interesting. I might even pay to see the same level with guides in different character classes. I think a warrior’s approach to room full of dragons would be quite different from that of a necromancer.

At the moment, Synthravel’s registration system for users and guides is very simple. It is a plain free-form entry of interest. Once there is enough interest, they will probably need to switch to some sort of semi-constraint fields to explicitly ask for guide’s skill levels and expertise. If they play it right with features and rating systems, there might even be an eBay style market with bidding for specific guides’s time.

And, as with real tourism, they may even spawn a whole cottage industry of people catering specifically for newbies being brought in by an experienced guide. Expect to see colorful tourist buses and cheesy virtual goods sold by human or AI-driven peddlers. And, of course, expect other players to grumble about the intrusion of new kind of AOLamers into the zones they were previously unable to discover unassisted.


Posted in Virtual World | Leave a Comment »

Spanish/English bilingual e-book is available free via Overdrive

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 21, 2006

I was listening to the Trying to Learn Spanish podcast and in its 11th episode somebody mentioned an interesting e-book (Thirteen Senses by Victor Villaseñor) that has parallel English and Spanish text and allows to quickly switch between them.
I like the idea of bilingual books, so I went hunting for it. The book is available for purchase in a couple of places, but I wanted to see an excerpt first to see the quality and ease of use. So I went searching and found something much better.

The book is available as an eBook via Overdrive programme, that many libraries subscribe to. WorldCat site allows to easily find where the book is available and in which format. I confirmed that my library subscribed to the book, so within 15 minutes I had setup the Mobipocket reader and downloaded the e-book to my computer.

It looks quite good and interesting to read. Jumping between translations is with little hyperlinked arrows, so one cannot see both translation at once but it is survivable.

My spanish is not quite up to to the proper reading level yet, but it is good to know it is there and ready for me when
I am ready. And I have 21 days to dip in and out just to see how far I can get.

What’s is interesting is that I could not find any discussion about this dual format and whether it worked for both learners and – commercially – for the publisher. I think this (or similar) format has a lot of promise, but maybe other people disagree.

Posted in e-books, Spanish | 3 Comments »

The next computer in my household will not run Windows

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 19, 2006

Wendy Seltzer’s plain-english explanation of the Microsoft Windows Vista’s EULA was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. There will be no Windows Vista on my next computer. I am sick and tired of worrying about computer viruses and misbehaving software; having the operating system that decides to remove functionalities or sabotage my work otherwise, is just beyond bearable.

It barely matters what Operating System I run anyway. My primary applications are Firefox, Open Office, Gmail, WordPress and various Java applications.  The first two are platform independant as are most of Java applications. Gmail, WordPress and other services are all web hosted and don’t care about the user’s computer at all.

I will most probably buy a Mac, since it combines the eye-candy of the Apple User Interface and the solid core of Unix security. And it would work well with my iPod, which is the only gadget I like enough to buy a second one when the first one fails. This, of course, depends on Apple not getting too arrogant about their growing market share. Their latest ‘apology‘ for virus infected iPods was not a hopeful sign.

Fortunately, there is always Linux. While Linux UI is still not as well integrated as Apple’s, distributions such as Ubuntu show great promise. I know some peripherals will need extra care to work well in Linux (like iPod), but I strongly feel that the long term effort will be less than putting up with Windows Vista.

I may still have to use whatever windows my workplace has, but wherever I have a choice, Microsoft will no longer be even in consideration.

Posted in General Education | 3 Comments »

Wish list for ‘copious’ spare time – 3D modelling and animation

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 18, 2006

What would I do, if I had 3 more hours a day free? I would learn 3D modelling and animation.

This used to be the skill that only a limited number of people needed and the tools were difficult and expensive. With computer power not that long ago, even having the skills was not very useful as those skills could only be applied for high-end imaging, movie and computer game making.

This has all changed in the last year or so, though not too many people outside of the field noticed.

Computers are now fast enough to do small projects at home. Software is free, like the excellent open-source Blender package. Even commercial packages are becoming ever cheaper (e.g. current promotion of Bryce 6 for $6) Companies such as Pixel Corps give VPN access to multiple-thousands worth of high-end software to its members for about $50 a month.

And applications for 3D are ever growing. Animators and 3D modellers within SecondLife are making enough virtual currency that it converts into good supplemental or even primary income. And more and more games (and pseudo-games like IMVU) allow users to create and incorporate their own models and artwork into the game for money or (less excitingly) credits.

I don’t happen to have any ‘copious’ spare time, but to anybody who does and is not afraid of computers, I would advise to look into this area very seriously.

Posted in General Education | Leave a Comment »