Sunday, February 22, 2009

Learning from Mango Languages

Last week I went to the local library to see what language learning materials they had. I like to go periodically to brush up on a language and to see what methods are being used to teach languages via CD's, cassette tapes, CD-ROM's, books, and videos. This time I was surprised to see that the local library subscribed to a web-based service called Mango Languages. (Even if your library doesn't subscribe, you can try out the first lesson in nine languages for free.)

The method used in these lessons is similar to Pimsleur and several other products you'll recognize if you've ever tried to learn a language from a cassette. I would call it programmed learning: small bits of vocabulary and patterns are fed to the student, who is quizzed with enough repetition so that the pattern sticks.

I always secretly liked this type of learning: I could learn at my own pace, skip forward if I wanted, and choose not to learn some expressions I knew I'd never use. Plus, for someone who finds it hard to start conversations, having a store of dialogues memorized makes it surprisingly easy to be sociable in a second language. And my impression is that these older cassette programs were more effective than programs like Rosetta Stone, which are strong on graphics and weak on pedagogy (see one librarian's amusing comparison here.)

Another aspect of Mango Languages that interests me is that it's essentially a slide-show broadcast on the web using Flash. Millions of people already know how to make multimedia PowerPoint slide-shows like this, and there are free programs like authorPOINT Lite that can convert those to Flash. So in principle, there's nothing stopping those working on endangered languages from making similar products in their spare time.

I have a confession, though: I've never used PowerPoint! This week I'll try to remedy that, and I'll post whatever I come up with!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Using the Gouin Series Method

Jonathan Arries, a colleague in Modern Languages, came to speak to my students and me recently about second language teaching methods that might be effective with children. We had a long discussion about methods for teaching different aged kids, and when to introduce a second alphabet.

One method he recommended for little kids was a Gouin Series. Fran├žois Gouin was a French Latin teacher who wrote about his difficulties in learning German based on grammars and dictionaries. The approach he advocated was to have "themes" such as The Plant and to have students memorize sentences in sequence relating to the theme:
    The acorn sprouts.
    The oak plant takes root.
    The shoot sprouts out of the earth.
    The stalk buds.
    etc.
The key points are that it's more important to learn sentences to speak than words, that verbs are the key elements in sentences, and that sentences are more easily learned when they form a narrative. Gouin succeeded in learning German when he banished the grammar and dictionary in favor of what we would now call discovery learning: he asked his consultants (German-speaking children) to teach him the series associated with different themes (The Plant, The Bird, etc.), and he dutifully wrote these down and memorized them.

Gouin's frustration with traditional grammars and dictionaries is similar to the frustration found in endangered language communities when they see the work that linguists have done. Linguists who document a language usually produce a reference grammar (a description of how sentences and words are formed), a dictionary (a list of all the words), and a text collection (stories, conversations, and other samples of language). These are of little use for people who want to learn how to ask their grandmother to tell a story or to lead a ceremony.

Gouin's method is attractive for its emphasis on actions. Verbs are particularly important in the native languages of the south: verbs are often the only words used in sentences, and the verb encodes everything from the person and number of the participants in a sentence, to tense, location, and direction.

The Gouin Series Method could also be useful in connecting themes kids are learning elsewhere in school with a language class. If kids are learning about frogs and amphibians in science, they could learn related series in their language class (The eggs hatch. / The tadpole swims. / The tadpole forms legs. / The tadpole becomes a frog.) Themes can be based on time (In the morning, In the spring, etc.), and some will lead to actions that kids can act out in a group, possibly in first person:
    When it's time for PE,
    I run outside
    I play ball with my friends
    I slide down the slide
    etc.
Gouin's approach by itself might get boring quickly, but it's one useful method a teacher might use. Gouin's book was translated into English in 1892 and is available here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Playing with Puppets

Puppets are a great way to hold kids' interest. They can be used in a classroom and in videos, and kids can use them to act out skits that they write. Yesterday I found a tortoise puppet and a turkey puppet made by a company called Folkmanis that I liked, and then I found other puppets from the same company on Amazon. I've pasted some photos below of puppets that seem especially appropriate for acting out stories in the native languages of the south. If you click on the image, you can go directly to the Amazon.com listing.

I haven't seen all of these puppets, so I don't know if they're all the same size. The store I went to had the turkey and the tortoise, which are both fairly large (about the size of a basketball). The tortoise is especially expressive and can act shy, nod its head, talk, etc. The turkey just nods and flaps a little.

I think it would be a lot of fun to make a children's video featuring puppets in one segment. It would be easy to make a corresponding coloring book.