March 2007 Archives

Prehistory ≠ No History


One of my instructors pointed out an interesting naïve misconception about non-Western cultures most of still have. Basically we naïvely assume the different "non-literate" cultures we encounter in the America, Africa and Australia have 1) never changed and 2) never moved. We also make this same assumption about any "ancient" European culture as well.

Even non-Western Empires are treated as "glacial" entities in which individual political leaders are almost irrelevant to the development of civilization. Compare this to our view of Western history where most of us can still name an Roman Emperor or two (even if we're not quite sure what they did).

Sadly this view is still perpetuated (or at least not disputed) in many popular press books on "ancient times" and it's just as bad in History Channel type documentaries.

But the Americas alone had 10,000+ years of time for people to interact with each other, so it's highly unlikely that nothing happened. And something (actually many somethings) did happen - one of the more prominent tribes, the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) was not a tribe at all, but a confederacy of six tribes. and yes they had a formal constitution.

Interestingly the more that historical linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists have investigated these cultures the clearer it becomes that wide trade networks had developed, (the kind that cross modern national boarder) and that there was plenty of "indigenous" politicking around. Linguists are finding that when they're trying to reconstruct the history of various languages they're having to carefully sort through "borrowings" versus "native" vocabulary first.

Yet I do sometimes signs of a change. One program about Aztec engineering actually named and tracked the various Aztec Emperors (Montezuma was actually Montezuma II/Moctezuma II). The dynasty may be long gone, but in some ways they left their mark on the West. Without the repressive policies of the Aztec empire, it's unlikely Cortez would have been able to gather a coalition of native Mexicans to help them overthrough the Aztecs.

It's just a shame the European colonial powers didn't learn a lesson from this historic battle...

P.S. It must be said that contemporary European "explorers" and "governors" were aware of the complex interactions and were able to exploit them. This is why different Native American tribes would fight for the French or the English in the French and Indian War.

Help Wanted: Linguist Seeking Cognitive Components


As my instructional design colleagues already know, I moved straight from theoretical linguists to Web design, then on to instructional design. I don’t recommend this for everyone because I will be the first to admit I was weak on pedagogical theory. In fact, I had to “construct” my own meaning of “constructivism” and it was full of “cognitive dissonance” (I thought concepts contradicted each other). I’m still not sure I have it right, which is why I’m still a “linguist among constructivists.” Here’s why:

As a good theoretical linguist, I’ve always accepted the Constructivist premise that learning is “is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge.” [] or “must actively "build" knowledge and skills (e.g., Bruner, 1990) and that information exists within these built constructs” [].

This mirrors the Chomskyan language acquisiiton model that assumes that children acquire language by listening to adults (not by overt instruction by the way, but by children processing the raw signal and concocting their own grammar).

So far so good, but the pesky linguist in me immediately asked exactly WHAT kind of structure is a learner constructing? Does it have parts? Do they come in more than one type depending on complexity level (following Bloom's taxonomy? or verbal vs. kinesthetic?)

After all, linguists divide the language component into components like phonology (sound), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (literal meaning) and pragmatics (actual meaning). There must be even MORE components for something like critical thinking or algebra.

Yet, most typical sources on constructivism do not really specify this at all (although I do see the reference to concept map and schema). The closest answer I’ve gotten on the constructivist road is it’s “very complex and counterintuitive”. []...I’m sure that’s true.

I finally realized after a while that most constructivists assume a “holistic” model in which defining the parts is not necessarily critical. Theoretically, if the child is in the correct learning environment, then the right structure will be built.

At this point, I will have to say that the insight that parts add up IS important. Learning does involve a complex interaction of perception, cultural biases, physical health, previous mental structures and motivation (connation). Mess any one of these up and the learner will more than likely have problems.

But in the end, I can’t abandon the idea of defining components of cognition and learning. After all, HOW do we define the optimal environment if we don’t understand all the components of the environment? Which strategies can we deply to maximize the functioning of each component in the learner? And if we assume learner differences, what are they exactly?

Some say the actual cognitive model might be “too complex” to work with at this time, but if the meterologists can sort through a complex mix of climatological data (carbon emissions, sun spots, humidity levels, season, wind flow, volcanic emissions) to make a weather forecast...I have faith that we can do the same. Meterologists keep refining their models, and so can we. I think it’s important to try.

P.S. What do I think is being constructed in a learner? My best guess is that the learner makes a change somewhere in long term memory and that it varies depending on the content. Choices include semantic memory (facts), procedural (how-tos) and autobiographical (single events). Of course, this also has to go through the perception channels to short term memory to some sort of internal processing. And I don’t necessarily understand how memory chunks are stored and organized.

Linguistics Team/Discussion Activities That Work


Because my working environment is a strong advocate of team learning, I have been experimenting with group activities...some of which actually work. Looking back through my notes, I think the ones that generate the most excitement (and hence talking) from the students are ones which build on something they already know well (like Thanksgiving).

For reasons I discuss below, most focus on sociolinguistics instead of topics like phonetics or syntax which tend to require more formal "mathematical" machinery.

Thanksgiving Ethnography

I asked students to get in groups and compare Thanksgiving traditions based on several dimensions such as patterns in dinner table conversation (topic, formality, interruptions) and treatment of older relatives (as well as side dishes). It's a chance for students to see cultural differences in linguistic behavior.

"New Jerseyite" vs. "New Jerseyan"

I first asked students to look up "New Jerseyite" and "New Jerseyan" on Google to determine which form was "correct". Since students used different strategies, I asked them to meet in groups to discuss how they approached the question then we did a summary. In this activity we generally have a good discussion of "prescriptive" vs. "descriptive" grammar since the dictionary mandates "New Jerseyite" but all native New Jerseyans unilaterally reject the word.

Color Chart

I split the group into men and women and asked each group to assign labels to a color wheel with 12 colors. Unlike the stereotype that "women know more color words", both men and did equally well in this case. My point here was that individuals can diverge from "group" norms in their behavior.

Investigating Missing Fudge

In terms of an online discussion forum, I found that I got the most passionate answers when students were asked to discuss how they would ask roommates about missing fudge. Answers ranged from expected indirect questioning to outright accusations (but only if they knew the person well).

Why I think they worked

I think students found these the most exciting because they were asked to analyze a "common" situation in a brand new way. Not only did students see connections with the content, but scaffolding was built in. Students were able to take old concepts and critically think about them. With newly learned data, critical thinking seems to be harder.

I have done semi-successful group activities based on new data, but the excitement is not the same and you do often see students who don't participate because they feel lost. It's not the same.

One of the more interesting cases was when I asked students to solve a morphology problem in pairs (think algebra but with letters). Unlike other activities, students immediately fell silent and worked on the problem individually instead of talking to each other. In this case, their instinct was to work it out "on their own".

When one instructor told me that she dropped discussion in her Gen Ed class, I wasn't surprised that her reason was "the students didn't know enough." At the Gen Ed stage, students may still be stuck in the low level knowledge and fact stage and not yet to advance to a higher level on content alone. A connection to something they already knew in daily life may have been needed.

As for critical thinking outside "daily life", maybe that IS something that needs to wait a semester (or at least a few weeks). There may be a time issue involved in moving from level to level.

I'm always amused when a paper talks about the benefits of class discussion and the example comes from a graduate level class. If they've made it to graduate school, we can be sure they've mastered most of the lower level content already!