Friday, August 28, 2009

Review: The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition

The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition by Zoltán Dörnyei was published on Feb 19, 2009 to very little fanfare. I found out about it through an alert, but even though I pre-ordered it, three months later Amazon shrugged and said, "Although we'd expected to be able to send this item to you, we've since found it's not available from any of our sources at this time."

It now seems to be available, but it's not selling well at all. Today, the Amazon rank (for what that's worth; I expect these numbers jump around quite a bit) is #569,249. In comparison, Lightbown & Spada's How Languages are Learned is #1,011, Michael O'Malley's Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners: Practical Approaches for Teachers is # 7,341, and Rod Ellis's The Study of Second Language Acquisition is #44,171. Even Dornyei's other books are also selling much better (e.g. #79,777 for Research Methods in Applied Linguistics).

What about reviews? Google books says, "We haven't found any reviews in the usual places," and I didn't have any better luck. I even had trouble tracking down the table of contents (here; scroll down past the Japanese). Not sure why this text is flying so far under the radar.

Anyhow, I finally asked OUP to send me a copy, and they very kindly did on the promise that I'd write a review and post it here. So:

Firstly, the target audience was not easy for me to identify. On one hand, it seems to be aimed at people who know almost nothing about language teaching. For example, it takes half a page to explain what the grammar translation method is, adding nothing that wouldn't be familiar to anybody who'd taken a TESL certificate course. But on the other hand, many of the topics brought up would have little relevance to anyone without some background in applied linguistics and language teaching, especially if you want to make sense of it as a whole. The series is supposed to be "aimed at applied linguists, lecturers, teacher trainers, students on advanced/postgraduate courses, and practitioners interested in gaining a wider perspective on their work," but I think it might have benefited by trying to be a bit more narrow in its range. As a text in an intro-to-psycholinguistics course, though, where it is supported by lectures, discussions, and other readings, it might work well.

The first half of the book is mainly of interest to grad-students and researchers who are unfamiliar with cognitive psychology and may be interested in seeing how they personally might fit themselves and their research programs into this tile in the mosaic of academia. Dörnyei introduces and explains a multitude of approaches and terms including a brief lesson in the anatomy of the brain. There's very little here for most teachers.

The second half, however, includes more that might help teachers think about their teaching differently, but it will take a careful reader who is good at seeing analogies to extract such insights. To be fair, there are no pat solutions for teaching language, but even the final chapter on the psychology of instructed second language acquisition seems to offer very little in terms of guidance for language teachers, though Dörnyei does inlcude six keys on the final page: Language instruction should...
  1. be meaning-focused and engaging while including practice activities to increase automaticity.
  2. include explicit instruction.
  3. pay attention to formal/structural aspects as well as meaning.
  4. teach formulaic sequences.
  5. include extensive exposure to massive amounts of the target language.
  6. and offer many opportunities to interact in the L2.
The major thesis (there isn't really a main one) seems to be that researchers need to take a dynamic systems approach to studying second language acquisition. But since all that math is "impenetrable" to us language folk, rather than actually taking a dynamic systems approach, Dörnyei suggests that we try to take on some of its vocabulary and conceptual framework. And he tries to do so himself.

He applies the metaphor of an attractor to a number of individual factors involved in SLA, one being future self-guides (generally, the idea that a clear vision of an ideal self is a motivating force). "future self-guides can be seen as broad attractor basins subsuming a variety of components." Although I understand very little about attractors, it seems to me that Dörnyei is at least two layers deep in metaphor and may have lost sight of what an attractor actually is. On the other hand, as I said, I don't understand attractors well, so this may in fact be a very apt description.

In the end, Dörnyei does a good job of bringing much information together, but I wanted a lot more detail, not just the brief overviews offered. I did find quite a few references that I want to follow up. Three researchers really stand out as contributing disproportionately to the bibliography: Nick Ellis, Norman Segalowitz, and Jan Hulstijn along with Peter Robinson. I wonder if I'll find more of what I want in Robinson & Ellis's Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Maybe that will be my next review.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Peel board of ed gets it right

It looks like some folks at the Peel district school board (my local board) have been giving some serious thought to all the new immigrants in Brampton (more than half the school population doesn't speak English at home).
"the board has centralized the registration of immigrant students at the three new centres in Brampton, Mississauga and Malton, where newcomers are assessed and offered orientation interviews before being enrolled in one of the board's 236 schools. The centres are made possible by a $3.7 million grant from Citizenship and Immigration Canada."

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Japan Times follows the TOEIC money trail

James McCrostie has recently had two stories about the TOEIC tests published in the Japan Times. He appears to have done a lot of homework in tracking down the various players in the raveled money trail that the test takers feed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Verbs, prepositions, and in between

Brett has raised an interesting question indeed. So, is compared a preposition? Or is it still a verb, which happens to share similar functions with prepositions?

I like the arguments presented by Brett; but I am not sure whether I am totally happy to say that compared is now a verb in one construction, now a preposition in another. Some lexical items are like that, I know, but this one?

I was thinking about this while taking a morning shower. My thoughts went like this -

The problem is that compare is a verb, pure and simple. Compared to ..., accordingly, is felt to be a participial construction. It is not like during as in during the summer; today, it is hard to imagine using dure as a verb.

Is it, then, perhaps more like the adjective interesting as in a very interesting book, which is no longer a participial form of the verb interest? Can you similarly say that compared as in Compared to ... is a preposition, no longer a participial form of the verb compare?

The problem here is that the criterion we rely on is the somewhat shaky notion of the 'understood' subject. It may be the subject of the main clause; it may be 'recoverable' from the linguistic context; or, more subtly, it may be 'interpretable' pragmatically. Right now, I am not sure whether the 'understood' subject is a grammatical property.

It is well known that coordination facts don't work well as syntactic arguments. Coordinated elements do not necessarily share a common grammatical category; they share a common function (today and on Wednesday).

So, can we perhaps say that compared shares a similar function with prepositions, say, that of clausal modifier? If we can, then we can say that a phrase headed by the past participial form of compare can modify a clause it is attached to, in the same way a phrase headed by a preposition can.

Then, if and when compared sufficiently loses its verbal properties, we will happily say 'Hi everyone, there was once a time when this was used as a verb, but now it is a preposition.' - and everyone will agree. Peace and happiness.

My shower was not long enough to pursue this further, and now I have to run; I have a second-hand book festival to go to. The beauty of a blog-post is I can leave it here, and invite comments from everyone - whom I wish a very happy Sunday.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Even more departicipial prepositions

This thread has been picked up on Language Log where thousands more eyes will see it than are likely here, leading to many interesting comments. These have pushed me to look for other "departicipial prepositions". Here are the candidate's I've found so far.
  1. It is the result of a colonial heritage that has permanently saddled a fundamentally Mestizo-Indian society with standards of appearance, beauty, and behavior that are not its own. Counteracting this frame of mind today, there is a significant intellectual and popular movement declaring the Mestizo-Indian phenotype as the country's proper imago mundi in opposition to the " white is beautiful " colonial mentality (Llanas Alvarez 1978). It is difficult to forecast the fate of this effort. (Nutini, Hugo G.)
  2. Mexican labor force earned most, or a substantial part, of its livelihood in cash, and would therefore have seen its economic position perceptibly eroded in the late colonial decades. Compounding this secular trend there occurred a series of harvest failures and sharp price rises in articles of basic popular consumption after 1800, producing the same effects -- popular immiseration, unemployment, business collapse, cityward migrations, and so forth -- characteristic of most ancien regime economies in the grip of crises de subsistences. (Van Young, Eric)
  3. It is obvious that if the galaxies are moving apart, they must have been closer together in the past. Extrapolating this trend, it seems that there must have been a time when all the matter in the universe was compressed together. Knowing the rate of expansion, we can estimate when this dense phase was. (Davies, Paul)
  4. Curiously, it is possible for the universe to be finite in extent, and yet still have no center or edge. Leaving that possibility aside for now, there is a sense in which the speculation about a very distant edge to the universe is pointless if not meaningless. (Davies, Paul)
  5. Each choice of the timeful " I " generates more of the person's destiny, his karma; the overall process in which the human person is situated requires the human selfs previous existences, its reincarnations, and the gradual development of its physical, then etheric, and still later astral bodies. Paralleling these bodily developments, there arise the sentient soul, then the intellectual soul, and currently the consciousness soul. (Oppenheim, Frank M.)
  6. This is an important strand of political analysis, hostile to class conflict yet also acutely aware of the limits of contemporary capitalism, especially when it comes to redistribution of income or provision of rudimentary socio-economic opportunities. Looking more closely at Gelb's analysis, there is a poignant honesty to be found, beyond the normative stance that defends status quo corporatist politics. (Bond, Patrick)
  7. Only later did more enterprising reporters discover that Disney had been offered access to federal lands for resorts, and Billy Graham, a mild precursor of today's religious extremists, had been wooed with conservative positions on social issues and the promise of a direct line to the White House. Underlying both the stump speech and the private promises, there wa one message: the difference between Nixon and his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was wide, deep, and crucial. (Steinem, Gloria)
  8. Therefore, while there is evidence of all seven tensions at play in the lives of participants, we understand resilience to be the contextually dependent optimal resolution of the tensions as they are experienced across cultures and contexts. Viewed this way, there is no objective criteria for evaluating positive outcomes since it is up to the individual (influenced, of course, by culture and context) to appraise whether his or her life at that point in time is successful. (Ungar, Michael)
So, do any of these strike you as danglers? Do you buy them as prepositions, or do you have some other explanation?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More evidence for 'compared' as a preposition

A number of people have questioned my analysis of compared as a preposition. Some have complained about basing the analysis on one flimsy sentence. here are some others:
  1. Compared with the previous week, there was a trebling in the rate of flu and a doubling of the rate of flu-like illness. (Guardian newspaper)
  2. Compared with the 18–44 year age group, there was no significantly higher mortality in the 45–64 year (RR=0.84, 95% CI 0.34 to 2.09), the 65–74 year (RR=1.28, 95% CI 0.50 to 3.32), and the 75–92 year (RR=1.99, 95% CI 0.72 to 5.46) (overall p=0.4) age group during the 2 years after discharge. (The Lancet)
  3. As for the physical appearance of the people who left behind their stone tools and food refuse, Singer and Wymer can say little because, compared with animal bones, there are few human remains in the deposits and they are mostly fragments of skulls and jawbones and teeth. (New Scientist)
  4. Montreal Central eventually served the CPR express lines as well as the CNR, but, compared with Toronto or Cincinnati Union, there was something half-hearted about it, despite the trumpetings with which it was received during the war. (non-fiction book)
  5. Compared with Mitroff's earlier paper, there is much more emphasis here on linking stakeholder analysis with research into cognitive schemas, and a greater recognition that there may be problems both in identifying the schemas, often held unconsciously, and in bringing them together to inform the corporate debate about strategy. (textbook)
  6. Compared with the other types of hair there are very few of them, but they play a vital role when the cat is exploring in poor light, or is hunting. (non-fiction book)
The following examples are from Time magazine:
  1. Compared to the Wall Street Exchange, there is a noticeable absence of fury, frenzy; the building has indeed a somewhat musty atmosphere.
  2. Compared with 1935, when there were 199, there was one in 1966 and two in 1967.
  3. Still, compared with the solid growth of the 1960s, there are plenty of signs that the nation is suffering an inflationary recession.
  4. Compared with the Manhattan Project, there was no German bomb program.
  5. Compared with earlier days, there is less camaraderie and pack journalism, there are fewer collective safaris.
  6. Compared with five years ago, there are a significantly greater number of lawyers today who are not practicing law for a living, " says Ward Bower.
Others have said that the "grammatical dangling" is insufficient evidence. Another piece of evidence comes from coordination. Typically parallelism dictates that we coordinate only like with like. It would not typically allow us to coordinate a PP with a VP. In the following sentences, however, we have a PP coordinated with a phrase headed by 'compared'.
  1. Americans live very well, both by historical standards AND compared to other people in the world today.
  2. A major finding, however, was that emissions at the four sites differed greatly both between sites AND compared to national trends in emissions between 1970 and 1990.

Friday, August 07, 2009

A newly discovered preposition

I believe that I may be the first person to have realized that compared is a preposition. It is not listed as such in any of the dictionaries that I consulted, and you may very well be wondering how compared could possibly be a preposition. Let me try to explain.

The obvious alternative is that it is a verb, a past participle to be precise. One property of participle verbs is that, when they function as adjuncts, they take the subject of the main clause as their subject. When people overlook the requirements, you end up with a silliness like the following (from here):
1 Now 83, and long gone from power, Britons remain fiercely divided over the reign of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Notice that we expect this to mean that Britons are 83 and long gone from power, because Britons is the subject of the main clause. When the main clause has a dummy subject, like there, again we end up with problems (from here).
2 Fearing a massive lay-off, there was a general sense of relief when the boss announced there would be no new budget cuts.
But when we replace the participle with a preposition, everything is fine.
3 After a massive lay-off, there was a general sense of anger.
Our second piece of the argument is that, despite traditional thinking to the contrary, prepositions do not actually need to come before nouns. They can come before other prepositions, as they do here:
4 She came in from out of nowhere.
Now, we can understand why compared is a preposition. Consider the following sentence:
5 Compared to ICS alone, there was a significantly greater improvement in FEV1 with the addition of LABA.
To be honest, I don't know what it means, but it seems to me that there is no problem here analogous to what we faced in 2 even though we have a dummy subject. That means compared is not a verb. Perhaps, then, it could be a preposition along the lines of after in 3 and followed by another preposition to as in 4.

There are other prepositions like this:
  1. according
  2. allowing
  3. barring
  4. compared
  5. concerning
  6. considering
  7. counting
  8. depending
  9. excepting
  10. excluding
  11. failing
  12. following
  13. given
  14. granted
  15. including
  16. owing
  17. pending
  18. pertaining
  19. provided
  20. providing
  21. regarding
  22. respecting
  23. saving
  24. seeing
  25. supposing
  26. touching
  27. wanting
Some of these are recognized by major dictionaries. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English lists given as a preposition. And the online OED has barring, concerning, and considering among others. None, however, has the full list above, except the Simple English Wiktionary, (which by the way now has headword entries for the most common 2,000 words of English, the Basic English 850 list, and the Academic word list. All told, it now has over 10,000 entries.)