Turn-off Your Brain

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 22, 2009 at 3:05 pm

bokatorNow Talk Foreign Language Good By Antonio Graceffo In a low-level English class, with children, we read a very simple story book called “Jim’s New Bike.” There were only one or two very simple sentences per page. If you transcribed the entire book, it would be about one and a half pages of text. The way I teach these books to low-level readers is: First I read the whole book aloud, and they follow with their finger. Then we read the whole book chorally. Next, we go through the book, starting from the beginning, with each child taking turns reading a page or two. If the kids enjoy the story, and aren’t exhausted or still seem to be interested, other exercises include speed reading contests. I pit two students against each other and have them read as fast as they can, and declare a winner. It is a double illumination tournament, so in a class of eight students, even the slowest student will wind up reading twice in the contest. And the winner may wind up reading four or five times. And hopefully, even the ones who aren’t reading, are listening. So, by the end of the exercise, sometimes done over a period of two days, each child has read each page at least five or ten times and heard it read twenty or more times. Before reading the story, I make each child read the title, each time. So, they have also read “Jim’s New Bike,” numerous times. After all of this reading and rereading, we did comprehension questions. Teacher: Who is the boy in the book? Students: Jim Teacher: What did he get? Students: A new bike. T: Who bought it for him? S: His mother T: Why did she buy it for him? S: He was a good boy. At this point, I had to declare that the students were all able to read the story, and that they understood it. So, the next step was to do a dictation. I had them all put their reading books away and take out their notebook. I began the dictation with the title. T: Jim’s New Bike S: What? Who? Ten? Tens? I was at a loss. How could they not have known or understood what I was saying? I even showed them the book, and told them I was reading from the same reading book we had read a few minutes ago. I continued. T: Jim was a good boy. S: A good what? Getting back to a concept I have written about in other articles, predictive logic would tell you that if you heard “Jim was a good toy” or “Jim was a good roy,” you might be able to deduce “Jim was a good boy.” Without prior knowledge of the story, it seems the students should be able to fill in the missing words, or words they hadn’t heard. But, they weren’t doing this exercise in absence of other facts. They had read the story an insane number of times, and answered comprehension questions. So, what was the problem? T: Jim’s mother bought him a new bike. S: Bought him a what? There was a picture of Jim with his bike on the front of the book. And they all knew that the story was about his new bike…. A senior foreign teacher at my school, Pierre, who has an MA in TESOL explained to me that while the story is a story for me, for the students it is just a random collection of sounds. Being Chinese students, with an incredible ability to memorize and spit out data on a test, they were able to remember the sequence of the sounds and reproduce them on command, but the sounds were not being processed as information in the brain. In computer terms, I was picturing someone sending you a college application in Word format. You are able to answer all of the questions on the form, right in your computer, and either print it out or email it back. But if someone sends you the same form as a PDF, although it looks identical, and all of the questions are there, you can’t answer them. With a PDF you don’t have a questionnaire. You have a PICTURE of a questionnaire. Could we say that students had a picture of a story in their heads, rather than the story itself/ Given the visual or pictorial nature of the Chinese language, it is not hard to imagine that Chinese students process thoughts differently than Westerners. In low-level classes, for example, it is often a battle to get students to read phonetically, rather than just memorizing the shapes, appearances, of words. More than once, I have had a student in my class for days or even weeks, who was doing fairly well on his assessments, until I found out that he couldn’t read. How did the student get through all of the individual reading aloud if he couldn’t read? The answer is, he had an amazing memory and basically memorized the story when I pre-read it for the students. The most clever of these students look for visual patterns in written questions and match them with similar patterns in the text. Visual recognition and amazing memory may be features of Chinese learners, but these are logical, intelligent people, so why couldn’t they just guess at what I was saying in the dictation? Certainly, they knew that Jim was a boy and that he had received a bicycle. Again, as Pierre said, the brain, or the logical side of it, shuts down. The data is not processed as information, just as sounds or as words with no meaning. On a greater or lesser level, this same type of shut-down occurs in all learners, from all cultures, learning any language. I walked into work the other day and, speaking Chinese, my boss said to me. “Your students shut off the lights and are hiding in your classroom.” This is really a pretty simple sentence. The only word a very basic student might not know is “hiding,” but I knew that one. And yet, I made her repeat it five times, and still, relying on my “logic” decided she was telling me to make sure to shut off the lights at the end of my class or something. When I got to the door, and saw the lights out, I had to laugh at myself. I repeated her Chinese sentence aloud. “Your students shut off the lights and are hiding in your classroom.” This was exactly what I heard. I was able to repeat it. But, for some reason, I didn’t process it as information until I saw it as a physical, tangible reality. My own stupidity, or inability to understand language which I clearly understood, reminded me of a story which General Joseph Stillwell, commander of the US forces in China, during World War II, wrote in his memoirs. General Stillwell was a fluent speaker of a number of Chinese dialects. Once, he was out on an intelligence gathering mission, when he stopped and asked some workmen “Is this the road to Beijing?” The men said they didn’t understand. So, he asked again, and again, and again. Each attempt met with the same results. Finally, he just gave up and walked away. While he was still within earshot, he heard one of the workmen ask, “What did that guy want?” The other one answered, “I don’t know. It sounded like he was asking if this was the road to Beijing.” Many teaching theorists suggest that one of the problems of classroom learning is that it’s not real. Life is real. Functioning is real. Reading “Jim’s New Bike” is not real. The students don’t know Jim. They never saw him. They never met him. They never rode his bike. If they had, probably my dictation would have gone a lot better. TPR, ALG, English only classrooms, English villages, and foreign language dorms at American universities try to make the language learning experience more real. And I agree. A real experience is easier to understand. Arguably, by definition, to be an experience, it must be real. And we all agree that we learn through experience. While creating real experiences would increase a student’s learning, the question would still be, why didn’t I understand my boss telling me my students were hiding in the classroom? Or, why didn’t the workmen understand General Stillwell? I think as learners, and we are all guilty of it, we shut-down our brains and go on autopilot, dutifully repeating what is told to us, but not processing it. I was interviewing a new student once in Cambodia, whose parents believed she was linguistically gifted because she had mastered English. I began the interview. T: What’s your name? S: What’s your name? Parents (speaking Khmer): You see how bright our daughter is? She speaks English. T: How old are you? S: How old are you? T: No, answer the question. S: No, answer the question. Parents (beaming with pride): You see, she understands everything. The interview went on like this, with the student repeating, but not answering, any of my questions, for the required ten minutes. The parents became irate when I told them their daughter would be going into a beginners class. To learn language, or anything, the brain needs to be engaged. As learners, we need to force ourselves, by sheer will, to have our brains on at all times, actively listening, rather than passively repeating and flowing along like flotsam and jetsam on the river of life. As teachers we need to constantly give the students wakeup calls. Get them out of their seats. Force the language to become a reality for them. Present them with questions which can only be answered by engaging and dealing with the language. If we don’t, we will all be students of the Tarzan school of language. “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube. His website is Join him on Contact Antonio: Antonio, graceffo, Brooklyn, monk, alg, linguistic, linguistics, language,

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