[xmca] Ally Bally Bootstrap

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Tue Mar 20 2007 - 21:12:28 PST

  Consider the following song, which is from our third grade textbook. It's designed to be sung as a TPR (that is, "total physical response", where the children have to listen and do).
  Ally bally, Ally bally bee!
  Stand up, sit down, Hee! Hee! Hee!
  Open and close! (your mouth) Open and close!
  Stand up, sit down, Hee! Hee! Hee!
  The tune is an old Scottish ballad, "Couper's Candy":
  Ally bally, Ally bally bee!
  Sittin' on yer Grannie's knee
  Greetin' (that is, crying) fer anither baubee (a penny)
  T'buy mer (more) Couper's candy!
  Notice that the third grade version is a kind of DANCE, while the original Scots version is a STORY. That is why, when children do the dance, they treat "Ally bally" as a kind of meaningless mumbo jumbo or hickory dickory. Teachers do not really know what to do with their arms, so they give a kind of meaningless gesture made by cupping an elbow in one hand and fluttering the other, and then switching. But in the Scots version we interpret Ally Bally Bee as a character's name (an unruly child).
  As you probably know, TPR is a form of the comprehensible input hypothesis; in Asher's theory (and Krashen's) comprehension is not only necessary but sufficient for language acquisition. Since "Listen and Do" is enough to guarantee the children are understanding, it is, (according to Dr. Asher) necessary and sufficient to acquire a foreign language.
  But the fact that one version of our song suggests physical ACTION while the other suggests narrative MEANINGS should make us a little suspicious of this claim. Yes, we can acquire the meanings of present physical actions fairly readily through TPR. But how does TPR help us acquire all the absent meanings of narratives?
  Vygotsky, almost alone, insists that school learning is different from "naturalistic" learning of language. It is, and it ought to be! It is precisely BECAUSE school learning is so different from naturalistic learning that foreign language learning creates a single zone of proximal development when it is laid upon "naturalistic" language learning. If school learning were the same as "naturalistic" language learning, it would not create a zone of proximal development at all: it would be almost completely redundant.
  Vygotsky draws attention to a lot of rather epiphenomenal differences: in native language learning, we learn spoken language first, and in foreign language learning, it's written language. Native language learning is a matter of analyzing utterances, while foreign language learning is often pre-occupied with synthesizing them. In native language learning, conscious control of phonological segments comes later, while in foreign langaueg lerning it comes first.
  Underneath all these epiphenomena there is the key problem of volition, always understood as deliberate and intentional control. In the native language, the child begins with entirely nonvolitional, automatic pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar in the native language and evolves towards being able to do it deliberately. In the foreign language things are entirely the other way around. The child begins with painful, deliberate synthesis of pronunciation, spelling, and sentence making. Only after years of practice does this yield more flexible formulaic use of language, and this hardly ever gets completely unconscious and automatic.
  But it seems to me that the difference between the two versions of Ally Bally Bee points to an even more fundamental difference for the young materialist philosopher. In native language learning, what children have to do first is to establish reference, that is, "bootstrap" context to text. (I never really liked this analogy, because it seems to me that the bootstraps are a lot bigger than the boots!) That was what Cole and Cole were getting at with their father at the window saying "Smotri, sinochek. Tam sidet ptitsa!"
  It is in this sense that first language learning is "naturalistic", and in this sense alone. It is not any more biological or less social than foreign language learning (both processes are completely social in nature). It is not a matter of a "natural line of development" which meets a "cultural line of development" and causes it to submit to natural will (in both processes it is the natural endowment which must submit to the cultural one).
  It is only that in first language learning contexts "naturally" give rise to discourses. That is why children are largely unconcious of all the aspects of discourse (pronunciation, spelling, and grammar) in their native language. In fact, it's really only when children get to school that it occurs to them that discourses can be written down as texts.
  But the possibiity of recording discourses as texts implies the possibility of re-animating texts as discourses (for example, singing "Ally Bally Bee" and then acting it out). And the child, who has just figured out that discourses can give rise to texts is then in a position to take an even bigger step.
  The child has to figure out that just as texts can be re-animated as discourses (we can sing songs that have been written down and even do what they say to do), the resulting discourses can create invisible contexts. That's what the Scottish version does that the third grade version does not do.
  In native language learning, the child has to use contexts to bootstrap texts (and the bootstrap is a lot bigger than the boot). But in foreign language learning, the child has to use texts to bootstrap imaginary contexts. The child has to take leave, at least temporarily, of materialist philosophy, and pretend that texts can give rise to discourses, and discourses can then bootstrap whole imaginary worlds. Here, at last, the boot is bigger than the bootstrap!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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