Re: [xmca] Toolsfor thought

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Tue Jul 03 2007 - 17:47:24 PDT

Dear Bella:
  For a (very brief) while I was allowed (mostly as a form of legitimate peripheral participation) to frequent an attempt over at Korea University to demonstrate differences in the way that vocabulary was stored in Korean-Chinese bilinguals (Koreans who'd learnt Chinese in school) and Chinese-Koreans (the Korean minority in China who'd grown up speaking both languages).
  I never saw any systematic differences between the two groups; the vocabulary storage we looked at seemed to be largely a matter of "last in, first out" or "like with like", quite unrelated to differences of birth or even upbringing, except insofar as these differences impinged on principles like "last learnt, first remembered" or "that reminds me of...".
  So I'm afraid I'm one of those people who considers virtually any attempt to locate "language" in the brain to be a form of reductionism. I have always thought that what we call "language" in the brain is really a very quick and dirty kind of browser that helps us get on line; once on line much of what we do with language is not decoding but negotiating pretty much from scratch (integrating iconic and indexical meaning first and filling in gaps with symbolic meanings and decodings only where absolutely required).
  This is why I've been so demoralized by reading Belyayev, with his references to "cortical structures" that are allegedly mappings of vocabulary items according to a "second signal system". Also why I was considerably remoralized to read Vygotsky's "Concrete Psychology", where he describes the self as a kind of fictional construct, like a child's invisible friend, living quite outside the brain and the body. I've always felt that things like "my command of Chinese", or "my Korean" or even "my mental lexicon" are much the same: they are virtual entities accessible via the brain (and suddenly inaccessible when parts of the brain give you, as you say) but not reducible to any brain structures (so tell me--why, in the sixties, did Luria play around with the idea that Chomsky's "deep structures" were located in the brain?).
  As you can imagine, I was overjoyed to read your article and discover that here at last was a psycholinguist (nay, a neuropsychologist!) whose view (I think) is completely compatible with my own. In fact, there are parts of your article, where you describe the difference between the young foreign language learner dominated by sensuous memory and the older language learner who approaches the language through literacy, which I think will perfectly explain the following data.
  This fifth grade Korean learner of English, who we'll call GS, is not very good at isolating vocabulary. Here he is taking a reading test.
  T (using the polite register of Korean): Ilgeoboseyo. (¡°Please read.¡±) Ready, go.
  GS: (Silence)
  T (switching to the intimate register): Aneun geotman golaseo ilgeobwa. (¡°Just try and read the stuff you know.¡±)
  GS (reading a whole phrase at the bottom of the page): ¡®No thanks.¡¯
  T (using an intermediate register): Johayo. (¡°Very good.¡±)
  GS: (Long silence)
  T (switching to English): Anything else?
  GS: (Long silence)
  T: OK.
  GS cannot write a vocabulary list, either Korean English or English Korean, even when the items have been introduced one by one in the lesson. But two days later, the following ¡°Listen and Answer¡± exchange is used to illustrate ¡°running¡±.
  T: (Drawing a boy) Who is it? Guess.
  Ss: GS.
  T: Yes, GS. GS¡®s hair style.
  T: GS is~? Mueo haeyo, jigeum? (¡°What¡¯s he doing, now?¡±)
  Ss: running. GS is running
    Notice that GS does NOT take part in this exchange at all. Yet after the lesson, when the children are asked to write a list of the vocabulary items they've learnt, he writes a vocabulary list for the very first time:
  Running: Jigeum, dduigoissda (Now, I'm running)
  I'm running: Naneun jigeum dduigoissda (Me + Korean topic marker + Now I'm running)
  I'm: Naneun (Me + Korean topic marker)
  It's a little hard to convey the magnitude of the analytical problem that GS is tackling here. Korean "words" are either too big or too small to fit English meanings, because an orthographic word is the size of a whole phrase or a sentence, while the printed character is merely syllable-sized. In addition, GS is trying to parse TENSE ("I'm running") and translate contractions ("I'm") which have no counterpart at all in Korean.
  After reading your article, there are two things about this data that really strike me. First of all, I think that there are a wide range of linguistic phenomena like "this" and "that" and "i'm" and "now" which simply CANNOT be stable sites in the cortex, simply because they do not have fixed meanings of any kind; their meanings exist ENTIRELY in what Vygotsky, Luria and now Kotik-Friedgut would call the "extra-cortical" realm. Quantitatively, it is precisely these linguistic phenomena which are the most frequent (they make up almost all of the first 120 to 150 words on frequency lists).
  Secondly, this incident with GS (interpreted with your insights into extra-cortical organization of the lexicon) suggests a possible solution for what is one of the most intractible problems in studies of classroom "uptake" (that is, what learners take away from a lesson), namely the idiosyncracy of what different learners take away frome the same lesson.
  Although thirty-five children were all in the same lesson together, the number of items remembered by more than three learners is probably less than a third of the items taught. Most of the items we teacher are remembered by only two or three learners, and many by only one. As we say in Chinese, we sleep on the same bed but we have different dreams.

  Some explanations, of course, locate individual differences in the learner (some learners are slow and some are fast, or some are kinaesthetic and some are aural, etc.). Other explanations locate them in the nature of the interaction (some items are frequently repeated and others are sung aloud and others are explained at great length and exemplified in a memorable fashion).
  Neither of these explanations really explain the problem of those pesky little words like "the" and "but" and "I'm" which even "cleverest" learners will hear a million times and never quite manage to internalize. But the extra-cortical organization of the mental lexicon offers a very good explanation: large swathes of linguistic experience are simply NOT internalized at all, but allowed to remain where we found them, in the environment, with minimal tagging ("this" "you know" and "it") so they can be found when we need them.
  In this instance, I think the extra-cortical organization of linguistic experience can explain GS's sudden, apparently idiosyncratic ability to analyze "I'm". "GS is running" means "I'm running" to GS and to no other child in the classroom.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Mike--I'm not sure if you have THIS particular David K in mind (or David Kirshner) when you suggest an on-line lecture on bilingual education. But Bella's article explains beautifully why I must, though flattered, decline. I don't really DO bilingual education. I'm not even sure if what we are doing is really foreign language education (as opposed to teaching highly selected foreign language concepts).
  A couple of weeks ago, I almost failed my interview with Open University because one of the professors asked me if I was teaching "English as a Foreign Language" and I said I thought that the concept of a foreign language was not psychologically real to the kids and we were just teaching a school subject. Not a very popular position, apparently!

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Received on Tue Jul 3 17:50 PDT 2007

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