Saturday 23 February 2013

“Teaching” children

Many of us seem to have come to associate teaching with the kind of structured teaching that we also associate with schooling. We need set times and places in order to be taught things, we need set syllabuses, preferably with statements about things like teaching purposes, and we need details about things like learning outcomes, preferably complete with a battery of tests which make sure that the learner fits both purposes and outcomes, through the application of things like bell-shaped curves and normal distributions. And, of course, we need teachers.

Many of us also associate teaching children with this kind of teaching. Regular questions that I get from parents in multilingual families reflect these twin beliefs. They want to teach their language(s) to their children, and they wonder about hiring people to do so, about timetables, (online) books and exercise books, and about must-dos and must-not-dos like, you’ve guessed it, accidentally flouting the OPOLicy. Some parents are adamant that teaching languages means teaching their grammar. This isn’t easy, because learning things is never easy, they concede, but it must be taught anyway “because children need to learn something”. Many of us, it also became clear to me from similar correspondence, thus associate learning with laborious no-pain-no-gain kinds of processes.

There are several issues here. First, the assumption that learners can’t learn by themselves. The teaching philosophy behind structured teaching is that learning means being aware that you’re learning, failing which you’re unable to learn at all. Structured teaching is but one kind of teaching, of course. Perhaps not the most effective, either, precisely because it takes learning as dependent on (adult-bound) structured prompting. Second, the assumptions that if you teach little Jenny biology, then little Jenny will have learned biology; and that if Jenny has learned biology, then Jenny must have had biology taught to her. We can, of course, learn without dedicated teaching, just like, alas!, all of us teachers are familiar with dedicated teaching without learning – if you’re into teaching linguistics, have a look at those Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know. Not to mention all those bits and pieces of “hidden curriculum” that we do teach, though unwittingly. One of my students once told me that he had learned two things from my linguistics courses: linguistics, which I knew I was teaching, and my way of teaching linguistics, which I didn’t know I was teaching. And third, the assumption that learning carries effort, which is the point I wish to expand on.

Image © Clipart from

Children learn best when they’re not being taught. Do keep in mind that we’re talking children here, often toddlers, so let me rephrase that: children learn best when they’re not being taught in the ways that we adults think that things should be taught. Take, for example, what some adults perceive as “doing nothing”, as when children are mumbling away to themselves in some remote corner of the house, or staring in silence at the moon. To me, respecting the brain activity which must be going on there and then is a brainy activity in itself. Or take play, which many parents view as a waste of precious childhood time and/or as irrelevant to learning. “Idle” people strike us as no-good layabouts, including where they may be, simply, thinking – which is something that a lot of us may well have forgotten how to do, since we’re all so busy engaging in “real”, tangible activities, in order to avoid being seen as no-good layabouts.

Predictably, then, “idle” children strike us as prospective no-gooders. This is why we enrol the tiny things in assorted “schools”, to “teach” them to become proper adults like us – and this is why I have scare quotes in the title of this post. We believe that babies in nappies should be taught to sit still, obey instructions, listen to adults, do things on schedule, say things on cue. We believe that children should learn about their new world like so many of us learn about new countries, by following the hoisted flag of the standard tourist guide. We believe, in short, that children should not be children, in an intriguing revival of Victorian ways of looking at childhood.

Jean Piaget’s take on matters of teaching children makes a lot more sense to me: “When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” If the “his/himself” in this English version of the quotation irks you, by the way, it does me, too. Piaget’s original words are: “Tout ce qu’on apprend à l’enfant, on l’empêche de l’inventer ou de le découvrir.”

This is all the more true of languages, for two reasons. One, that children, like the rest of us, learn best by doing. We may not know that we’re teaching language, without scare quotes, when we’re talking about something else in that language, but we are. As I wrote in an article about child language acquisition, “language learning is going on whenever language is used around children.” The other reason is that learning languages has much more to it than following the guide. In my book Multilinguals are ...?, I noted that “the best language lessons are the ones that don’t target the languages themselves at all” (p. 72).

Structured teaching deliberately steers attention away from what we want to learn, whether we’re children or adults, to what someone else has decided we should be learning. No wonder our learning of languages, whether we’re children or adults, is often fraught with stumbling blocks. The next post has some more to say about this.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Glitches, false starts, and dead ends. Saturday 9th March 2013.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Speech-language clinics: cultural meeting places?

When our children are referred to speech-language services, the least of our concerns is probably to muse on whether the clinic is a suitable venue for cultural happenings. We go there to seek expert assistance, that’s all. Expertise, however, isn’t absolute, because experts aren’t abstract beings. Like the rest of us, they’re shaped by cultural backgrounds and professional training which are bound to specific places and specific times.

Clinical observations leading to diagnoses start at the clinic’s door: Does the child greet new people, and show appropriate curiosity about new surroundings? Does the child say please or thank you, which speakers of languages with words for please and thank you take as a sure sign of basic politeness? Is there telltale body language? How about body contact? If the child shuns an open, extended, unfamiliar hand, or recoils at that hand patting cheeks or ruffling hair, is this culturally odd? What if the same hand insists on heaping dolls, teddy bears and other lifeless representations of living beings near a child who’s scared witless of these things because they’re associated with taboo meanings?

We may all know, in theory, that the same behaviour can be interpreted in widely different ways, but we may not realise that “invisible” cultural considerations, those that we take for granted because they shape our routines, impact clinical observation and assessment: is avoidance of eye contact, for example, a sign of social impairment or of deference? What about silence? The verdict rests with the clinician. The excellent news about this is the growing awareness, among speech-language clinicians, of cultural considerations concerning their little multilingual clients.

Many speech-language clinicians are trained to use a single language of intervention, and receive no training in matters of multilingualism and multiculturalism. There may be no shared language between clinician and client, for example, or no shared ways of using it. One common practice is to ask the parents to interpret, or hire an ad hoc interpreter. A previous post explains why the former solution cannot work, and other research explains what is involved in proper training of clinical interpreters, who aren’t simple, “neutral” vehicles of messages in different languages. See, for example, Claudia V. Angelelli’s book Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication.

There may also be a shared language, though no normed assessment instruments for other languages used by child clients. Translation comes to mind, here, too: speech-language clinicians do report that they themselves translate and/or adapt instruments which were normed for other languages. But doing so in fact invalidates the standardisation of these tests, making them unusable. Rhea Paul and Courtenay Norbury’s book, Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence provides a thorough review of these issues. Elizabeth D. Peña, in an article titled ‘Lost in translation: methodological considerations in cross-cultural research’, raises an additional issue. Neither the instruments were devised to be translated, nor what is in question is the accuracy of a translation: translated tests yield “different patterns of response” in different languages, which “may be due to differences in cultural interpretation” (p. 1257).

We can’t translate languages without translating cultural practices, in other words, because languages are there to serve them. Margaret Friend and Melanie Keplinger, in a study on ‘Reliability and validity of the Computerized Comprehension Task (CCT)’, discuss their adaptation of a vocabulary test from (American) English to (Mexican) Spanish, which they used to assess Mexican infants. The task required the children to grasp an object, when prompted with the word for that object. All children failed this task, arousing suspicion of language delay, compared to their American peers. The cause of the failure, as it turned out, was not language, but culture. When questioned about possible reasons for their children’s results, the Mexican parents clarified that they forbid their children to touch things that do not belong to them.

Other recent research reports on growing awareness of cultural issues arising in speech-language clinics. From Australia, in ‘Speech-language pathologists’ assessment and intervention practices with multilingual children’, Cori Williams and Sharynne McLeod found that clinicians actively sought information about their clients’ languages and cultural backgrounds, faced with a lack of culturally appropriate tools which would do justice to them. Lack of culturally appropriate resources for assessment and intervention is also the case in the US, as Mark Guiberson and Jenny Atkins discuss in ‘Speech-language pathologists’ preparation, practices, and perspectives on serving culturally and linguistically diverse children’. Finally, in a review of clinical practices in multilingual settings worldwide, ‘Towards evidence-based practice in language intervention for bilingual children’, Elin Thordardottir observes that “Existing clinical methods have largely been developed within Western middle-class cultures” (p. 532). In multilingual settings, clinicians are not only being required to interpret what they’re unfamiliar with but, perhaps as crucially, they’re realising that they must stop mistaking what they’re familiar with for “norms”.

Several of my own contributions to this issue focus on monocultural and monolingual features of clinical approaches to speech and language. One book chapter titled ‘Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children’ discusses clinical practices which take culturally-bound ‘mono’ tenets as default behaviour. Another chapter, ‘Assessing multilingual children in multilingual clinics’, in my book Multilingual Norms, reports on the consequences of monolingual training on the practices of multilingual clinicians.

The next post will have some more to say about small children and their well-being, namely, what does it mean to “teach” children?

Friend, M., & Keplinger, M. (2008). Reliability and validity of the Computerized Comprehension Task (CCT): data from American English and Mexican Spanish infants. Journal of Child Language, 35 (01). DOI: 10.1017/S0305000907008264

Guiberson, M., & Atkins, J. (2010). Speech-Language Pathologists’ Preparation, Practices, and Perspectives on Serving Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Children. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 33 (3), 169-180. DOI: 10.1177/1525740110384132

Peña, E. (2007). Lost in Translation: Methodological Considerations in Cross-Cultural Research. Child Development, 78 (4), 1255-1264. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01064.x

Thordardottir, E. (2010). Towards evidence-based practice in language intervention for bilingual children. Journal of Communication Disorders, 43 (6), 523-537. DOI: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2010.06.001

Williams, C., & McLeod, S. (2012). Speech-language pathologists’ assessment and intervention practices with multilingual children. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14 (3), 292-305. DOI: 10.3109/17549507.2011.636071

© MCF 2013

Next post: “Teaching” children. Saturday 23rd February 2013.


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