Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Fifth Skill

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Speaking, listening, reading and writing: you need these four skills to learn a new language, right? That is one of the cardinal ideas in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses like the one I teach at Chiang Mai University’s Language Institute. I was therefore puzzled at his reaction when I mentioned the four skills to Dr. Mike Morgan. A Japan-based US linguist of extraordinary talent and drive, he immediately corrected me. "You mean the five skills, don't you?"

Mike is fluent in 11 languages, and conversant in another 40. He has a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics, and reads grammar texts and dictionaries the way most people read novels. In other words, I was hardly in a position to ignore his challenge to received wisdom. So I asked him to present his ideas on the fifth skill to CMU’s TEFL students – a well educated and highly motivated group of foreigners now resident in Thailand.

He began by translating a passage from a “second-tier Bulgarian poet,” Atanas Dalchev. Wrote Mr. Atanas, “When someone does not know a language well/Rather than say what they think/They think what they can say.” Being able to think what you can say, Mike argued, is a critical part of language learning. We must do more than speak, listen, read and write in a language. If we can’t think in it, we aren’t effectively learning it.

“Thinking in” is not the same as “thinking about” language, although each plays a role in language learning. Thinking about language can take the form of studying strategies and techniques of language learning. By contrast, thinking in the language involves processing information. Continual translation from one language to the other adds an unnecessary and cumbersome level of mental processing.

A visitor at the guest lecture was CMU linguist Dr. Peter Freeouf. I asked him to sum up the key ideas of the presentation in his own words. Said he, “It’s important to know what you don’t know, but it’s more important to use what you do. Instead of processing the language through translation, use it directly. Think in it.” Visitors to Thailand begin this process of second-language thinking soon after arrival. Barely a week after getting off the plane, most can respond appropriately to “sa-wad-dii kha” in the blink of an eye. That is the beginning of second language thinking.

In his talk, Mike noted several techniques language teachers can use to help their students develop fluency in second language thinking. One is karaoke. Get your students to sing along in the second language, even if they do not understand what they are singing. Verbal repetition of this kind helps develop second language automaticity. Another technique with a similar effect is “shadowing.” Have your students repeat what you say, but one step behind you. You read, they repeat. The effect is similar to that of karaoke.

Mike suggested long dictation as a third technique for developing thinking skills. Dictate something at your students’ language comprehension level, but of such length that they do not have time to first translate it into their primary language. Consider how much this exercise can accomplish: The students have to listen, remember, write and understand. This is using the old noodle, in the American idiom – to everyone else, thinking.

Mike Morgan emphasizes the importance of enforcing short time limits in these activities. This helps get rid of translation as a crutch. He adds, “When you have a new batch of students, unteach them their habit of translating from first tongue to second. Unnecessary translation is a hindrance to effective language learning.”
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