As a follow-up to my recent post “On Teaching and Learning” where I discuss the problems of approaching education as if it were a mere transfer of information (most often through the reduction of concepts to vocabulary), I offer some thoughts on the process of learning language. For this post, I have drawn heavily from a paper I submitted for a graduate seminar on the philosophy of language, and as such I owe much of my understanding to the guidance of my professors.
Ludwig Wittgenstein opens his Philosophical Investigations with St. Augustine’s memory of learning to speak. According to Augustine, he could remember his family members pointing to objects and saying the objects’ names, and decided that this was how he learned to converse. On the surface, this does not seem a particularly objectionable thesis. In fact, it seems rather intuitive, and we do this all the time: to teach someone a word, we point to the object and say its name aloud. Of those who taught him to speak, Augustine says:
Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
But Wittgenstein ultimately finds this understanding of language acquisition problematic, arguing that
Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one (32).
It’s a bit surprising that Augustine would reflect on his learning process this way, given what he says in De Magistro (touched upon in my original post), but working out that confusion is a project for another day. The point here is that simply naming an object carries with it no intrinsically ostensive meaning; for this method to work, says Wittgenstein, “one has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name.” (30) One has to have some experience with the object in question in order to take the meaning of the word associated with it – something that a first-time speaker like young Augustine would not have. The native speaker would have to learn the meaning alongside the word, often simultaneously.
When we teach concepts by defining words, we assume that the concept is already grasped, or that by knowing the right terminology, the concept will automatically follow, as if the vocabulary word were a magic spell (although I dare say not even magic spells are really that simple).
For Wittgenstein, this would be a kind of language-game (what Wittgenstein calls the union of symbols with actions or objects). He argues that, depending on its usage, the gesture of pointing out an individual object could mean a number of things, even when measures are taken to contextualize naming in the form of sentences (because no language can make any claim on fixity or completion, it is difficult to discard the relevance of a language game based on how complex it may seem).
Wittgenstein explores the complexity of this language game with a primitive example consisting of a builder and his assistant, neither of whom have additional experience with language (2). When the builder “A” wants the assistant “B” to bring him a slab, he says the word “slab.” The gesture of pointing is vague, and empty of meaning, leaving room for both a lack of variety as well as an incorrect specificity. For B, “slab” is not simply the name of an object, but also a command that corresponds with an action.
Yet even if B knows that his action is something separate from the object “slab”, there is still room for doubt once the lingo is taken out of its immediate context. Is “slab” the name of the individual slab in particular? Could it mean the color of the particular slab? How is the assistant to know that “slab” refers rather to a kind of thing than to simply those examples of slab that exist in the stone pile? How is “B” to know that “slab” does not refer to the material of the object, such that “pillar” and “block” are made of “slab” (Wittgenstein specifically mentions confusing the name with the shape of the rock in 10)? Solving these difficulties requires something more than merely naming the action or action – it requires a wide array of experiences, or else, says he, “With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding” (6).
Even when the concepts are there and a complex language has already been functionally acquired, the trend in second language instruction is to attempt to recreate the experience of a native speaker learning the language for the first time. This is the promise of the famous Rosetta Stone language series, as well as Annenberg Learner’s French in Action, and the Laubach method, in which I was trained about ten years ago when I became a volunteer ESL tutor.
The premise behind all of these methods is roughly the same. When teaching the name of a new object to a student, for instance, a pen, it is advised to say the phrase “This is a pen,” approximately five times, each time holding up a different example of a pen, using both actual pens and pictures of them. Then you add a bit more to the equation, asking: “What is it this?” and answering: “This is a pen.”
After another five or so times, the tutor drops the original phrase, and keeps only the question, motioning to the student in an exaggerated manner and mouthing the answer until the student catches on and responds. You repeat this until the student can answer you solidly without prompting, and then you move on to a new object. The structure stays the same with a new object – a ball, for instance – so that the student can learn to associate the changing part of the phrase with the object being held up. They also then learn that the phrase “this is a” signifies the object being named, but is not part of the name. The purpose is not to achieve memorization, but association between objects and words. As a tutor, you start small, and build the student’s vocabulary only through new combinations of previously acquired English words.
The Laubach method (and also Rosetta Stone and the Annenberg Learning series) attempts to train learners in such a way as to avoid the confusion in Wittgenstein’s assistant’s understanding of “slab”, namely by providing a variety of contexts that are meant to eliminate as many variable possibilities as it can. Boiling language acquisition down to nothing more than naming is to see the similarities between words but to ignore their differences in function. It ignores the importance of the role of how words are used. In the world of the builder and his assistant, the training is such that labels correspond not simply to objects, but to commands. To learn any new words in this primitive language is to learn a language “only of orders” (18). To learn the word “slab” is to learn the sentence “bring me a slab” in its active specificity. It is but one facet of language, one kind of language-game.
Nevertheless, the Augustinian method is a functionally popular theory in not just language learning, but in all learning (as evidenced by the examples in my original post on teaching and learning). Many parents teach their children the names of objects in this manner, unaware of Wittgenstein’s warnings that we are missing something vital in our understanding of our own language system, and many teachers test students on nothing more than rote memorization.
Wittgenstein stresses that any singularly focused vision of teaching is limited in this way, and as such suggests that we need a multiplicity of language-games, matching them to the multiplicity of word-uses (and in the case of education in general, equation uses, fact-uses, etc). When he asks just “how many” there are, he answers:
There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten (23).
One of the missions of ESL teaching programs is to create scenarios in which this growth and multiplicity can be fostered. To teach colors, the tutor may take a known object – say, a pen – and gather a number of examples of the known object in a variety of colors, as well as a number of examples of a single color in a variety of known objects: “This is a blue pen,” “This is a red pen,” etc..
The emphasis is the color-word. The different color pens emphasize to the student the element of the object that is changing – this is the first step, and it is here that we are teaching the function of the word as an descriptive quality. The second step is to teach each individual color names by using the variety of known objects. “This is a blue ball.” “This is a blue square.” And so on and so forth. The student learns to associate the name “blue” with the color “blue”, learning that the term isn’t just a way to describe pens, but is in an adjective in general.
But this might be inadequate for learning truly new concepts, as this method only works if the student has a working knowledge of descriptive adjectives. After the successive repetition of a question such as “What is this?” a child learning to speak for the first time and an ESL student may have different reactions. It is not unusual to see a child in a store moving from object to object asking a parent this same question over and over. It is not that the child truly wishes to know what each item is for the sake of keeping that information for the future, but rather that the child is learning the function of naming. To ask “What is this” begets the name of an object. In all likelihood, the child will forget the name of the object shortly thereafter. The ESL student may ask “What is this?” a number of times, but the impetus guiding him or her is completely different; they’ll likely catch onto the game quickly, and move right to learning the names of the objects. Even if an ESL student has no knowledge of certain types of words, be they pronouns or articles, this student is yet equipped with an understanding of the multiplicity of language games, including facial expressions, the notion of using separate words to form sentences, and other such intricate paradigms that allow the ESL student to make associations, consciously or not, and even assumptions – which can be affirmed or discarded based the reactions of others.
This isn’t always the case in learning new subjects or concepts in mathematics, the sciences, literature, history, social studies, and more. When we treat teaching as a project of translation, assuming that students understand our question innately such that they need only have understanding of the answers we want in order to excel, we miss out on the chance to build the contextual scaffolding students need to discover things for themselves. We think all we need to do is drop the information into their minds and then everything will become clear, and of course, it’s much more complex than that.
If not even basic vocabulary can be taught this way, it stands to reason that deeper concepts cannot be taught this way either.
For more on contextual language acquisition, check out Blogging Is a Responsibility’s informative post on “Authentic Language Learning“.
 This is a method developed by Frank C. Laubach in 1930 in order to increase literacy in the Philippines. While literacy was the initial purpose of this method, it has become one of the most popular methods of teaching ESL in addition to its popularity world wide for the expansion of literacy. Most of the information in this essay is based on training sessions and my experiences teaching English for two years, with the emphasis less on the specifics of the method, and more on the practical application thereof. For further reference, particularly on the literacy aspect of the Laubach method, see: http://www.sil.org/linguaLinks/literacy/ImplementALiteracyProgram/TheLaubachLiteracyInternationa.htm