Friday, October 3, 2008

Vocabulary and concept pods

By Mert - Dr.M.L.Bland, Arlington, VA, USA

A teacher wants some tips on teaching vocabualry without translation.

Well, this is, of course, less of a problem for TESL teachers who deal with a class of students from many nations than for TEFL teachers who usually deal with a classroom of students from the same language base.

Comprehension means building what I call concept pods for each item. In the native language the baby, in his babble stage, compresses his lips and expells a little air and repeats the process. Suprise! He is picked up and cuddled by a creature saying, "Oh, you called my name." This is what we call positive reenforcement, so the baby repeats the process. At this point the concept pod means, "I want attention." But the concept pod gets refined as it doesn't work all the time. If no one is in the room he doesn't get picked up and cuddled. If the creature in the room has a mustache and growls, "Wassa matter? Cant you say 'Papa?' it doesn't work. If the small creature giggles and says, "tee-hee, I'm your big sister," it doesn't work. All this negative reenforcement narrows the concept pod to: "I want to be cuddled by that one creature in the world who will cuddle me."

The concept pod is changing its configuration all the time. When our hero is two, his playmate says "Mama" and a strange creature picks him up. What, are there two mamas in the world? Usually he will go up to her and try a tentative Mama? "No, I'm not your Mama, I'm his Mama."

Over the years the concept pod will grow to include motherlode, mother of pearl, Mother Goose...the mental image of the birth process, and much more. Your concept pod will never match mine since we had different mothers.

Your job, as a language teacher, is to help your students form these concept pods in the target language. You can do this through context, imagery, paralinguistics, or whatever works. But if you use translation you become counterproductive. For one thing, no concept pod in one language ever replicates exactly a concept pod in another langage. So you have to teach exceptions. For another thing, translation impedes communication since the student has to go from hearing the question in the L2, translating the question into the L1, formulating the answer in the L1, translating the answer into the the L2, and, finally articulating the answer in the L2. Duh! Instead, you want to bifurcate the languages. Indeed, brain scans show that true bilinguals have the two languages in opposite sides of the brain.

So that, in brief, is why we don't allow the L1 in our classrooms.

1 comment:

Alex Case said...

I love the concept of "concept pods", which I had never heard before, but I feel the post shortened the argument a bit too much as so took some leaps of logic that I couldn't follow.

One other minor question. I seem to remember reading that the later you learn a language the more they are mixed up in the same part of the brain, so doesn't that mean age rather than language level determines such things (genuine question, when or even if I read such a thing I could not say for sure due to the arrangements of my own brain...)?