Thursday, May 15, 2008

Winnie der Pooh

I went to a 2-hour Artikelkurs at Hartnackschule toward the end of April. As it turned out, the course was not really about articles at all, it was about grammatical gender: it offered an introduction to mnemonic techniques that would help one remember whether a noun was masculine, feminine or neuter. The technique was essentially that of the art of memory as practised in antiquity, one I've heard of but never bothered to try: one assigns an image to the thing to be remembered. So one might assign the image of water to 'das' and then, to remember the gender of a neuter noun, assign a mental image to the noun and associate this with water. One assigns the image of a woman to 'die' and then, to remember a feminine nouns, assigns it a mental image and associates this with a woman. In one's mind, then, one might have a sofa, a book, a knife, floating in a pool. And so on.

At the beginning of the class the teacher did an experiment to see how well students memorised things using the techniques they already had. Students were given a list of 20 words, each of which had been assigned one of three articles invented for the occasion (fif, led, had). They were given three minutes to memorise the articles; asked to chat among themselves for two minutes; then given a test on the articles.

The number of correct replies reported was:

2 6 6 7 8 8 9 9 13 14 14 15 15 16 16 17 18 19

(I got 15.) The teacher asked those who got 15 or better what they did. One girl said she memorised the nouns for 2 articles, because everything else would take the third. (This was esentially what I did: write down two lists and memorise those.) Another (who got 19) said she constructed a story using images from one group of nouns, another story for another.

The teacher spent the rest of the class explaining how the visualisation technique worked. At the end he gave another test, again with 20 nouns and 3 invented articles, asking us to try the visualisation technique. I got 20. The results for the class were

(pairing results with original results):
18 20 20 20 20 18 20 19 19 18 17 20 20 19 20 20 19 19

or (in ascending order)

17 18 18 18 19 19 19 19 19 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 20

We can summarise by saying that on the first text only 3 people got a score of 17 or higher, while on the second test no one got a score below 17; on the first test no one got 20 right, while on the second 9 (almost 50%) did. But it's easier to see the dramatic shift in the distribution of scores with a couple of graphs:




(Yes, yes, the information definitely could be better presented, but there is work to be done.)

Now, we can't be sure the improvement was entirely due to use of the visualisation technique. I used a combination of visualisation and the two-lists trick (i.e. bothered to visualise only two sets). Since another member of the class had mentioned this trick, it's quite possible that others in the class were also combining the two. Still, it's pretty impressive. The only problem is, the technique is of limited use in mastering the art of German articles.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's fairly straightforward to correlate a mental image with the article 'der' and then associate this images for appropriate nouns. It's not at all straightforward to come up with a system of mental images such that 'der' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the nominative, feminine singular nouns in the genitive and dative, and plural nouns in the genitive. It's by no means obvious how to organise one's mental images so that 'den' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the accusative and plural nouns in the dative.

Now, recycling is a very good thing when one is dealing with scarce resources. It's not obvious that articles, whether definite or indefinite, fall in that category. Instead of cunningly reusing 'der' (so that it turns up not in one case but three), why not use it exclusively for the nominative masculine singular? And have a unique form for the genitive feminine singular? And another for the dative feminine singular? Go on, you want to say, be a devil!

The problem is, natural languages are not like programming languages. There's no one issuing a beta release and then fixing all the things that interfere with performance (for instance, by slowing down processing, taking up too much memory to store...). We can't fix the languages, so we have to fix the learners.

The interesting thing about the class was that it showed the (to a foreigner) peculiar German reluctance to help those grappling with the system of articles. It's not peculiar that the man in the street has better things to do with his time, of course, but schools are unanimous in shying away from the dreary task. This school was unusual only in ducking the issue in a course specifically advertised as addressing it.

[reposted because Blogger put it in the wrong place chronologically. ]

11 comments:

Ithaca said...

Nathaniel commented on the misplaced version of this post:

It's not at all straightforward to come up with a system of mental images such that 'der' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the nominative, feminine singular nouns in the genitive and dative, and plural nouns in the genitive. It's by no means obvious how to organise one's mental images so that 'den' is associated with masculine singular nouns in the accusative and plural nouns in the dative.

Why would one need to do this? There are other challenges for memorizing the cases and their articles (along with how those cases are used, particularly with prepositions), but I would think you would only want to memorize the nominative case (its "true" gender) using this visualization system. Then you would apply the declinations (made more quickly over time) as you wrote or spoke (or would interpret the declinations as you read). It's still difficult, but you're working off a known base, since at least you really know the gender.

***

One can obviously make a case for learning the genders of nouns, and then learning the articles separately - but that, of course, is not what a course billed as an Artikelkurs professes to teach. What it teaches is a way of associating specific articles with specific nouns - the result being that the brain has to somehow build in a lot of exceptions to its associations, something not easily done on the back of a simple visualisation technique.

Nathaniel said...

Ah, I see what you mean. I didn't quite get how much it emphasized the articles in themselves, and not just as signs of gender. So I was trying to visualize, for example, a hermaphrodite holding a knife and assuming that was the technique. Lamely, I was pretty much extending the three somewhat obvious mental figures holding or in or involved in nouns and trying to assess how feasible the technique would be.

I also assumed that made up articles were used just so that everyone would be starting on the same page, rather than this strange fetishization of articles. It makes them seem very arbitrary to me, deprived of what they signify. As this comment probably makes clear, I'm having a very hard time with the concept as a helpful one, since I've always separated the nominative article from the other cases in my head and the nominative article is intimately linked with gender in my mind.

Still, what is bracing and helpful is learning that some do approach this difficulty of German in this manner, so thank you for the post, since I could never have conceived of this approach (from the perspective of someone who learned German as a second language as a child in Vienna).

ghost said...

I wrote a paper on Articles in German and English and (incidentally) Winnie-ther-Poo. NOt very good I'm afraid, but there it is:

http://shigekuni.blogspot.com/2008/05/pu-das-br-examination-of-gender-and.html

ghost said...

but its cognitive linguistics blah
and not very helpful

ghost said...

This image thing must be very difficult for speakers of multiple languages, no? When I learned French and Spanish, my German and Russian kept (and keep) intervening, not just in terms of Gender.

Anonymous said...

I love the plots! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Too bad that the technology requires that these distributions be separated so much from the text. Wouldn't it be a splendid state of the world if we were able to just make those distributions part of the text? Oh, the humanity!

Can you plot the test score data as a bivariate plot, as the data are bivariate? You have shown us the two marginals; can we see the joint distribution?

Guess who? :-)

Stuart Clayton said...

  the (to a foreigner) peculiar German reluctance to help those grappling with the system of articles.

I would say it's not reluctance, but rather a failure to understand the problems that German learners create for themselves.

Non-Germans who approach the learning of German with a mind-set locked into Latin onto-grammatical categories will fail at the first hurdle. German teachers usually have the same mind set, so they recycle bits of the ars memoria billed as an "Artikelkurs".

Let me suggest a different approach. Instead of thinking "Baum" means tree, and "der" is the nominative-case article - think "der Baum" as a functional unit. Part of this functional unit, at a slightly more general level, is the scheme "der/des/dem/den X". Memorize simple, common phrases in which these functional units appear "in different cases". But don't think about "in different cases"! A native German speaker knows of no "article" which leads a separate existence from "noun" - this is the vivisectionist viewpoint of those who study dead languages.

Learning German 40 years ago, I discovered very slowly that you have to use very special questions to elicit from an everyday German "what the gender of X is". Even if such a German more or less understands what you mean when you say "grammatisches Geschlecht", he's not accustomed to reflecting on his language in this manner. If, however, you ask something like "sagt man der, die oder das Ambiente?", Germans will pause for a second, as if perplexed - then they apparently run through sample sentences, or produce them in their imagination, until they hit on a sentence with "Ambiente" which they then examine to determine whether it's "der, die oder das Ambiente".

Helen DeWitt said...

Not sure I follow this.

Greek is easy, not because it's "dead", but because it's happy with redundancy. Let's say you have "ho agathos aner"(the good man). If you see a noun with "ho" attached, you know it's masculine nominative singular. You're never going to find "ho" linked to, um, feminine genitive singular nouns, feminine dative singular nouns, and genitive plural nouns. So every time you come across "ho" it helps to reinforce the fact that the associated noun is masculine nominative singular. SO, you don't have to go through the business of working out what "ho" is doing every time you come across it.

If you have a language that is parsimonious in its articles, the student needs to spend much more time on brute repetition. In the absence of brute repetition in a class, "der" does come to seem natural as masculine nominative singular AND feminine gen. and dat. singular AND gen. plural - after about 4 years, if I can go by my own experience. But it would have been solidly in place after a year if the people offering instruction had been willing to offer brute repetition.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there's no reason why the man in the German street should have the knack of teaching genders and articles to foreigners. I would have thought, though, that it was not unreasonable to expect a language teacher to understand the difficulties confronting the learner and offer the brute repetition the learner needs to get the hang of it.

Stuart Clayton said...

There's no reason why the man in the German street should not have the knack of teaching genders and articles to foreigners. They are in fact able to do this - when not confronted with words/concepts such as "gender" and "article", and when not themselves required to use these words/concepts.

My claim is that language teachers, and self-teachers, should regard grammatical categories as the crutches they are, in the context of learning a language. They help you move around when you need to think about every step you take. You will never learn to walk, however, unless you learn to do without the crutches. A brief contextualization of "ho", a little settling of hoti's business, is fine. But you need so spend as much time forgetting as remembering, when learning a language.

Helen DeWitt said...

The concepts employed are really irrelevant to the difficulties one encounters, as far I can see.

In English, if I learn the sentence "The young woman is happy", I can generate a lot of other correct sentences by simply replacing "woman" with some other words I might learn ("man", "boy", "dog", "cat", "horse"). If I learn "The friend of the young woman is happy" I can generate a lot of other correct sentences, again, by replacing "woman" with some other words I might know - "of the" is not suddenly going to mean something completely different if I replace "woman" with "man" or "boy".

Suppose English worked like this: "The young woman is happy" works the way it does now. If I want to say this of a man, I have to say "Of the young man is happy." Also, instead of saying " I gave the books to the young men" I would have to express this meaning by saying "I gave the books of the young men".

If I then come across some new word in the phrase "of the young x". I can't know, just from seeing the words "of the", what "of the" means here; I need to know which category of word x belongs to. To get all these things right when speaking, though, I just need to drill and drill and drill and drill and drill, until they all come automatically in the right context.

It's boring for a native speaker to to drill someone for the amount of time it takes to get something like this right, so even if you're willing to pay you can't easily find someone willing to do it.

Asaf Bartov said...

HD: "You're never going to find "ho" linked to, um, feminine genitive singular nouns, feminine dative singular nouns, and genitive plural nouns."

Well, there *is* the feature that, in my teaching experience, confuses beginners, e.b. Plato's maxim "koina ta philwn".

HD: "It's boring for a native speaker to to drill someone for the amount of time it takes to get something like this right, so even if you're willing to pay you can't easily find someone willing to do it."

Yes. Enter computer software. From generic flash-card simulators (my favorite is Mnemosyne -- http://mnemosyne-proj.sourceforge.net ), to specifically-german article- and noun-declension software. It's how I would do it.