Monday, January 3, 2011

To check, or not to check

The following was submitted to Global Study Magazine in 2010 but was backed up here as it was needed before it could be published...look for it to appear in print or online soon...-TL, 1-11).

An old debate in linguistics concerns how much of language acquisition is genetic and how much can be accomplished by simple repetition of certain actions until they become automatic; in other words, do good habits play an important role, or will you learn naturally anyway, as you did your native language?

Similarly, one might ask whether bad habits can actually impede language learning, especially when they come in the form of technology that moves you off the right path, or changes grammar for you, making it unnecessary to learn. The technological devices available to the modern language learner provide an interesting insight into the forces of habit and their effect on one’s retention and ability.

Technological aids come in various forms, from machine translators that crunch every word of one language directly into the other, to online “grammar-checkers” which include the one that is built in, as default, onto your word program; they even include online or hand-held dictionaries that are faster than book-dictionaries though often much shallower. In any case, the average student, when writing a paper or an assignment, now spends some time negotiating with the available technology, which sometimes changes what they write as they write, and most student writing products are a combination of what the student originally intended and the influence of the technology available.

The grammar-check function is itself an example of the extensive influence of technology on the writing ability of students. A good point is made that if the machine puts an –s on every present-tense verb that needs it (he walks, he eats) then for all intents and purposes writers don’t need to learn this anymore. It’s much like the calculator argument: it’s true that people don’t know how to multiply large sums anymore, but that’s ok because we always have machines to do it for us. There are several problems with this argument (at least applied to grammar): one is that our permanent impairment in grammar will ultimately hurt us, either when we have no machine, or when we have an unusual situation, and truly don’t understand the logic that put the –s there in the first place. One could argue that we will eventually learn the right grammar, just by watching grammar-check apply it, or by acquiring it naturally - but that doesn’t always work either. Why learn it? My experience is the opposite: students are less likely to learn it, and this tends to be a problem.

We can see several trends with grammar-check that are similar to what happened with spell-check. First, both grammar-check and spell-check were adopted and embraced by mainstream culture without any regard, really, for their influence on learning (much like the calculator): if they are convenient for the majority, then they must be good, right? Second, each function was made for native speakers, and thus grammar-check never felt it needed to explain when something was ungrammatical, or when it was simply a stylistic error (for example, its insistence on changing passives); this distinction is lost on the language learner, who now may get a skewed or inaccurate view of what grammatical correction entails. Third, much as the expectation that everyone use spell-check is widened to include all writers, the appearance of so-called non-words is almost eliminated, but the appearance of wrongly formed or wrongly-used words (their/there/they’re) not only increases but also becomes far more noticeable; the same principles, similarly, can be applied to grammatical structures. Learners who are using technology make far more simple present tenses, formed correctly but used inappropriately, and do less adventurous experimentation with their writing; grammar-check eliminates all poorly formed intermediate steps, and makes it harder for learners to pick up more complex structures. My conclusion is that grammar-checkers are overall still bad for the learning process, even though they are steadily improving and they unquestionably help some learners with some processes of writing.

I mention their steady improvement with no confidence that the machine will take over the process of editing entirely, or ever assure you that you really don’t have to learn grammar at all. In other words, some innovations in technology appear to be great for solving certain problems, but in fact just introduce new ones. The integration of concordance technology into grammar-checkers means that your computer can take an combination of words (say in the other hand) and tell you that 99% of the time (given a huge corpus of English that the computer can quickly study), it’s more likely to be on the other hand. This appears to be a brilliant use of technology that will solve lots of our learners’ problems (that one in particular) much of the time. But in fact this same concordance told one student who had written each others that, basically, whenever there is an s, there’s an apostrophe; he then wrote We talk to each other’s. His grammar wasn’t improving; it was getting worse, much in the same way that spell-check can lead you to absurd words that have nothing to do with what you originally intended. My point is that the kinds of errors people make have changed, and even become harder to decipher; but, good grammar is as elusive as ever.

So, as a learner, what should you do? Your teacher may or may not approve of, or even know about, whatever aid you choose to use. The aid may not be perfect, and in fact may impede your learning. But, if all your classmates are using aids of some kind, and papers throughout the class, or the learning universe, all take on a new look, you should be right in there with your classmates, and do as they do. The teaching world will eventually adjust, and either outlaw technology altogether (on machines that are being used for papers or tests), or figure out how to teach you to use it effectively. It will at least figure out how to include it in the conversation. The technology is like a monkey on your back as you write: it knows just enough to say something, whether it’s appropriate or not, and often makes it difficult for you to concentrate on the main message. But whatever bad things we can say about it, it’s a permanent part of the picture from now on; there’s no avoiding it. The influence of technology is constant force on virtually all writing, and trying to develop yourself outside of this system is impractical and probably even impossible. The influence of this system on our habits and on our minds is most important. I think it is reasonable to argue that this changing of your writing, by spell-check, grammar-check, or whatever, has an important influence on your learning, one that you yourself will have to manage.

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