Sunday, 24 October 2010

Language Spikes


I recently use the word spike to describe the Pimsleur approach whilst commenting on a post at Randy picked up on the term spike as a good term and I realised that although I use this term myself it doesn't seem to be used very much in language learning (as far as I can tell). I am used to hearing the term applied to software development, a definition from here is quite appropriate: A spike is a narrow but deep coding experiment that allows the developers to see how various functions might work and to better estimate both system performance and the difficulty of the coding. The key concepts here are "narrow" and "deep".

The spike

Right from the first time I started learning languages I have seen most learning material as various types of spike. Inevitability learning materials want to give learners a feeling that they are making progress and this often entails build up a conversational exchange and penetrating the language to some depth, without the time to develop related vocabulary, alternative ways of saying things etc. this also inevitably leads to a narrow understanding of single area of the language.

Self learners can also make their own spikes, concentrating on the vocabulary required for a discrete task, a daily chore, a certain interaction with a single person can also involve raising a deep and narrow spike into the language.

Advantages and disadvantages

Spikes generally work better for output, as a speaker you can get away with knowing only one way to say something, even if there is a more eloquent way to say what you want, your spike will give you perfectly acceptable ways to say it. As long as the conversation progresses roughly in the expected direction spikes can give you an opportunity to have a conversation early on and they can introduce elements of the language like grammar that you wouldn't meet at first.

Spikes can rapidly collapse, the more potential variability that is introduced the more chance that the spike will fail you. The biggest problem of course is that there are many ways of saying the same thing, if talking with someone who is helping you learn a language or in a very formulaic situation, then they will probably stick to the scripts but perfect strangers may wander in any direction.

The more spikes you have raised the greater the opportunity to jump from one to the other and the more vocabulary you pick up the broader the base. Eventually everything should hopefully start to join up.

The basic spikes

The most basic spikes that people may acquire first are usually to do with ritualised politeness, food and drink and perhaps interaction with people they may interested in on a romantic level.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting point. I'd never thought of it in this way. I think it's quite a good motivational metaphor - you're building up your forest of spikes in the hope of catching more and more meaning.