Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Tenses" Part 2


Continuing…

For any one languaculture, the issues related to tense and aspect can be complex indeed, with one-many, many-one and many-many relationships between form and function, and with tense and aspect interacting with other areas, such as mood, case marking and person and number agreement. If we look across languacultures, the complexities become astronomical. The GPA reacts against turning “language learning” into a feat of intellectual prowess. We want to give the recently retired, lifelong homemaker the same opportunity as the recently graduated medical doctor or engineer (or linguist). In any case, in the GPA and Six Phase Programme, we don’t have “grammar goals” that are independent of the normal pattern of growing participation in the practices of host people, which includes increasingly talking the way they talk.

In Phase 1, the primary speech that is in the GP’s growth zone is speech about the here-and-now (which is why we call Phase 1 the Here-and-Now Phase). Now if we wanted to talk about it in grammatical terms, then we might expect terms such as “present progressive,” “stative” and “imperative”. We meet such forms in great abundance (an “input flood”) first in listening comprehension, and later in spoken production.

In Phase 2A, there is a natural sequence forward. First, the GPs and nurturer describe the contents of pages of a picture story book using the here-and-now forms that are already familiar from Phase 1, using verb after verb after verb, including many verbs that are first encountered in Phase 2A. By the time the GPs and nurturer reach the end of the first picture story, the story’s verbs, in their here-and-now forms, are old friends. When the nurturer then retells the whole book, not a description of the separate pages, but rather, for the first time as a story, using the story-event forms of verbs, there will be a powerful new flood of those story-event forms. The “past tense” (or whatever is used to mark events in stories) will have been born in the comprehension systems of the GPs. It needs a chance to grow and become strong.

In Phase 2B, the sequence of activities begins with the nurturer’s story already in the “past tense” (or whatever the story-event form is). In many host languacultures, though, we find that when it is the GPs’ turn to “retell” the story that the nurturer first told, and that they subsequently massaged together, the GPs can do pretty well at describing the pages, but not at telling the story as a true story. Describing the pages in the “here-and-now” is all we expect them to be able to do.  (And to think, people panic over the question, “Why aren’t we learning the past tense?” in Phase 1A).

I can say this with some confidence based on extensive findings that underlie the US government’s  FSI/ILR Proficiency levels. Level 1 proficiency is primarily tied to “present tense,” while the ability to “narrate,” belongs to Level 2 (which means it might be underway somewhat in Level 1+). On the average, reaching Level 1 proficiency in typical languages takes 480 contact hours (480 hours of supercharged participation). Reaching Level 2 takes a total of 720 contact hours. So consistent narrative ability comes after 720 hours of supercharged participation activities and in the Six Phase Programme, that would mean nearly half way through Phase 4. Nevertheless, story-telling ability evolves gradually, and so in Phase 3, when the flood of “past tense” (etc.) forms had turned into a torrent, GPs will try, with the nurturer’s help as needed, to retell the nurturer’s complex and textured stories in a bare event-chain-form story, using the story-event form verbs in their own speech in an “output flood”.

Again, the GPA doesn't follow a grammar-driven agenda, but rather certain families of word forms (or other grammatical cues) come into playwith force --often as "input floods"--as the GP comes to participate in new forms of discourse through the six phases. Grammar is not a set of instructions for forming well-formed sentences, but rather a set of cues in the speech stream, and appropriate reactions to those cues, during the listening comprehension process. Grammatical details are comprehension cues. Production mechanisms, on the other hand, aim to provide the cues that comprehension system looks for. 

As GPs struggle to express themselves in host-like ways at their current level of discourse, and as their nurturers aid them, they will gain momentum in forming sentences that sound more-and-more host-like. If they like lots of Greek and Latin-laden terminology, like "deontic and epistemic modalities," that is fine. If they freeze up with grammar anxiety when they hear terms like "noun and verb," that's OK, too. The changing discourses of the Six-Phase Programme will lead to increasing familiarity with how host people talk, and the GPs' interactions with host people will draw them more and more into the host practices. More and more, I said. Almost certainly less than all the way. Probably a lot less!