Improving L2 Performance with Pirahã, Shigudo, and Simple English
The effects of syntactic and semantic priming on successful L2 communication
Jeannot Van Tricasse
Jules Verne University
As is well known, students of foreign languages are often frustrated by their lack of ability to express thoughts of normal complexity in the language they are studying.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 This frustration can easily turn into a bitterness that leaves the student unable or unwilling to continue their language studies, even after a year or more of study.11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20 This is an unfortunate state of affairs for many reasons.
Bilingualism has been implicated in greater cognitive flexibility, earlier literacy, improved metalinguistic awareness, and greater inhibitory control; and while second language fluency in post-pubescent learners is rare, there is still the potential for significant cognitive benefits from language learning. General dissatisfaction with the L2 acquisition process translates into decreased enrollment in language courses; while this often has no direct effect on the Linguistics Department at a given university, at least some students of linguistics come to the study of Language by way of an interest in languages.21 More directly, a lack of even a working knowledge of other languages has led some linguistic researchers to make some supremely stupid claims.22
Based on earlier research on the effects of semantic and syntactic priming on word choice, style, and sentence complexity, I set about to design a method to prime L2 learners to construct their utterances in such a way as to simplify syntax and limit word choice, thus leading to improved L2 performance and increased satisfaction with the L2 acquisition process in learners. Since I was unable to find any serious research in this area, I based my initial experimental design on anecdotes I had heard from colleagues that seemed to hint at a workable method.
My first experiment was based on the comments of McBastard (2009), and consisted of instructing the test subjects to use simple syntax and limit themselves to a controlled vocabulary of about 1500 words. Those who failed to comply were hit with rulers until they complied or refused to participate further. The early results were mixed. A full 84% of participants left the project. Of those that remained, 95% were able to modify the complexity of their linguistic output on command. However, the experiment was shut down due to numerous complaints from participants who refused to complete the training phase of the experiment.23
My second experiment was based on anecdotal evidence that reading and editing the Simple English Wikipedia for extended periods has a lasting effect on the reader’s vocabulary choice (Munroe 2009). The goal of the Simple English Wikipedia is to provide articles in English using only about 1000 common words, with short sentences and simplified syntax, aimed at making the articles accessible to non-Native speakers of English. In this experiment,24 test subjects were given one of two tasks, either reading the Simple English Wikipedia or translating articles from the regular English Wikipedia into the Simple English Wikipedia. After four hours at either task, subjects were tested on their L2 performance and their level of frustration with their L2 performance. Both improved significantly (and in direct proportion to the concomitant degradation in the subjects’ L1 complexity). The effect lasted for several hours.
My third experiment was based on my own experience with students who had been assigned to read Everett 2008 or Gladstone-Chamberlain 2006. After reading the glosses provided in the two articles, several students began to mimic the simplified and repetitive syntax of the Pirahã and Shigudo glosses in a mocking way. While their behavior was wholly inappropriate (a handful of students were expelled from JVU for “behavior unbecoming a scholar” as a result of the incident), it nonetheless provided the seed of an interesting idea. Several subjects read glosses of Shigudo and Pirahã for an hour, and were then tested on their L2 performance and frustration as before. Again, both improved, while L1 complexity decreased (and L1 repetitiveness increased as well).
As at least two of these experiments show, it is possible for the semantic and syntactic priming effects of reading or producing simplified language to enhance an L2 learner’s ability to produce such simplified language. This effect, almost paradoxically, increases L2 success along several relevant dimensions.
One word of caution is in order, though. We discovered after all experiments were conducted that there was one undergraduate who volunteered for both the Simple English Wikipedia and Shigudo/Pirahã anti-complexity experiments. The sad conclusion of that student’s experience is that one can definitely have too much of a good thing. During the last experiment, the student showed significantly greater than average complexity reduction, indicating a potentially beneficial resonance between the two techniques. However, unlike the other experimental subjects, the effect did not fade with time, but rather intensified. After two days, the subject was reduced to a gibbering idiot and was forced to change majors and seek an MBA.25
• Everett, Daniel (2008). Don’t Sleep There are Snakes. Pantheon.
• Gladstone-Chamberlain, Edmund C. (2006). “Shigudo, Reluctantly”. SpecGram CLII.γ.
• McBastard, Butch (2009). Personal communication: “All I knew in grammar school was that if I stopped splitting infinitives, the nuns would stop hitting me with rulers. And our Cult of Marduk nuns hit a lot harder than the Catholic nuns!”
• Munroe, Randall (2009). “Simple”. xkcd 547.
1 Bryon Wilbert Cloud Bowensness, Sr., distressed student of Silozi at Potsdam University, personal communication, 2009.
2 Josefina Rider, distressed student of Evenki at University of Paraguay, personal communication, 2008.
3 Uá Jerold Waltersski, Jr., distressed student of Kankanai at Métis-sur-Mer Community College, personal communication, 2007.
4 Maybell J. Laynedahl, distressed student of Batak Mandailing at University of Texas, personal communication, 2006.
5 Rick Lincoln Allard, IV, distressed student of Mazandarani at Towngeorge University, personal communication, 2005.
6 Gianna Lilli Harmon Mauldin, distressed student of Mazandarani at Calgary College, personal communication, 2004.
7 Garfield Joey Greerstrom, distressed student of Minaean at Nagoya University, personal communication, 2003.
8 Karlene Z. Monahan, distressed student of Pothohari at Bosnia University, personal communication, 2002.
9 Melvin Michael Leonard, distressed student of Parachi at Naples College, personal communication, 2001.
10 Mertie U. Speoshwuufloex-Phráicuep, distressed student of Kxoe at Princeton University, personal communication, 2000.
11 Bryon Wilbert Cloud Bowensness, Sr., unhappy former student of Silozi at Potsdam University, personal communication, 2010.
12 Josefina Rider, unhappy former student of Evenki at University of Paraguay, personal communication, 2009.
13 Uá Jerold Waltersski, Jr., unhappy former student of Kankanai at Métis-sur-Mer Community College, personal communication, 2008.
14 Maybell J. Laynedahl, unhappy former student of Batak Mandailing at University of Texas, personal communication, 2007.
15 Rick Lincoln Allard, IV, unhappy former student of Mazandarani at Towngeorge University, personal communication, 2006.
16 Gianna Lilli Harmon Mauldin, unhappy former student of Mazandarani at Calgary College, personal communication, 2005.
17 Garfield Joey Greerstrom, unhappy former student of Minaean at Nagoya University, personal communication, 2004.
18 Karlene Z. Monahan, unhappy former student of Pothohari at Bosnia University, personal communication, 2003.
19 Melvin Michael Leonard, unhappy former student of Parachi at Naples College, personal communication, 2002.
20 Mertie U. Speoshwuufloex-Phráicuep, unhappy former student of Kxoe at Princeton University, personal communication, 2001.
21 Trey Jones, happy former student of Spanish and French at Cornell University and happy former student of Linguistics at Rice University, personal communication, 2010.
22 Citations omitted to protect the guilty, and to forestall libel lawsuits.
23 The failure of this project also led to the demise of the Fast Track Human Subject Review process at JVU.
24 Approved after three years by the Very Close Scrutiny and Careful Consideration Human Subject Review process at JVU.
25 This incident also led to the implementation of the new Cross-Experiment Human Subject Review protocol at JVU, which has brought all experimentation in the social sciences to a complete standstill.