"RECURSION"
Must Be Why I Do, What I Do, in ESL


Theodore A. (Ted) Klein, Jr.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine gave me the May 2003 edition of "Discover Magazine." He gave it to me because of an article about the Appalachian Melungeon people, from whom I'm descended, on my mother's side. For more information on this subject, if you are curious, go to www.melungeons.com
I had a feature article on that website in 2002, called, "An Appalachian Mystery Story."
Back to the subject at hand, I was looking through a paragraph on page 14 of that "Discover Magazine" this week, and my eye caught on the headline, "And What Does A Human Say." The short article is mostly about a Harvard biologist, neurologist, linguist, etc. Dr. Marc Hauser, who studies, among other things, both animal and human communication, language and speech. It first mentions an Australian Cockatoo, that "sounds almost human when she says 'hallo,' 'bye bye,' 'I love you' and dozens of other words and phrases. She even utters them in the correct context." Then came the words that struck me. "So why doesn't this count as language? THE ONLY MEANINGFUL DISTINCTION BETWEEN HUMAN SPEECH AND NONHUMAN ANIMAL VOCALIZATIONS.......IS THE POWER OF RECURSION: HUMANS ALONE CAN TAKE DISCRETE ELEMENTS SUCH AS WORDS OR NUMBERS AND COMBINE THEM TO CREATE AN INFINITE VARIETY OF EXPRESSIONS."
I quickly went to Google and put in "recursion." I was soon surrounded, by articles on mathematics. I don't do math or windows! (However, I do Windows 98.) I went back and put in "recursion in language," including the quotes, to limit the search subject. I also put in "Dr. Marc D. Hauser." I printed out several of his articles and those of others, and am still trying to absorb them. Some of the information is rather technical, but I believe that the essence got through.
Without going into all of the details, I felt that an instinctive sense of how to stimulate L2 recursion, may be why some language teachers are competent, without even knowing about recursion as a driving force, while others don't measure up to what can really be done in a language classroom. I have seen nothing yet, that Dr. Hauser and others said, about the actual application of this concept, in language teaching. However, RECURRING into a new code system, may be what language acquisition is all about! A key article on recursion appeared in Science Magazine in 2002. It was Hauser, M.D. N. Chomsky and W.T. Fitch, "The faculty of language: What is it, who has it and how did it evolve?" This may be found in Science 298: pages 1569-1579. I have not yet been able to access it.
I have always felt that acquiring a new language is best done in the same sequence that we acquire our native languages; listening, speaking, then later reading and writing as separate skills. Motivated adult native speakers of another language have the advantage of being able to respond to systematic language training, on a mature level. Native speakers of languages have the advantage of starting their languages without clutter and baggage from other languages and also they are younger, which certainly has an effect.
I sense, as I read these various aspects of recursion, that my opinion may be vindicated. The first thing that I always do with new ESL students, at all levels, is to work on their systematic abilities to listen to vowel sounds in English and identify them numerically, before repetition. 1. beat, 2 bit, 3. bait, 4. bet 5. bat, 6 bot (fly) 7. bought 8. boat 9. book 10. boot 11. but. If you can't hear it accurately, you can't make it. This skill does not come from written English! The next step is to use my "bag of tricks" and have them quickly identify objects of realia from the bag and identify the vowel sounds of these objects, using tightly controlled structures; What's this? It's a bead. What color is the bead? The bead is red. What are these? They're beads. What color are the beads? The beads are white. What's this? It's AN apple? What color is the apple? The apple is red. What are these? They're apples. What color are the apples? The apples are red. What's this? It's water. etc.
Even students who are more "advanced" often find that making quick and automatic responses is quite difficult, UNTIL we have done this enough times so that adequate reinforcement takes place, without time to think in their native languages.
Even when students have limited vocabularies, they may COMMUNICATE better through their abilities to MANIPULATE language than some of their peers who have larger vocabularies and lots of language "information." A macaw couldn't do the following! We're "better."
From there we move on to substitution exercises, which may be the epitome of "contrived recursion facilitation:"

TEACHER-John has a car. (REPEAT)
STUDENTS-John has a car.
TEACHER (truck)
STUDENTS John has a truck.
TEACHER (friend)
John has a friend

After that, we go through the following and we start mixing syntactic elements:
TEACHER-John has a friend. (REPEAT)
STUDENTS-John has a friend. TEACHER-(sees)
STUDENTS-John sees a friend.
TEACHER-(We)
STUDENTS-We see a friend.
TEACHER-(know)
STUDENTS-We know a friend. etc.


When this infinite type of exercise started, decades ago, there were some problems with implementation. For one thing, some of the sentences themselves made no sense, which was not a problem to a previous generation of academic theoreticians. They felt that, "as long as the process indicated syntactic consistency and habituation, that was all that was needed." Another problem was a lack of variety in lessons. The good news is that if this type of "pattern drill" is used within meaningful context, along with OTHER kinds of exercises, it still works and moves students along much more effectively than grammar lectures, translation, staring at computers, and reading out loud.
The point is that the above exercises represent a system that will help language students switch to new communication systems quicker and easier. If we have a common English structure: "He is a teacher," and stack it up next to Arabic, which would come out, "Huwa mudaris," ("He teacher"), we may find only two common syntactic elements, not including vocabulary changes. Arabic doesn't have or require, a "to be" verb in the present tense, nor would an article be required in this context. We can spend all day trying to explain that grammatical fact in English or Arabic, or we can simply design or find an exercise to facilitate a CHANGE in recursion habits from one language to another.
It's all about PERFORMANCE again, having great priority over information, for most of us. Now maybe we know why. It's also much easier for students to acquire information after performance occurs. Students can relate to cognitive input much better AFTER they can DO it.

Comments, kudos, more input, or good arguments are always welcome.
Theodore A. (Ted) Klein, Jr.