The ‘m’ word.

M is for..... Image by @gemmateaches at eltpics

Multi-tasking. As a word, we either love it or hate it.

In response to a blog post on Jeremy Harmer’s blog, back in November, I wrote a long response, which I revisited yesterday. Having waded through my own words (dismayingly opaque, but too quickly written – always a good excuse) I decided to add blog to the top of my To Do list – a list which theoretically keeps me from multi-tasking too much and maintains my focus (haha, does it ‘eck).

Essentially Jeremy’s post (and some of the comments) suggests that we can’t multitask efficiently, and that maybe this has implications for the classroom. He had written his post after finding himself “listening to Shaun Wilden talking at the IHWO online conference at the same time as … trying to create a handwritten sample for a new book…. The news was on too, and (he) was also tweeting about the conference and other things. (He) was MULTI-TASKING! … The thing is, (he) wasn’t doing any of it very well or very efficiently…
The question Jeremy then posed, quoting Rodney Batstone was: “do tasks which require simultaneous processing of form and meaning ‘overload the learners’ system, leading to less intake rather than more’? (‘Key concepts’ section of ELT Journal 50/3, 1996)” and he went on to wonder “Perhaps if … language learning is focused, uni-directional and uncluttered, then it will be more successful. Perhaps by restricting the input we would give (kids) a better start, a better chance – and perhaps many of the more exciting and excitable activities that we all love so much may actually get in the way. … MAYBE …..maybe we should simplify things down? Back to substitution dialogues? Restrict rather than amplify? Get kids on-task, one task at a time. Only one.

Cut to the chase.
Having read Jeremy’s post, my initial reaction screamed at me “Too simplified!”, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. It took an hour or so of cooking while washing dishes, answering sons’ questions, listening to a running commentary on a basketball match (also from sons), and humming along to the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack all at the same time to provide me with some perspective on the matter. Some perspective and three key issues: automaticity, control, and similarity of tasks (ie that require a similar type of processing).

By this, I mean familiarity with a task.

On the road to automaticity?... Image by @klizbarker at eltpics

When you learn something new, like reversing a car, playing a musical instument, salsa dancing, or (in my case) spinning (trying to listen to instructions, copy what others are doing, work out how the bike works and do everything in time to music), none of the tasks involved are familiar, so the intense feeling of pressure and the chances of making a mess of things are high. But with time and practice, it all becomes automatic and – well, like riding a bike (a perfect case of multi-tasking).

An example of seemingly impossible multi-tasking activities becoming doable is simultaneous translation. Interpreting. At first, it is nigh-on impossible to do, but with training and practice, it’s a doddle. Almost. It is, of course, tiring, and one thing you can’t do while interpreting is think your own thoughts, but the rest becomes automatic. When I studied interpreting, British sports presenter Desmond Lynam was the example we were given of someone who could efficiently concentrate on four or five things (auto-cue, earphone, in-coming results on the teleprinter, self,..) at a time and still be ‘in control’.
The bottom line is we can’t do several new things at the same time efficiently, as none of them are ‘automatic’ yet and all need ‘full’ focus and processing. You can listen to the news while making an omelette, can’t you? And maybe even tweet as you beat. But if you listen to the news and a conference talk at the same time, both imply newness, new and totally unrelated information; concentrating on both at the same time is virtually impossible and would require that intense, stress/mess-inducing effort.

Focusing on form and meaning in language, on the other hand, is something we do at least since birth, and probably before as far as suprasegmental pron features are concerned. It’s second nature, particularly for children, who are closer to that Total Learning stage, or where the alphabet used is familiar. (Adult or post-writing learners from a culture with a different writing system will need to separate form at some stage.) Also, in language learning, newness of  form and meaning can be interrelated, you can use the one to support the other via mnemonics or similar. In some languages, separating form and meaning is a meaningless task anyway; where much of the grammar is carried by morphemes, you have to process form and meaning simultaneously.

Ultimately, for children to have meaning and form separated, or to meet form and meaning independently of any other activity is to underload, not the opposite. Learning language while busy with something else is just part of life, whether discovering the world around them (eg we all learn the term primary colours while learning what they are and how we can mix them – imagine teaching a child the ‘sound shape’ first, drilling it, THEN letting them discover what it means?) or later, through video games, superhero names, buzzwords, or, say, experiments like Sugata Mitra’s (imagine how that would’ve gone if he’d attempted to focus on language forms, then meaning, then let the kids loose with the computers). Adults might feel they need the language first (though I’ve only ever once had a student state that she ‘needed all the words‘ before she could speak) but that is related to self-esteem, image of inner selves issues etc, not because of any other type of limitation. When learning a language, at least through choice, first comes the desire to speak, surely, then the words fall in naturally. With children (tho not teens) first comes the desire to speak whether learning a language or not. Communicating experience. Making sense of the world.
(This is why I struggle with pre-teaching vocab, sometimes – it’s disembodied blah until the students have encountered the context. It seems to assume they can’t focus on forms while focusing on meaning, that they need to go from the little picture to the big, not vice versa. But that’s a different thread. Back to multi-tasking.)

Look, listen, play, read music....and hopefully all at the same time! Image by @CliveSir on eltpics

I can ponder blog posts, rehearse talks, sing, listen to the radio or hold entire conversations in my head while driving, but it’s statistically proven that we’re not good at arguing behind the wheel.  When I’m holding my internal conversations, I can tell myself to shut up when I need to increase concentration in heavy traffic, bad weather conditions etc. but in an argument, you have no control over the other speaker and it takes sang froid to be able to suddenly blank it all out and just drive. When listening to a conference speaker and a newsreader, you can’t ask either of them to be quiet a mo so you can focus fully on the other. Control over information intake and processing affects our capacity for multi-tasking. The Woah, sssh, lemme think a minute factor. Think of those activities which require students to listen to a CD and do something else at the same time; they can get lost in the comprehension activity, and consequently lost re the (non-stopping) recording – it’s worth thinking hard about the execution of listening tasks and how much control students would need to multi-task efficiently.
In processing language, if given enough ‘time-space’, we can focus on the aspect (form or meaning) we feel we need to focus on, we can note the form first then the meaning or vice versa; it’s in our own mind, so we control the focus. I guess what happens isn’t strictly multi-tasking, as we probably do shift focus, but those shifts may take micro-seconds, and from the teacher’s point of view – and the learner’s – it’s as good as doing the two things simultaneously. But we do need that ‘time-space’, to be allowed to process at our own pace, to find our own meaning from context. To attach our own ‘story’ to the piece of language so that it finds its own retrievable place in our mind. Of course, if you’re in a class and your teacher is determined to get to the end of his/her plan by the end of the lesson and rushes you…. Well, that’s another story. That’s not teaching, that’s following a plan with blinkers on. So control is another key factor and interrelated to the time available to achieve the tasks in hand. And both are vital to carrying out multi-processing tasks in the language classroom. The arguments for why this multi-processing needn’t be in isolation from other activities are the same as above. We can process while playing a game or learning our part for a play or… any number of things.

Similarity of task
Obviously, although I can think about blog posts while I drive/cook, I can’t write them down. Both tasks require the use of both hands. You can sing in the shower, but can you clean the bathroom window while you soap yourself? It’s like that trick of patting your head while rotating your other hand over your paunch / abs. And see if your average teen can watch TV, do homework and listen to a parent all at the same time (efficiently or not….). Of course they can’t.

Ever sent an sms to the wrong person? Image by @sandymillin at eltpics

Ever sent an email/text message to the wrong person because you were thinking about them while writing to someone else? If we multi-task, trying to use the same part of the brain for each task isn’t going to work, whether it’s the part that operates our hands, the part that we use to process aural input, the one that thinks of people’s names, the one for oral output or visual input,… can we react to two completely different danger signals at once? No, we tend to prioritise. I once cracked my spine trying not to smash a pile of plates belonging to my ex-mother-in-law….

Listening to and processing the news and a talk obviously both use the same parts of the brain, they’re both about making sense of aural input. Focusing on form and meaning at the same time is a different case: the processing may seem similar, but form is (obviously) ‘shape’ either sound or sight, whilst meaning is conceptual, they’re stored in different places in your brain (recall slips and stroke sufferers’ language recall difficulties show this), though if your teacher decided to teach you a word in Japanese and a totally different word in Thai at the same time, you’d probably not be at your most efficient when trying to learn them. Too much going on.

Some of those listening activities that involve filling in text boxes while you listen to a recording are examples of potentially inefficient multi-tasking activities for language learners, as students have to process meaning, and focus on both ‘shape’ forms at the same time. The argument is that they replicate taking notes in, say, a university class – but I studied in two ‘foreign’ countries, and took notes phonetically when words were unfamiliar, as I could process them or look them up later. Not the case in your average language learning class – and misspelt words are not acceptable…. However, if you take the time to think about what you expect your kids (or adults) to do, no problems. Songs with familiar gestures and TPR with younger kids, using images, picture dictations, drama, projects especially designing something or reading then going from information input to output (eg in CLIL classes), writing journals (I hate all this ‘follow a template’ writing stuff that abounds in coursebooks, nowadays, where students are required to memorise some fixed text structure as well as the language, so the check list in the wretched exam is far too long – as an ‘as well as’, maybe, and for older teens, but not an instead of), blogs, unplugged classes, no complex use of faffy games etc.
So. Much longer response than the original post! I reckon we all multi-task sometimes, and efficiency has to do with the tasks and what they require of us as individuals; paring your classes down to substitution drills and the likes is not efficiency – it’s not THAT simple.



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14 responses to “The ‘m’ word.

  1. Hi Fiona

    I was really grabbed by this post because you got me thinking of the whole ‘form and meaning’ debate. I just want to share a recent experience with you that your post got me onto.

    My six year-old son is really into Star Wars at the moment. For Christmas he got this Star Wars key ring that when you push buttons it makes the sounds of Yoda, Darth Vader, Chewbacca and the likes. One of the sounds is of those funny little teddy bear like creatures (don’t know their name). They have their own language that only C3PO can understand. But anyway my son has learned to do a pretty good impersonation of them. What’s more interesting though (and highly amusing) is that my two-year daughter old has been listening to his impressions and now she impersonates him. They both delight in their new language 🙂

    another story…

    Recently my son learned to read in Spanish as we were living in Spain last year and he went to the local primary. He did this although he didn’t understand the words in front of him on the paper nor did he know the words represented by images on the pages. Anyway he can read, and now does so in English back in year 2 in England. And he had only just started to learn to read before we left for Spain a year earlier.

    So can we say for sure that form and meaning are processed simultaneously in relation to child language / literacy acquisition? If processing is sequential, which comes first (and does it matter anyway)? And in order to ‘learn’ form do we always need meaning? Equally to focus on meaning how relevant is the form in each case? Answers to these questions are of course very relevant to ELT. I suppose as teachers we just need to consider these things in our lessons so that we focus on form or meaning or both when critical i.e. how changes in form relate to changes in meaning.

    Thanks for the food thought here Fiona, now I better get back on with my work as I’m supposed to be doing 🙂

    Best wishes

    • Richard! Hi!
      Ewoks, I think they’re called. Where can I get one of those keyrings?
      When I say children can process form and meaning at the same time, they can, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes just process form – or approximate form. Recently my sons have been singing along to this Brazilian hit that seems to be, erm, rocking the world. They started by listening and then singing ‘Ay seu ti pegu’. They then looked up the correct title on youtube (Ai se eu te pego, they’re telling me), so got the ‘visual’ form and drew conclusions about elision in Portuguese. The last thing they did (after seeing a footballer ‘dance’ to the thing) was find out the meaning. Monotasking at its glorious best, (I also learned ‘Riding along on a Christopher Wave’ first…). Kids are (quite) good at picking up form without meaning when there isn’t enough contextual information, but they are also experts at picking up both form and meaning when there is. I remember some really smallies (3 year olds) in a class of mine who managed to forget the names of the colours in L1 when learning the English ones, as they had ‘entangled’ the English sound form and meaning so effectively, they’d deleted the L1 ones! The parents were amazed 🙂 (read ‘bemused’).
      Babies/under 2s ‘get’ the meaning quicker than the form of words – leaving parents amongst the few who understand their offspring most of the time…
      Form and meaning are fascinating to look at, and I think form is the far more volatile, proving that we don’t ALWAYS think in words, but best left for another blog post perhaps 😉

  2. You did a great job at reflecting on it, relating it to language learning and putting it all down in a clear and concise way, Fiona.

    After reading it, I couldn’t help but think about another issue that came up when Jeremy wrote that post and that there was some discussion on which is the belief that women are naturally better at multi-tasking. I think there is true to that, but not that it is a natural thing, but rather something developed. It is more common for women to have to multi-task, especially because taking care of the kids and the house usually falls more upon us. And that skill is carried on to other areas of our lives as well.

    Good Sunday morning read…woman, you’re on fire! 🙂

    • Hi Ceci,
      nice to ‘see’ you 🙂
      Yes, I deliberately skipped the gender issue here – in fact, a lot of the … in my quote from Jeremy’s post replace the gender comments. I’ve missed it out here as I really think it’s different debate altogether and related to social gender roles and/or stereotyping, as you say, rather than genetics. Desmond Lynam is definitely a man, with a moustache well-known enough to earn money for charity when he shaved it off. And moustaches are, on the whole, gender specific NOT social convention. I do agree, though, that women are – or were – expected to be able to cope with several things at the same time, which would traditionally mean cook and cradle, while keeping an eye on older bairns. But in modern times, that is no longer true – we’re all expected to be able to do it; 21st century life requires everyone to be able to cook, keep an eye on the kids and skype at the same time, eat, listen, take notes and contribute in meetings etc etc. Efficiency, I’m convinced, is dependent on the type of tasks you ‘multi’, not on your X/Y chromosomes.
      Burnin, burnin,

      • Yes, Fiona, agreed on the difference between the past and now with regard to multi-tasking and its gender influences. The things we are expected to multi-task though may be different, but nonetheless numerous.

  3. Hello Fiona,

    it’s great to read your (longer) blog post on the issue of multi-tasking. I have read it with care. As you know I am doing a talk (for the first time) next week in Thailand called ‘The myth of multi-tasking and the force of focus’ – which deals with these issues again.

    You are right of course that children can and do process meaning and form at the same time. That’s children for you. Puberty & post puberty? Things are more complex there, and there is every reason to agree with Stephen Pinker that people should be allowed to use their ‘considerable intellects’ for processing language. Krashen of course would, however, just say all they need is comprehensible input in a relaxed setting. Others (and this was why people picked up on ‘noticing’ so avidly), say that you need to pay some kind of attention to language before you are ready to ‘learn’ it. That’s the whole argument in a sense.

    You are right that the amount of attention you can give to different things depends on how different or similar those things are and/or how similar they are (I like the Japanese/Thai example). I have thought of 4 different situations for my talk (after reading your original comments on my post) – namely ironing & watching TV, driving, having X applications open , drinking coffee and talking on the phone, & playing from music in a concert. In each case the amount of attention you can give to the different things is different (e.g. when you are playing from a score you simply can NOT give attention to other things going on around you if you want to do it at all well).

    And in language learning? Well what IS the best way of directing students’ attention? Conversational interaction with scaffolded focus, grammar games (like word order activities?), having students learn lists of things for tests (as millions and millions of kids do around the world with e.g. pictograms?

    Too many questions, I know: but presumably (since the students we teach do not have the luxury of 100% comprehensible input & interaction) one of our responsibilities is help our students to focus their attention on things that matter. But how? And on what?!

    And of course it isn’t simple at all! That was just me trying to get some reaction!

    And the gender thing? One of my favourite books ever is Debbie Cameron’s ‘Myth of Mars and Venus’. Acquired gender roles, not gender!


    • Hi Jeremy,
      thanks for taking the time to ‘drop in’ and write such a thoughtful/thought-provoking comment. I wish there was a ‘respond to comment chunk by chunk’ option, but alas…
      First, re puberty (more than post) I think teens still have the child’s ability to process form and meaning fast and efficiently, but as there’s so much other stuff going on in their psyches, there has to be a considerable amount of motivation added to the mix. I’m familiar with Krashen but have never been quite convinced that ‘Krashen-theory’ can be applied in all contexts. That’s another story, perhaps, but the main thing I disagree with is the ‘relaxed’ bit. I think you need some tension, which translates as Desire, in the context for a teen to really process efficiently and fast. Desire is one of THE main forces in an adolescent’s life – desire in various senses, I mean. ‘I want to be me’ predisposes us to ‘I want new, exciting relationships, preferably with a touch of the exotic’. The desire to connect with other peers. Where accuracy is merely decoration in this context, teens are highly capable of processing meaning and form eg while playing tennis, flirting, following the herd etc and can go from zero to competent in a very short time – but I don’t think the word ‘relaxed’ really applies. Desire-driven thirst, perhaps.
      This relates to your third paragraph re the best way of directing attention/focus towards the language. Picking up on the ‘desire’ thing, at least with teens the best way to direct their focus is to get them to focus on something they want. Not just their needs but their desires. That could be to understand the lyrics of a song (like the Ai se eu te pego example above (my reply to Richard), to revise something for a school exam, to decypher a David Hockney picture – en vogue, but I had an art nut 15 year-old class some years ago, and they ‘discovered’ Hockney and devoured stuff on his work! – they may want to express their beliefs or dreams in a blog etc etc etc. As a dogme person, to me this means they provide the content focus, the language they need comes from whatever gaps they uncover, and I provide the input. Scaffolded conversation (or written self-expression) lessons work, but so do grammar games, illustrated lists, making posters to practise form (there’s an example in the Looking forward section of this post ….. It’s up to us to know our students and know how they learn, to know ourselves and know what we’re good at using effectively. And, now you’ve drawn my attention to the ‘multi-tasking’ issue, to think about what all our techniques actually require our students to juggle.
      (I could easily get another post out of this!…)
      Oh, and I’m only really speaking of teens here, but that’s the focus of this blog – adults will have to look for another context 😉 Like YOUR blog.
      Thanks again,

  4. Hi Fiona,

    My first reaction was visual — ahhh, who remarked that length was not a cornerstone of their posts? — but don’t get me wrong. Each and every post is full of captivating content! I’m not sure it could be more concise and be as together.

    Actually, I love this style of post–one that responds to or takes a tangent of that from another. It’s like what blog challenges do in a less directly encouraging way. It is a goal of mine to run with sparks from posts like this that make me wish to comment besides in the ‘comment’ box…

    I was thinking about automaticity the other day with my students. They have a great deal of struggle listening to and taking notes from a content lecture. They need incredible guidance as to what to write down and when. What made me wonder is if neither of those two processes (listening and comprehending; selecting info and writing it down) are automatic yet or whether there is more to it, like the need to practice the strategies of evaluating important from unimportant info, note organisation, noticing cues from the lecturer, etc. In this way, these two processes are being learnt simultaneously and have multiple sub-processes at work. This slows down their abilities to multi-task even further.

    Anyhoo, maybe it deserves a post of my own.

    • Tyson! Hello!
      I agree with you totally, the best thing about blogging is how it becomes like a mesh, or huge pancontinental conversation. My posts often grow from seeds planted by other people’s blogs or questions in talks – right now, I have a Willy Cardoso post brewing, a Richard post, a Mark Andrews post…. crediting of course.
      Re university note-taking, you need the note-taking training in your own language first, don’t you – those TOEFL exams help a bit but aren’t enough. As you say, it’s the automaticity issue – too much newness at once. But your students probably come from a huge variety of cultural backgrounds – get them to practice listening to talks in their own language on youtube or an online radio channel or similar – any reinforcement will help.
      Looking forward to reading your post 😉

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  7. I liked this post so much I had to write about in on my own blogm here:
    There is so much food for thought here, ideally it should have been a series of posts! Maybe it will be!

  8. Pingback: The ‘m’ word. | Best of the ELT Blogosphere |

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