Teacher Trainers in ELT

This blog is dedicated to improving the quality of teacher training and development in ELT.

 

The Teacher Trainers 

The most influential ELT teacher trainers are those who publish “How to teach” books and articles, have on-line blogs and a big presence on social media, give presentations at ELT conferences, and travel around the world giving workshops and teacher training & development courses. Among them are: Jeremy Harmer, Penny Ur, Nicky Hockley, Adrian Underhill, Hugh Dellar, Sandy Millin, David Deubelbeiss, Jim Scrivener, Willy Cardoso, Peter Medgyes, Mario Saraceni, Dat Bao, Tom Farrell, Tamas Kiss, Richard Watson-Todd, David Hill, Brian Tomlinson, Rod Bolitho, Adi Rajan, Chris Farrell, Marisa Constantinides, Vicki Hollet, Scott Thornbury, and Lizzie Pinard. I apppreciate that this is a rather “British” list, and I’d be interested to hear suggestions about who else should be included. Apart from these individuals, the Teacher Development Special Interest Groups (TD SIGs) in TESOL and IATEFL also have some influence.

What’s the problem? 

Most current teacher trainers and TD groups pay too little attention to the question “What are we doing?”, and the follow-up question “Is what we’re doing effective?”. The assumption that students will learn what they’re taught is left unchallenged, and trainers concentrate either on coping with the trials and tribulations of being a language teacher (keeping fresh, avoiding burn-out, growing professionally and personally) or on improving classroom practice. As to the latter, they look at new ways to present grammar structures and vocabulary, better ways to check comprehension of what’s been presented, more imaginative ways to use the whiteboard to summarise it, and more engaging activities to practice it.  A good example of this is Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “Demand High” project, which leaves unquestioned the well-established framework for ELT and concentrates on doing the same things better. In all this, those responsible for teacher development simply assume that current ELT practice efficiently facilitates language learning.  But does it? Does the present model of ELT actually deliver the goods, and is making small, incremental changes to it the best way to bring about improvements? To put it another way, is current ELT practice efficacious, and is current TD leading to significant improvement? Are teachers making the most effective use of their time? Are they maximising their students’ chances of reaching their goals?

As Bill VanPatten argues in his plenary at the BAAL 2018 conference, language teaching can only be effective if it comes from an understanding of how people learn languages.  In 1967, Pit Corder was the first to suggest that the only way to make progress in language teaching is to start from knowledge about how people actually learn languages. Then, in 1972, Larry Selinker suggested that instruction on formal properties of language has a negligible impact (if any) on real development in the learner.  Next, in 1983, Mike Long raised the issue again of whether instruction on formal properties of language made a difference in acquisition.  Since these important publications, hundreds of empirical studies have been published on everything from the effects of instruction to the effects of error correction and feedback. This research in turn has resulted in meta-analyses and overviews that can be used to measure the impact of instruction on SLA. All the research indicates that the current, deeply entrenched approach to ELT, where most classroom time is dedicated to explicit instruction, vastly over-estimates the efficacy of such instruction.

So in order to answer the question “Is what we’re doing effective?”, we need to periodically re-visit questions about how people learn languages. Most teachers are aware that we learn our first language/s unconsciously and that explicit learning about the language plays a minor role, but they don’t know much about how people learn an L2. In particular, few teachers know that the consensus of opinion among SLA scholars is that implicit learning through using the target language for relevant, communicative  purposes is far more important than explicit instruction about the language. Here are just 4 examples from the literature:

1. Doughty, (2003) concludes her chapter on instructed SLA by saying:

In sum, the findings of a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and the limited role of explicit learning in improving performance in complex control tasks, point to a default mode for SLA that is fundamentally implicit, and to the need to avoid declarative knowledge when designing L2 pedagogical procedures.

2. Nick Ellis (2005) says:

the bulk of language acquisition is implicit learning from usage. Most knowledge is tacit knowledge; most learning is implicit; the vast majority of our cognitive processing is unconscious.

3. Whong, Gil and Marsden’s (2014) review of a wide body of studies in SLA concludes:

“Implicit learning is more basic and more important  than explicit learning, and superior.  Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous  speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.

4. ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) review 35 years of instructed SLA research, and, citing the latest meta-analysis, they say:

On the relative effectiveness of explicit vs. implicit instruction, Kang et al. reported no significant difference in short-term effects but a significant difference in longer-term effects with implicit instruction outperforming explicit instruction.

Despite lots of other disagreements among themselves, the vast majority of SLA scholars agree on this crucial matter. The evidence from research into instructed SLA gives massive support to the claim that concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge (by developing the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback) leads to far greater gains in interlanguage development than concentrating on the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits and pieces of language.

One of the reasons why so many teachers are unaware of the crucial importance of implicit learning is that so few teacher trainers talk about it. Teacher trainers don’t tell their trainees about the research findings on interlanguage development, or that language learning is not a matter of assimilating knowledge bit by bit; or that the characteristics of working memory constrain rote learning; or that by varying different factors in tasks we can significantly affect the outcomes. And there’s a great deal more we know about language learning that teacher trainers don’t pass on to trainees, even though it has important implications for everything in ELT from syllabus design to the use of the whiteboard; from methodological principles to the use of IT, from materials design to assessment.

We know that in the not so distant past, generations of school children learnt foreign languages for 7 or 8 years, and the vast majority of them left school without the ability to maintain an elementary conversational exchange in the L2. Only to the extent that teachers have been informed about, and encouraged to critically evaluate, what we know about language learning, constantly experimenting with different ways of engaging their students in communicative activities, have things improved. To the extent that teachers continue to spend most of the time talking to their students about the language, those improvements have been minimal.  So why do so many teacher trainers ignore all this? Why is all this knowledge not properly disseminated?

Most teacher trainers, including Penny Ur (see below), say that, whatever its faults, coursebook-driven ELT is practical, and that alternatives such as TBLT are not. Ur actually goes as far as to say that there’s no research evidence to support the view that TBLT is a viable alternative to coursebooks. Such an assertion is contradicted by the evidence. In a recent statistical meta-analysis by Bryfonski & McKay (2017) of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings, “results revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes” in a variety of settings, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where many have flatly stated that TBLT could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where the same opinion is widely voiced. So there are alternatives to the coursebook approach, but teacher trainers too often dismiss them out of hand, or simply ignore them.

How many TD courses today include a sizeable component devoted to the subject of language learning, where different theories are properly discussed so as to reveal the methodological principles that inform teaching practice?  Or, more bluntly: how many TD courses give serious attention to examining the complex nature of language learning, which is likely to lead teachers to seriously question the efficacy of basing teaching on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of language? Today’s TD efforts don’t encourage teachers to take a critical view of what they’re doing, or to base their teaching on what we know about how people learn an L2. Too many teacher trainers base their approach to ELT on personal experience, and on the prevalent “received wisdom” about what and how to teach. For thirty years now, ELT orthodoxy has required teachers to use a coursebook to guide students through a “General English” course which implements a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus through a PPP methodology. During these courses, a great deal of time is taken up by the teacher talking about the language, and much of the rest of the time is devoted to activities which are supposed to develop “the 4 skills”, often in isolation. There is good reason to think that this is a hopelessly inefficient way to teach English as an L2, and yet, it goes virtually unchallenged.

Complacency

The published work of most of the influential teacher trainers demonstrates a poor grasp of what’s involved in language learning, and little appetite to discuss it. Penny Ur is a good example. In her books on how to teach English as an L2, Ur spends very little time discussing the question of how people learn an L2, or encouraging teachers to critically evaluate the theoretical assumptions which underpin her practical teaching tips. The latest edition of Ur’s widely recommended A Course in Language Teaching includes a new sub-section where precisely half a page is devoted to theories of SLA. For the rest of the 300 pages, Ur expects readers to take her word for it when she says, as if she knew, that the findings of applied linguistics research have very limited relevance to teachers’ jobs. Nowhere in any of her books, articles or presentations does Ur attempt to seriously describe and evaluate evidence and arguments from academics whose work challenges her approach, and nowhere does she encourage teachers to do so. How can we expect teachers to be well-informed, critically acute professionals in the world of education if their training is restricted to instruction in classroom skills, and their on-going professional development gives them no opportunities to consider theories of language, theories of language learning, and theories of teaching and education? Teaching English as an L2 is more art than science; there’s no “best way”, no “magic bullet”, no “one size fits all”. But while there’s still so much more to discover, we now know enough about the psychological process of language learning to know that some types of teaching are very unlikely to help, and that other types are more likely to do so. Teacher trainers have a duty to know about this stuff and to discuss it with thier trainees.

Scholarly Criticism? Where?  

Reading the published work of leading ELT trainers is a depressing affair; few texts used for the purpose of training teachers to work in school or adult education demonstrate such poor scholarship as that found in Harmer’s The Practice of Language Teaching, Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching, or Dellar and Walkley’s Teaching Lexically, for example. Why are these books so widely recommended? Where is the critical evaluation of them? Why does nobody complain about the poor argumentation and the lack of attention to research findings which affect ELT? Alas, these books typify the general “practical” nature of TD programmes in ELT, and their reluctance to engage in any kind of critical reflection on theory and practice. Go through the recommended reading for most TD courses and you’ll find few texts informed by scholarly criticism. Look at the content of TD courses and you’ll be hard pushed to find a course which includes a component devoted to a critical evaluation of research findings on language learning and ELT classroom practice.

There is a general “craft” culture in ELT which rather frowns on scholarship and seeks to promote the view that teachers have little to learn from academics. Teacher trainers are, in my opinion, partly responsible for this culture. While it’s  unreasonable to expect all teachers to be well informed about research findings regarding language learning, syllabus design, assessment, and so on, it is surely entirely reasonable to expect the top teacher trainers to be so. I suggest that teacher trainers have a duty to lead discussions, informed by relevant scholarly texts, which question common sense assumptions about the English language, how people learn languages, how languages are taught, and the aims of education. Furthermore, they should do far more to encourage their trainees to constantly challenge received opinion and orthodox ELT practices. This surely, is the best way to help teachers enjoy their jobs, be more effective, and identify the weaknesses of current ELT practice.

My intention in this blog is to point out the weaknesses I see in the works of some influential ELT teacher trainers and invite them to respond. They may, of course, respond anywhere they like, in any way they like, but the easier it is for all of us to read what they say and join in the conversation, the better. I hope this will raise awareness of the huge problem currently facing ELT: it is in the hands of those who have more interest in the commercialisation and commodification of education than in improving the real efficacy of ELT. Teacher trainers do little to halt this slide, or to defend the core principles of liberal education which Long so succinctly discusses in Chapter 4 of his book SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching.

The Questions

I invite teacher trainers to answer the following questions:

 

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

 

References

Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delata.

Doughty, C. (2003) Instructed SLA. In Doughty, C. & Long, M. Handbook of SLA, pp 256 – 310. New York, Blackwell.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Ur, P. A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

Whong, M., Gil, K.H. and Marsden, H., (2014). Beyond paradigm: The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research, 30(4), pp.551-568.

ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) Introduction: A snapshot of thirty-five years of instructed second language acquisition. Language Teaching Research, in press.

Reflections on Paul Feyerabend

The best lecture I’ve ever attended was given by Paul Feyerabend, in the Old Theatre of the LSE, in 1967. Two hours before he started, every seat was taken, at least a hundred more were sitting in the aisles, and closed-circuit tv had been set up in separate rooms. People had travelled from abroad, down from Inverness and up from Plymouth to be there, tipped off by a network relying only on letters and phone calls. It was a rowdy affair – cheers, whistles, clapping, feet-stamping from the audience; outraged, hardly-contained protests from members of the LSE philosophy department who wriggled uncomfortably in their seats in the front row, waving their arms, mumbling insults. This was the apotheosis of the old-style university celebrity gig. There were so many such gigs in those days – visiting stars who kept their audience enthralled but never silent – and I wonder if they don’t belong to a long-gone era of university life, snuffed out by modern concerns for political correctness. The only event I can remember that came close to rivalling Feyerabend’s performance was when Joan Robinson, a Marxist economist at Cambridge, came to the LSE a year before to give a brilliant critique of Keynesian economics. She brought the house down, finishing with a wonderfully-cutting, satirical riff aimed at the economics department of LSE. “What makes you laugh”, she concluded, “is the sheer effort they exert to make the whole silly story sound plausible”. The audience rose to give her a standing ovation, while the department members stormed out.

Feyerabend started his academic life in Vienna in the late 1940s. He changed from physics to philosophy, and made plans to study with Wittgenstein in Cambridge, but Wittgenstein died before Feyerabend arrived in England, so Feyerabend ended up, rather begrudgingly, with Karl Popper as his PhD supervisor. He became a big fan of Popper’s falsificationist view, though ideas of the “incommensurate” nature of rival theories of science (a term made famous a decade later by Thomas Khun and which we will hear a lot more about) already concerned him. In a nutshell (a very cracked one): Feyerabend thought Popper was right epistemologically to stress the asymmetry between truth and falsehood (we’ll never know if a theory is true, but we can know if it’s false), but he wasn’t sure that rival theories were comparable. He went back to Vienna, torn between academia and his desire to be an opera singer, and then went to the University of California, Berkeley, where his first really influential paper was published: “An Attempt at a Realistic Interpretation of Experience” (1958). In the paper, he lambasted positivism and supported Popper’s falsificationist view.

It’s important to point out here that Feyerabend’s criticism of positivism referred to a school of philosophy started by Comte (1848) and brought to a disastrous end by the Vienna School in the 1920s. No scientist these days calls themselves a positivist, despite which, the label “positivist” is now commonly used by badly informed so-called scholars in SLA to refer, disparagingly, to those in their field who base their studies on empirical evidence and rational argument. When you read current stuff written by postmodern, social constructivists like Larsen-Freeman, Lantolf, Thorne, Block and so many other intellectual imposters,  “positivists” are the bad guys, the ones suffering from “science-envy”, the ones choking real progress in our understanding of second language learning by adopting an outmoded “scientific paradigm”. Whatever merits their arguments might have, and I see none, let it be perfectly clear that using the term “positivism” to refer to scientific method displays an ignorance of both philosophy in general and the philosophy of science in particular.

Where were we? Ah yes, Feyerabend. He ended up back in London in the early 1960s, where he became good friends with Imre Lakatos, second in command of the Philosophy department of LSE, nominally headed by Karl Popper, but in fact run by Prof. John Watkins. Popper by this time had become world famous, thanks to the publication of Conjectures and Refutations (Popper, 1963), a much more accessible version of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Popper, 1959), popularly referred to by everybody I knew as “LSD”, a drug we all took far too much of, but which never dented our  allegiance to English beer. By the time Feyerabend gave his lecture, he was already disenchanted with the philosophy department of LSE, which he considered a suffocating environment, something close to a cult, a cabal with increasingly closed ranks devoted to defending the Popperian canon against all critics. I had some personal reasons to agree with him.

In 1965, the philosophy of science was offered as a new option for undergraduates doing the B.Sc. (Econ) degree (before then, it had only been a postgraduate degree). I was among the first cohort to take up the option. Once in, I was delighted by all the clever people I mixed with, delighted by my increasing grasp of Popper (particularly his brilliant reply to my hero Hume), and delighted to meet Paul Feyerabend in the Three Tuns bar, where he regularly held court. I got drunk more than once with Paul and Imre, where all the rows going on within the department were discussed with outlandish candor. Inspired by their rants against W.W. Bartley, whose book The Retreat to Commitment attempted to rescue Popper’s critical rationalist view from its critics, I, still an undergraduate, presented a paper to the department suggesting that Bartley had done nothing useful to address the problem of infinite regress. “It’s still turtles all the way down” I concluded, much to the horror of Watkins, who couldn’t quite believe his ears, but couldn’t muster a good off-the-cuff reply either. He asked me to present a second paper, this time with “the seriousness and rigor one might expect of such a …. bla bla bla”. I did so, and a couple of years later, out came Watkins’ paper “Comprehensibly Critical Rationalism” in the Philosophy journal (Watkins, 1969), where my argument was dressed up with the necessary obscurantist finery, with no acknowledgement of my contribution.

Such was – and still is – the world of academia, but anyway, Feyerabend (not present at either of my presentations) was particularly scathing of the way Watkins and others in the department behaved. At one of our boozy sessions in the Three Tuns bar, Paul suggested that a very bright post grad. student –  Jane, we’ll call her – should take my final exams for me, while he, Imre and I went off on a fishing trip.  Jane was up for it, Imre too, but I bottled out, missed the fishing trip, did the exams myself, and ended up with a mediocre 2.2 honors degree, tho my “essay on a philosophical subject” – on Bartley – got a first. “Never mind”, Lakatos told me “you’ll do a doctorate with us”.  Later that year, 1968, I was involved in “disturbances” at the LSE which resulted in my being named as one of six “ringleaders”, served with an injunction forbidding me access to the LSE, and charged with criminal damage to LSE property.

Where were we? Ah yes, Feyerabend. The lecture. The Old Theatre of LSE must have been a theatre at some point, because it had a stage. At least 20 metres long, I’d say, with a huge blackboard almost as long as its only prop. So on comes Paul Feyerabend, the archetypal German army officer, blonde, blue eyes, and all that and all that, with a very noticeable limp (a war wound, of course). He takes a bit of chalk and draws a line along the blackboard. He stops the line in the middle, makes a tiny space, and continues the line to the end. Then he strides back to the middle, bangs the tiny gap he’s made in the line, and says, in a very loud voice: “Zat, my friends, is Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science!”.  Instant uproar! Shouts of “Bravo!” and “Nail him!” mingle with “Bollocks!”, “Rubbish!” and “Out!”.

What followed was a tour through the history of science, mostly physics, which aimed to question the status of ‘observation statements’, the basic pillar of science. Observation statements are supposed to be ‘empirical’ – objective statements about the things in the world that we observe through our senses and measure with reliable instruments. But they all turn out to be ‘theory laden” – shot through with unestablished assumptions about how the bits fit together. Feyerabend argued that a theory could easily be constructed using the conceptual apparatus of classical physics that would be just as comprehensive and useful as the classical apparatus, without coinciding with it – after all, the concepts of relativity include all the facts in Newtonian physics, yet the two sets of concepts are completely different and bear no logical relation to each other. So the suggestion that the meaning of observation language is determined by pure observation is wrong. In a body of knowledge, no part can be appraised individually, since each one is connected to others; therefore, there is no theory without observation, nor observation without theory. The meaning of an observation statement is determined neither by the pragmatic conditions in which a language is used, nor by the phenomenon that makes us assert it is true. To quote the 1958 paper, “the interpretation of an observation language is determined by the theories which we use to explain what we observe, and it changes as soon as those theories change”.

And thus, Feyerabend argued, we meet the problem unresolved by Popper, pace the famous Khun versus Popper confrontation at Bedford College, London, in 1965, of incommensurability: “I interpreted observation languages by the theories that explain what we observe. Such interpretations change as soon as theories change. I realized that interpretations of this kind might make it possible to establish deductive relations between rival theories and I tried to find means of comparison that were independent of such relations”.

Now, I have to pause again in my no doubt frustrating account of the lecture to tackle the term ‘incommensurability’ alluded to above. The term was coined by Feyerabend and Kuhn, and it is a term that modern constructivist, postmodernist, relativist intellectual imposters took to their feeble souls for succor, and used to create the worst body of academic work ever seen since the invention of the printing press.

Feyerabend met Thomas Kuhn in Berkley, California, in 1960, and it was Feyerabend who first suggested to Kuhn the idea of incommensurability. Feyerabend was already a star, and Kuhn was relatively unknown. Feyerabend read Khun’s work in 1959, and the two got together the following year. They got on well, but there was always, right from the start, tension between Khun’s sociological view of the history of science and Feyerabend’s more philosophical interest in, well, epistemology – he was, after all, a frustrated Wittgenstein scholar. In fact, Kuhn had better academic credentials – a Ph.D. in theoretical physics versus Feyerabend’s Masters in astronomy – but Feyerabend was surely the better thinker, the better philosophical mind, let’s say. Feyerabend’s initial interest in Kuhn’s work was inspired by his interest in quantum physics, and he wanted to pick Kuhn’s brain about its observational base.

Out of time. I have medical issues to attend to. Join me soon for the concluding Part Two, which will include references.

What Any Fule Kno

Here’s a recent Twitter exchange:

Me: (edited version) Why not use appeals to reliable evidence, and rational argument to discuss the design of a TBLT syllabus, rather than all this hand-waving rhetoric.

Scott Thornbury: Rational argument suggests there is no One Way to teach SLs, because learners, teachers, contexts, institutions, cultures & languages themselves are all different. Nailing a method (however evidence-based) to the cathedral door ignores this infinite variety. Ask me. I tried! 🙂

If you read the whole thread you’ll see that Scott stayed calm and I didn’t. No surprises there, then. I wrote saying sorry to Scott, who was as gracious as ever in accepting my apology.

To the issue, then. I’ve be irked (sic) that Scott’s reply has been “liked” and re-tweeted so many times. So irked, in fact, that I use my blog to repeat, everso politely, that it’s more hand-waving rhetoric. Scott implied that I was trying to persuade people that TBLT is the “One Way” to teach SLs, whereas, in fact, I was doing no such thing. The tweet ends with a particularly adroit rhetorical flourish: Scott knows just how wrong I am to do what he wrongly accuses me of, because he’s done it himself.

The analogy with Luther’s famous nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg is an apt one. Luther was challenging the abusive practices of the Catholic Church, a powerful body which in those days had almost as much reach as the ELT establishment (IELTS, British Council, Cambridge Assessment, Pearson, etc.) enjoys today. He was complaining about the selling of plenary indulgences, certificates signed by the Pope (or one of his approved representatives), which gave those languishing in purgatory a reduced sentence, or even, if the sum were big enough, got them out of there and sent them straight to heaven. Today, many of us (including Scott, if somewhat erratically) challenge the huge power of the ELT establishment, and their right to sell certificates which can have similarly dramatic results – albeit here on earth. And like Luther, we, the ELT rebels of today, demand the end to so much wrong-headed, self-serving interference with, and regulation of, our primary goal. Luther sought salvation through more direct access to God; we seek the rather more mundane goal of a decent level of proficiency through more direct access to holistic, unimpoverished use of the L2.

But, as Luther might have said, and as any fule kno, it’s complicated: there is no One Way. And not just, in the case of instructed second language learning, because “learners, teachers, contexts, institutions, cultures & languages themselves are all different”, but because we don’t know enough about the psychological process of learning an L2. Scott likes to stress the social factors; I think that although there’s still a lot we don’t know, the reliable results of psycholinguistic research should inform syllabus design. As I’ve often said, folllowing Popper, it’s much easier to be sure about what’s wrong than about what’s right, and we know that concentrating on the explicit teaching of items of grammar and lexis is inefficacious. In any case, it’s no more than a platitude to say there’s no One Way, and it’s no more than rhetoric to accuse proponents of TBLT of suggesting that they’ve found it. The argument for Long’s TBLT syllabus design is that it’s more efficacious than the syllabus implemented by coursebooks. Research in SLA supports this view. The fact that the research findings are largely ignored is explained, I suggest, by the influence of commercial interests that treat ELT as a commodity.

So Long’s TBLT syllabus makes no ridiculuous claim to be the One Way. It offers an alternative. It’s open to endless modification according to local conditions, and it’s the subject of on-going research among scholars and increasing discussion among teachers. I repeat: it should be discussed on the basis of the evidence and rational argument.

When Luther marched up to the church door, hammer, nail and inky parchment in hand, he didn’t have One Way in mind, he wanted reform. There’s a decent argument to be had that it made things worse. I hope we get the chance to see how TBLT fares, once it sweeps away coursebook-driven ELT.

SLB: Task-Based Language Teaching Course No. 3

I’m delighted to say that we already have enough participants to ensure that the third edition of our course will run. This is a shameless attempt to persuade you, dear reader, to join us.

There are different versions of TBLT, including  “task-supported” and “hybrid” versions. They all emphasise the importance of students working through communicative activities rather than the pages of a coursebook, but we think the best is Mike Long’s version, which identifies ‘target tasks’ – tasks which the students will actually have to carry out in their professional or private lives – and breaks them down into a series of ‘pedagogic tasks’which form the syllabus. In the course, we consider

  • how to identify target tasks,
  • how to break these down into pedagogic tasks,
  • how to find suitable materials, and
  • how to bring all this together using the most appropriate pedagogic procedures.

What does the course offer? 

It’s an on-line course about Mike Long’s version of TBLT, consisting of twelve, two week sessions.

In the course, we

  • explain the theory behind it;
  • describe and critique Long’s TBLT;
  • develop lighter versions for adoption in more restricted circumstances;
  • trace the steps of designing a TBLT syllabus;
  • show you how to implement and evaluate TBLT in the classroom.

We value interaction and debate. In this edition we have made changes to try to ensure that we ‘walk the talk’, by basing the course on tasks, and by making sure that the participants’ needs drive the course.

Why Do it?

Because it offers an alternative way of doing ELT whose time, we think, has come. Current economic conditions, affected by Covid 19 and its likely successors, push the move towards more local trade and commerce. This move is a powerful force which can help to dislodge the one-size-fits-all global approach to ELT. Now is the time for a new more local, tailor-made approach to ELT, where global General English courses are replaced by TBLT courses. But not just any TBLT courses. Rather, courses which start by finding out what a certain group of learners need to do in English, and then help those learners to reach their objectives by leading them through a series of sequenced pedagogic tasks designed to give them the input and practice they need to perform target tasks in the real world.

From the classroom, to the small groups of students in in-company training courses, to the single private student, TBLT offers a better alternative to the coursebook, and it offers teachers the basis for developing a portfolio. Whether you’re a teacher with a few years of experience, or a DoS, or a syllabus / materials designer, this course will help you re-tool for what lies ahead.  

The version of TBLT we explore offers a viable, not uptopian, option to coursebook-driven ELT. It respects robust findings in SLA research about how people learn an L2. It is guided by a philosophical tradition of libertarian education. It is more rewarding for all those directly concerned. Efficaciousness is our criterion: we seek a more efficacious approach to teaching, an approach which overcomes the weaknesses of coursebook-driven ELT.  Coursebooks implement a syllabus which falsely assumes that teaching about the language should take prime place. This leads to too few opportunities for students to learn for themselves by engaging in relevant communicative tasks where they learn by doing. The result is that learners don’t get the procedual knowledge they need for fluent, spontaneous use of the language. Hence, these courses are ineffacious – they don’t deliver the goods. Does Long’s TBLT result in more efficacious teaching? We believe so. We’ll argue our case, but we expect challenges from participants.

And that’s another reason to do this course. One of the best things about the two previous editions of the course was the quality of discussion among participants. We’ve had experts in special fields (e.g. air-traffic control), directors of studies, and teachers with less than 3 years experience all shooting the breeze in the discussion forums, interrogating the experts, and submitting end of module written work worthy of publication in academic journals. Neil and I defend our corner, but we’ve been persuaded to move our postion considerably as the result of persuasive arguments by participants.  Our course is not a sales pitch for Long’s TBLT – he wouldn’t want it be – it’s a platform for lively discussion about it.

When is it? 

It starts on October 16th 2020 and ends on April 15th 2021.

What are the components of the Sessions?

  • Carefully selected background reading.
  • A video presentation from the session tutor.
  • Interactive exercises to explore key concepts. 
  • An on-going forum discussion with the tutors and fellow course participants.
  • An extensive group videoconference session with the tutors. 
  • An assessed task (e.g. short essay, presentation, task analysis etc.). 

Who are the tutors?

Neil McMillan and I (both experienced teachers with Ph.Ds) do most of the tutoring, but there will also be tutorials by Roger Gilabert, Mike Long, Cathy Doughty and Glenn Fulcher, all widely-recognised experts in their fields. 

How much work is involved?

About 5 hours a week.

 The course sounds very demanding.

Well, it is quite demanding – it’s an in-depth look at a thoroughly-described syllabus. However, we’ve extended the length of the course, and we now offer different options – see “More Info.” below. Reading is non technical, the video presentations are clear, participation in on-line discussions is very relaxed, and the written component is practical and short.

Free Preview

Click here to see Why TBLT?    Use the Menu bar on the left to open “Why TBLT?”. Work your way through the unit, or just watch the presentation.   

For More Information About The Course Click Here

 

My first private student

My first experience of giving private classes was with a student I’ll call Ana. She had done a course I taught at ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona, in 1982 and wanted to try 1-to-1 classes. An intelligent, sociable woman, married to a surgeon, with three grown up children, Ana had time to spare. Having brought up her children, and with no need to do housework or cooking, she spent most of her time reading, keeping up with world affairs, and moving around her various circles of friends. She was a member of what was, at that time, a powerful, smugly confident middle class, the beneficiaries of Franco’s regime – albeit she belonged to one of the lower echelons of that carefully- calibrated class. (Above them were the aristos; not quite as madly numerous as in Italy, but just as useless and greedy, and just as keenly followed by the middle class. TV and free mass media would soon ensure that fascination with the aristos’ vulgar, boring lives spread quickly to those outside the bourgeois stronghold.)      

Initially, I was reluctant to do the classes; I felt stretched enough with my job at ESADE. I did the max. 24 hours a week contact hours permitted by the boss, and that involved me in at least 50 hours work a week. I’m not exaggerating; every teacher in ESADE did the same. We were paid very well –   about five times as well as electricians, plumbers, and mechanics, for example (how times have changed!)  – and we were, without becoming bona fide members of the middle class, enjoying a high standard of living. But it wasn’t just the money. Our boss was an inspiration – he encouraged us to innovate, to do what we wanted in class just so long as we covered what was on the skeletal syllabus. He provided the best teachers’ room I’ve ever been in; he added books to the teachers’ library as soon as they were requested; he paid for lots of teachers to go to conferences; and he organized workshops incessantly, inviting people like Earl Stevick and John Fanselow to come for week-long events where we hardly went to bed. So we didn’t mind working – no, we wanted to work – long hours preparing our classes and doing all the other stuff.

Friends advised me to do the class with Ana – I could charge top rate and if I did 6 hours a week, I’d make a lot of money – so I phoned her and agreed to start the following week. (Now there’s a good pliable chunk for you: xxx agreed to xxx the following xxx. Note “the following”, not “next”, ho ho.) I turned up for the first class with a notebook and several short books from the Longman’s Graded Readers library. We sat down, I asked Ana to tell me about herself, and off she went! “I born here. I live here all my life. I am three sister, no brother. My father medico. I love my mother, ….”.  The slightest prompt was enough for her to speak at length – I’d never met a student so keen to talk! I helped out and took notes as fast as I could and at the end of the session, I told her how much I’d enjoyed it, that I’d deal with some stuff that she’d said in the next class, and asked her to read one the books I’d brought with me.

At our next class, I started by giving her a long vocabulary list drawn up from our previous session, and went on to remind her about how English forms the past tense. She listened patiently, but It was clear that she wasn’t interested.  “Did you read any of the books?”, I asked her. “Yes, David Copperfield, fantastic! Some questions, please”. The questions were about vocab. and lexical chunks. My answers had to be quick, because she wanted to talk about Dicken’s Victorian England, her great grandparents and life under Franco. Off she went again, asking for help when she got stuck. This time I made a few recasts, raised my eyebrows at things she knew were wrong, that kind of thing, but basically, I just took notes and tried to keep up.  

Apart from the classes, Ana read over 20 graded readers, wrote a diary, and went over the notes I gave her quite thoroughly. Her progress was phenomenal; in six months she had improved so much that she could easily have passed the Cambridge First Certificate oral exam. She was thrilled with her progress, told all her friends that I was a genius, well the phone just didn’t stop ringing. Hello, Geoff. This is Fidel, Fidel Castro! Claro!).

I spent less than 5% of the time with her talking about grammar, and I spoke less than 30% of the time during the classes. I threw out a few bits of bait and then she took one and swam, so to speak. I knew next to nothing about SLA, but I’d been hugely impressed by Krashen’s (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning and I was already convinced (even if unable to articulate it)  that second language learning was mostly a matter of implicit, unconscious learning, with the implication that you best help students by getting them to engage in communicative tasks, where they, not the teacher, are the protagonists. Of course, there’s a huge difference between teaching a class of 10 to 30 students and teaching a single student, but if this “get out of the way and just help them talk” approach works so well in 1-to-1 classes, then it should, perhaps, be applied to any ELT environment.

I must add quickly that it was unusually easy for me to get out of the way and not slow down or mess up Ana’s development. Ana needed the minimum scaffolding, I was lucky as hell to have her as a student. You might well say that most students need more help, but that’s a slippery slope.   

P.S. I know: I describe language learning in a priveledged environment. Its content is purely contextual. Go to town on it, why don’t you, all you 19th century Marxists, and you 21st century postmodern, Derrida-doting, Lacan-loving, Faighclough-following deconstructors.

But for the rest of my readers – you gentle, story-loving readers, those who enjoy my cosy little fireside chats here on “What Do You Think You’re Doing?” – here’s the moral (which, for the benefit of the Marxists and post post modernist scoffers of my simple tale, posits, contradicts and transcends class conflict so cogently; and with apologies to Lewis Carroll): the more there is for you, the less there is for them.

Tom the Teacher Part 5

Stencil: Hi Tom. Your friendly DoS just checking in. We have a good Skype connection, for once.

Tom: Hi Stencil.

Stencil: Who’s in the picture behind you?

Tom: Rosa Luxemburg.

Stencil: One of your lefty heroes?

Tom: She was shot and thrown into a Berlin canal in 1919 for saying the wrong thing.

Stencil: Wow. What did she say?

Tom: She said “Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction”.

Stencil: What? Well, anyway, how did the Zoom session go?

Tom: OK.  

Stencil: Did everybody turn up?

Tom: At one point there were eight students, plus kids, servants, cats and dogs.

Stencil: Not bad. First impressions?

Tom: Cats really don’t give a shit, do they?

Stencil: I mean the lesson. How did it go? Did you manage to get thru the whole Unit?

Tom: Unit?

Stencil: Unit 4, Watchwords; Not Quite Intermediate, you know. We’re nearly half way thru the course now, Tom, and the second test looms.  

Tom: Well actually, the dog ate my copy of the book yesterday.

Stencil: You have a dog?

Tom: The neighbour’s dog.

Stencil: Jeez. So what did you do?

Tom: We just sort of shot the breeze, you know. Living in lockdown, new stuff on Netflix, …

Stencil: You shot the breeze? You’re supposed to do reported speech in this unit.

Tom: Sorry?

Stencil: Reported speech, Tom, for pity’s sake. A key component in the course. I mean, you know how many of our students want to get jobs in admin.

Tom: He told me that if I turned left, right, then left again I would find the coffee machine?  

Stencil: That’s not in the text. It’s ‘Hi! My name is Boonsri. I’m from Bangkok. She told me that her name was Boonsri and that she came from Bangkok’. Important to positively bias female gender, you know, and foreign places.    

Tom:  Right.

Stencil: Any technical problems?

Tom: We didn’t really get the hang of the mute button, so there was a lot of kind of extraneous stuff. I heard somebody say “Joder! Donde esta mi cripy tio?”

Stencil: Great! That’s a really good opportunity for some negotiation of meaning work, Tom. No problem with a bit of L1 in the mix, right? Step in when that happens, reformulate, recast, clarification routines, you know?

Tom: Yeah. I think she found her stash in the sofa.

Stencil: Right. Did the video recording from Unit 4 go OK?

Tom: I tried to play it but the share screen showed rather personal bits of my emails.

Stencil:  And?

Tom: Montse asked “What does ‘cottaging’ mean?”

Stencil: Great! Perfect opportunity to use the 3 minute ‘Expand vocabulary and collocations’ slot. Charming cottage; typical semi-detached house, nice flat, neat loft, yeah? And how did the break out groups go?

Tom: I’m not sure. What are break out groups?

Stencil: Oh come on Tom. Break out groups. Group work. After the Marker Sentence ‘She told me that her name was Boonsri’, you put them in groups, they ask “What’s your name? Where are you from?” and then report their replies to each other. It’s all in the Teacher’s book, you just have to adapt it to the online context man. Even allow a bit of free practice while you take notes, right?

Tom: Right.

Stencil: Well anyway, we’re all meeting up for a teachers ‘How’s it going?’ webinar tomorrow, 3 am Eastern States time, and we can take this further. We want to examine incorporating non native teacher awareness and social distancing into the supplementary online materials. OK?

Tom: Sorry, Stencil, my Mum’s on the phone.

Stencil: Tom?  Can you hear me Tom?        

Profanity

Last  September, Neil McMillan and his lovely wife and daughter spent the weekend with us at our house. The house is described by Dellar as “a huge, decadent, sprawling mansion bought by Geoff’s billionaire wife for a song from gullible locals, full of rare paintings by Spanish artists like Rubens and Caravaggio, looked after by scores of starving slaves smuggled in from Brixton, where many of my friends live, yeah?”. It is, in fact, a restored ‘casa rustica’, which offers guests a comfortable bed and a shower down the corridor. Neil gets a bedroom with an en suite bathroom, but that’s because he sweats a lot.

Anyway, during the weekend, Neil and I had the chance to talk into the wee hours (as he insists on calling them) about my favourite subject: the life of the profane. The profane are outsiders: those who, whatever tribe, clan, religious grouping or nation they’re supposed to be part of, just don’t “get” what belonging means. One important part of their dislocation is their relationship with the inanimate world. Somehow, not getting the nuances of social norms, not respecting them because they don’t make sense (a far cry from those dedicated rebels who early on reject them) has a profound effect on how they walk through life. Existential literature concentrates on “being before essence” – we make ourselves up as we go along – but it doesn’t pay enough attention to existence when it comes to dealing with the “things” that we interact with.  I’ve always been fascinated by the way some people waltz through life, effortlessly engaging with the inanimate world; walking down stairs hardly bothering with the banisters; nonchalantly catching the piece of toast that pops up from the toaster; pushing, never pulling, the doors that need pushing; stepping adroitly onto buses and out of taxis;  slotting their credit cards the right way up into the right slot; pressing the right buttons in lifts; and all that and all that. Generally, they stroll along unaware of obstacles: they automatically turn the right key in the right way in the right lock, so to speak.

Compare that to the life of the profane: those whose lives are marked by exactly the opposite experience of daily life. It’s not just a question of being clumsy, it’s that the inanimate world seems to conspire against them. An  extreme example is Inspector Jacques Clouseau, he of the Pink Panther films. When Clouseau walks down the stairs, his sleeve gets caught in the banister; when he tries to catch the toast, he misses; when he uses a cigarette lighter he sets himself on fire; when he pushes the door, it smacks him in the face, and on and on. He turns the wrong key in the wrong way in the wrong lock. The inanimate world is out to get him: he’s the constant ‘fall guy’, the victim, the unfairly done to, one might say.

Another good example is Benny Profane, the hero of Thomas Pynchon’s novel “V”. He’s not called “Profane” for nothing (Pynchon is never in want of a name for his characters): he’s called Profane because he’s not on the inside, he’s not in the know, he’s his own hopeless, honest self, not finely-tuned enough to the way society works. So he’s the perfect vehicle to walk through Pynchon’s marvellous novel; who better to stumble through everything that happens, an innocent non protagonist if ever there was one. And an essential feature of his character is his constant bumping up against the inanimate world as if it were hostile, though no silly conspiracy theories are ever invoked. The inanimate world is constantly waiting to play trivial or life-threatening tricks on him; lamp posts are badly placed, well made beds collapse, phones don’t work;  buses aren’t there when they should be; street signs point the wrong way; numbers on houses are out of synch. A great scene in “V” is when Benny, standing in an empty street, annoyed at something, kicks the wheel of a car. “I’ll pay for that”, he says to himself.

Profanity is described in dictionaries as  ‘bad language’, but its etymology goes back to ‘lack of respect for things that are held to be sacred’. And there’s the clue. Profanity, the thing that Neil and I wanted to discuss that night, is better described as dislocation, an inability to  “get”  what this respect for sacred things is all about. Never articulated, it stems from an inability to come to terms with the ways things are. Why does the social world we live in pretend to respect so many things that it so obviously flouts? Why is our society so horrendously hypocritical? Why does a third of the world’s population live in such horrendous conditions? Why … well, you get the idea – although Inspector Clouseau and Benny don’t.

Of course, in any political sense, the vast majority of the world’s population is profane –  outside the fold – and that, no doubt, should be the focus of our attention. In psychological terms, Neil’s heroes – Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan particularly – insist on profanity (the rejection of respect) when examining how individuals experience their lives emotionally and intellectually. Lacan returns to Freud, but famously does something which strikes me as similar to what Marx did to Hegel. (I know a bit about what Marx did to Hegel, but I know as much about Lacan as Neil has forgotten while eating a deep fried Mars bar, so it’s probably all bollocks, and I hope he’ll reply.) Lacan’s Mirror stage claims that the ego is an object rather than a subject: the ego is not the seat of a free, true “I” determining its own fate, rather it’s neurotic to its very core. The ego is something exterior – crystallized as “the desire of the Other”. Amen to that.  

I take this to be one of many theories of alienation – which have in common that we are, as it were, besides ourselves, lacking authenticity. My favourite attempt among philosophers to “explain” this has always been Camus’; the least philosophically sophisticated, the most appealing somehow (a bit like Krashen’s theory of SLA, maybe!). Alienation is our biggest problem, and to get over it, we need to live in societies described best by anarchists, which means we need a revolution which overturns the State.  

Meanwhile, what about the particular manifestation of alienation that Neil and I were talking about, that profane, awkward, annoying bumping up against the inanimate world? How can we negotiate the inanimate world more smoothly? How can we avoid so many infuriating encounters with the stuff around us? How can we avoid our sleeves getting snagged on banisters? How can we nonchalantly walk through those revolving doors? How can we turn the right key the right way in the right lock?  Only revolution will do it. We can’t be who we want to be while capitalism rules us. But maybe we can learn from Eastern stuff – Zen and all that. The Beatles’ “Let it be” is probably the most stupid song ever sung, but Zen and Taoist texts are full of good advice.  I think of things like “Saunter along and stop worrying”… “If the mind troubles the mind how can you avoid a great confusion”, which I’m sure are misquotes. They suggest that we can alter our behaviour, put the right key in the right door because we don’t care or something. And maybe, just maybe, challenge Lacan’s view of us.    

I hope my chum Neil will respond.       

Carroll’s AIT: Part 5

I’m aware that I haven’t done a good job of describing Carroll’s AIT. Last week, I bought a Kindle version of Sharwood Smith and Truscott’s (2014) The Multilingual Mind  (currently on offer for 19 euros – hurry, hurry) which presents their MOGUL (Modular On Line Growth and Use of Language) theory, and I’m very inpressed with its coherence, cohesion and readability. It relies partly on Jackendoff, and briefly describes Carroll’s AIT much more succinctly than I’ve managed. I highly recommend the book,  

I’ll continue examing bits of AIT and its implications, before trying to make sense of the whole thing and reflect on some of the disagreements among those working in the field of SLA. In this post, I’ll look at Carroll’s AIT in order to question the use by many SLA theories of the constructs of input, intake, and noticing.  

Recall that Jakendoff’s system comprises two types of processor:

  • integrative processors, which build complex structures from the input they receive, and
  • interface processors, which relate the workings of adjacent modules in a chain.

The chain consists of three main links: phonological, syntactic, and conceptual/semantic structure, each level having an integrative processor  connected to the adjacent level by means of an interface processor.

Carroll takes Jackendoff’s theory and argues that input must be seen in conjunction with a theory of language processing: input is the representation that is received by one processor in the chain.

CarrolIInput.png

 Thus, Carroll argues, the view of ‘input from outside’ is mistaken: input is a multiple phenomenon where each processor has its own input, which is why Carroll refers to ‘environmental stimului’ to denote the standard way in which ‘input’ is seen. Stimuli only become input as the result of processing, and learning is a function not of the input itself,  but rather of what the system does with the stimuli. In order to explain SLA, we must explain this system. Carroll’s criticism is that the construct ‘input’ is used in many theories of SLA as a cover term which hides an extremely complex process, beginning with the processing of acoustic (and visual) events as detected by the learner’s sensory processing mechanisms.

Carroll’s view is summarised by Sharwood Smith and Truscott, 2014, p. 212) as follows: 

The learner initially parses an L2 using L1 parsing procedures and when this inevitably leads to failure, acquisition mechanisms are triggered and i-learning begins. New parsing procedures for L2 are created and compete with L1 procedures and only win out when their activation threshold has become sufficiently low. These new inferential procedures, adapted from proposals by Holland et al. (1986), are created within the constraints imposed by the particular level at which failure has taken place. This means that a failure to parse in PS [Phonological Stuctures], for example, will trigger i-learning that works with PS representations that are currently active in the parse and it does so entirely in terms of innately given PS representations and constraints, hence the ‘autonomous’ characterisation of AIT (Holland et al. 1986, Carroll 2001: 241–2).

Of course, the same process described for PS is applied to each level of processing.

Both parsing, which takes place in working memory, and i-learning, which draws on long-term memory, depend, to some extent on innate knowledge of the sort described by Jackendoff, where the lexicon plays a key role, incorporating the rules of grammar and encoding relationships among words and among grammatical patterns.

Jackendoff’s theory supposes that just about everything going on in the language faculty happens unconsciously – it’s all implicit learning – and Carroll’s use of Holland et al.’s theory of induction is similarly based on implicit learning.     

So what does all this say about other processing theories of SLA?

Here’s Krashen’s model:

Any comprehensible input that passes through the affective filter, gets processed by UG and becomes acquired knowledge. Learnt knowledge acts as a monitor. Despite the fact that it has tremendous appeal, the model is unsatisfactory because  none of these stages is described by clear constructs, and the theory is hopelessly circular. McLaughlin (1978) and Gregg (1984) provide the best critique of this model.

Then we have Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

Here again, input is never carefully defined – it’s just the language that the learner hears or reads. What’s important, for Schmidt, is “noticing”. This is a gateway to “intake”, defined as that part of the input consciously registered and worked on by the learner in “short/medium-term memory (I take this to be working memory) and which then gets integrated into long-term memory, where it develops the interlanguage of the learner. So noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for L2 learning.

I’ve done several posts on Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (search for them in the Search bar on the right), so here let me just say that it’s now generally accepted that ‘noticing’, in the sense of conscious attention to form, is not a necessary condition for learning an L2: the hypothesis is false. The ammended, much weaker version, namely that  “the more you notice the more you learn” is a way of rescuing the hypothesis, and has been, in my opinion, too quickly accepted by SLA scholars.  I’m personally not convinced that even this weak version can be accepted; it needs careful refinement, surely. In any case, Schmidt’s model makes the same mistake as Krashen’s: in starting with an undefined construct of input, it puts the cart before the horse. (Note that this has nothing to do with Scott Thornbury’s judgement on UG, as discussed in an earlier post.) As Carroll says, we must start with stimuli, not input, and then explain how those stimuli are processed.

Finally, there’s Gass’s Model (1997), which offers a more complete picture of what happens to ‘input’.

Gass says that input goes through stages of apperceived input, comprehended input, intake, integration, and output, thus subdividing Krashen’s comprehensible input into three stages: apperceived input, comprehended input, and intake. Gass stresses the importance of negotiated interaction in facilating the progress from apperceived input to comprehended input, adopting Long’s construct of negotiation for meaning which refers to what learners do when there’s a failure in communicative interaction. As a result of this negotiation, learners get more “usable input”, they give “attention” (of some sort) to problematic features in the L2, and make mental comparisons between their IL and the L2 which leads to refinement of their current interlanguage.  

But still, what is ‘apperceived input’?  Gass says it’s the result of ‘attention’, akin to  Tomlin and Villa’s (1994) construct of ‘orientation’; and Schmidt says it’s the same as his construct of ‘noticing’. So is it a concious process, then, taking place in working memory? Just to finish the story, Long, in Part 4 of this exploration of AIT says this:  

Genuinely communicative L2 interaction provides opportunities for learners focused on meaning to pick up a new language incidentally, as an unintended by-product of doing something else — communicating through the new language — and often also implicitly, i.e., without awareness. Interacting in the L2 while focused on what is said, learners sometimes perceive new forms or form-meaning-function associations consciously — a process referred to as noticing (Schmidt, 1990, 2010). On other occasions, their focus on communication and attention to the task at hand is such that they will perceive new items in the input unconsciously — a process known as detection (Tomlin & Villa, 1994). Detection is especially important, for as Whong, Gil, & Marsden (2014) point out, implicit learning and (barring some sort of consciousness-raising event)the end-product, implicit knowledge, is what is required for real-time listening and speaking.  

Long makes a distinction betwween ‘implicit’ and ‘incidental’ learning. ‘Implicit’ means unconscious, while ‘incidental’, I think, means conscious, and refers to Schmidt’s ‘noticing’.  Long then says that ‘implicit’ learning, whereby “learners perceive new items in the input unconsciously” and is explained by “a process known as detection (Tomlin & Villa, 1994)”, is “especially important”, because “implicit knowledge is what is required for real-time listening and speaking”.

So here we have yet another construct: ‘detection’. ‘Detection’ is the final part of Tomlin and Villa’s  (1994) three-part process of ‘attention’.  Note first that they claim that ‘awareness’( defined as “the subjective experience of any cognitive or external stimulus,” (p. 194), and which is the crucial part of Schmidt’s ‘noticing’ construct)  can be dissociated from attention, and that awareness is not required for attention. With regard to attention, three functions are involved: alertness, orientation, and detection.

Alertness = an overall, general readiness to deal with incoming stimuli or data.

Orientation = the attentional process responsible for directing attentional resources to some type or class of sensory information at the exclusion of others. When attention is directed to a particular piece of information, detection is facilitated.

Detection = “the cognitive registration of sensory stimuli” and is “the process that selects, or engages, a particular and specific bit of information” (Tomlin & Villa, 1994, p. 192). Detection is responsible for intake of L2 input: detected information gets  further processing.

Gass claims that “apperceived input”  is conscious, the same as Tomlin and Villa’s ‘orienation’, but is Gass’s third stage ‘comprehended input’ the same as ‘Tomlin and Villa’s ‘detection’?  Well, perhaps. ‘Comprehended input’ is “potential intake”  – it’s information which has the possibility of being matched against existing stored knowledge, ready for the next stage, ‘integration’ where the new information can be used for confirmation or reformulation of existing hypotheses. However, if detection is unconscious, then comprehended input is also unconscious, but Gass insists that comprehended input is partly the result of negotiation of meaning, which, Long insists involves not just detection but also noticing.     

This breaking down of the construct of attention into more precise parts is supposed to refine Schmidt’s work. Schmidt starts with the problem of conscious versus uncoscious learning, and breaks ‘consciousness’ down into 3 parts: consciousness as awareness; consciousness as intention; and consciousness as knowledge. As to awareness, Schmidt distinguishes between three levels: Perception, Noticing and Understanding, and the second level, ‘noticing’, is the key to Schmidt’s eventual hypothesis. Noticing is focal awareness. Trying to solve the problem of how ‘input’ becomes ‘intake’, Schmidt’s answer is crystal clear, at least in its initial formulation: ‘intake’ is “that part of the input which the learner notices … whether the learner notices a form in linguistic input because he or she was deliberately attending to form, or purely inadvertently.  If noticed, it becomes intake (Schmidt, 1990: 139)”. And the hypothesis that ‘noticing’ drives L2 learning is plain wrong.

Tomlin and Villa want to recast Schmidt’s construct of noticing as “detection within selective attention”.

Acquisition requires detection, but such detection does not require awareness. Awareness plays a potential support role for detection, helping to set up the circumstances for detection, but it does not directly lead to detection itself. In the same vein, the notion of attention to form articulated by VanPatten (1989, 1990, in press) seems very much akin to the notion of orientation in the attentional literature; that is, the learner may bias attentional resources to linguistic form, increasing the likelihood of detecting formal distinctions but perhaps at the cost of failing to detect other components of input utterances. Finally, input enhancement in instruction, the bringing to awareness of critical form distinctions, may represent one way of heightening the chances of detection. Meta- descriptions of linguistic form may help orient the learner to salient formal distinctions. Input flooding may increase the chances of detection by increasing the opportunities for it” (Tomlin and Villa, 1994, p. 199).

Well, as far as as forming part of a coherent part of a theory of SLA is concerned, I don’t think Tomlin and Villa’s treatment of attention stands up to scrutiny, for all sorts of reasons, many of them teased out by Carroll. Nevertheless, the motivation for this detailed attempt to understand attention, apart from carrying on the work of refining processing theory, is clearly revealed in the above quote: what’s being proposed is that L2 learning is mostly implicit, but that this implicit learning needs to be supplemented by occasional, crucial, conscious attention to form, which triggers ‘orienation’ and enables ‘detection’. An obvious pay off is the improved efficaciousness of teaching! And that, I think, is at the heart of Mike Long’s view  – and of Nick Ellis’ , too.

But it doesn’t do what Carroll (2001, p. 39) insists a theory of SLA should do, namely give

  1. a theory of linguistic knowledge;
  2. a theory of knowledge reconstruction;
  3. a theory of linguistic processing
  4. a theory of learning.  

When I look (yet again!) at Chapter Three of Long’s (2015) book SLA & TBLT, I find that his eloquently described  “Cognitive-Interactionist Theory of SLA” relies on carefully selected “Problems and Explanations”. It’s prime concern is “Instructed SLA”, and it revolves around the problem of why most adult L2 learning is “largely unsuccessful”. It’s not an attempt to construct a full theory of SLA, and I’m quite sure that Long knew exactly what he was doing when he confined himself to articulating his four problems and eight explanations. Maybe this also explains Mike’s comment in the recent post here:

I side with Nick Ellis and the UB (not UG) hordes. Since learning a new language is far too large and too complex a task to be handled explicitly, and although it requires more input and time, implicit learning remains the default learning mechanism for adults.

This looks to me like a good indication of the way things are going.

“Do you fancy a bit more wine?” my wife asks, proffering a bottle of chilled 2019 Viña Esmeralda (a cheeky, very fruity wine; always get the most recent year). “Is the Pope a Catholic?” says I, wishing I had Neil McMillan’s ready ability to come up with a more amusing quote from Pynchon.      

References

Carroll, S. (1997) Putting ‘input’ in its proper place. Second Language Research 15,4; pp. 337–388.

Carroll, S. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amsterdam, Bejamins.

Gass, S. (1997)  Input, Interaction and the Second Language Learner. Marwash, N. J. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gregg, K. R. (1984) Krashen’s monitor and Occam’s razor. Applied Linguistics 5, 79-100.

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.

Long, M. H. (2015). Second language acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second Language Learning.  London: Edward Arnold.

Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-58.

Schmidt, R. (2001) Attention.  In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3-32.

Sharwood Smith, M., & Truscott, J. (2014). The Multilingual Mind. In The Multilingual Mind: A Modular Processing Perspective . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomlin, R., & Villa, H. (1994). Attention in cognitive science and second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 183-203.

Scott Thornbury on UG and UB Theories of SLA

This is a parenthesis. I’d planned to devote Part 4 of ‘Carroll’s AIT’ to assessing how successfully it bridges the gap between nativist and emergentist views of SLA, but I pause so as to answer Scott Thornbury’s question on Twitter (18th May), which amounts to asking why a theory of SLA has to start by describing what it wants to explain.

Really! I mean, you’d have thought a bright, well-read chap like Scott already knew, right? But he doesn’t, and the problem is that he’s a very influential voice in ELT, likely to have a potentially damaging influence on his legions of followers, some of whom might not detect when – just now and then – he talks baloney. Chomsky’s work seems to be a particular blind spot for Scott; he has a very bad record indeed when it comes to writing and talking about Universal Grammar. I’m told by my friend Neil that he’s not much better when it comes to appreciating Lacan’s paradigm shifting critique of Breton’s Surrealist Manifestos, either (see McMillan Mirroring Despair Among the ELT Ungodly, in press). Nemo Sine Vitiis Est, eh what.

The Question

In Part 3, resuming the story so far, I said “A theory of SLA must start from a theory of grammar”. Soon afterwards, Scott Thorbury tweeted, on that highest, silliest horse of his, which, thankfully, he reserves for his discussion of Chomsky:

“A theory of SLA must start from a theory of grammar.” Why? Who said? I’d argue the reverse ‘A theory of grammar must start from a theory of [S/F]LA’. Grammar is the way it is because of the way languages are learned and used.

Other gems in his tweets included:

The theory comes later. Induction, dear boy. Empirical linguistics, by another name.

Chomsky’s error was to start with a theory of grammar and then extrapolate a theory of language acquisition to fit. Cart before horse.

“The theory of UG…is an innate property of the human mind. In principle, we should be able to account for it in terms of human biology.” In principle, maybe. In practice, we can’t. That’s cart-before-horsism.

UG a powerful theory?’ Based on made-up and often improbable data? Incapable of explaining variability & change? Creationism is a powerful theory, too – if you ignore the fossil evidence.

Luckily, I was sitting in a comfortable chair, joyfully making my way through a crate of chilled, cheeky young Penedes rosé wines (delivered to me by an illegal supplier using drones “lent” to him by Catalan extremists intent on breaking the Madrid inspired lockdown), when I read these extraordinary remarks. Otherwise, I might have stopped breathing. Anyway, let’s try to answer Scott’s tweets.

White (1996: 85) points out:

A theory of language acquisition depends on a theory of language. We cannot decide how something is acquired without having an idea of what that something is.

Carroll (2001) and Gregg (1993) agree: a theory of SLA has to consist of two parts:

1) the explanandum: a property theory which describes WHAT is learned. It describes what the learner knows; what makes up a learner’s mental grammar. It consists of various classifications of the components of the language, the L2, and how they work together.

2) the explanans: a transition theory which explains HOW that knowledge is learned.

Property Theories

So WHAT is human language? I’ve dealt with this in a previous post, so suffice it to say here that it’s a system of form-meaning mappings, where meaningless elementary structures of language combine to make meaning; the sounds of a language combinine to make words, and the words combine to make sentences. There are various property theories,  but let’s focus on just two: UG and Construction Grammar, the second being the description of language offered by emergentists, who take a Usage-based (UB) appproach to a theory of SLA.  

UG

Chomsky’s model of language distinguishes between competence and performance; between the description of underlying knowledge, and the use of language. Chomsky refers to the underlying knowledge of language which is acquired as “I-Language”, and distinguishes it from “E-Language”, which is everyday speech – performance data of the sort you get from a corpus of oral texts.

“I-Language” obeys rules of Universal Grammar, among which are structure dependency, C-command and government theory, and binding theory. These are among the principles of UG grammar and they operate with certain open parameters which are fixed as the result of input to the learner. As the parameters are fixed, the core grammar is established. The principles are universal properties of syntax which constrain learners’ grammars, while parameters account for cross-linguistic syntactic variation, and parameter setting leads to the construction of a core grammar where all relevant UG principles are instantiated.     

UB Construction Grammar

The basic units of language representation are Constructions, which are form-meaning mappings. They are symbolic: their defining properties of morphological, syntactic, and lexical form are associated with particular semantic, pragmatic, and discourse functions. Constructions comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions). Constructions may be simultaneously represented and stored in multiple forms, at various levels of abstraction (e.g., concrete item: table+s = tables and [Noun] + (morpheme +s) = plural things). Linguistic constructions (such as the caused motion construction, X causes Y to move Z path/loc [Subj V Obj Obl]) can thus be meaningful linguistic symbols in their own right, existing independently of particular verbs. Nevertheless, constructions and the particular verb tokens that occupy them resonate together, and grammar and lexis are inseparable (Ellis and Cadierno, 2009).

Transition theories  

So HOW do we learn an L2?

UG

UG offers no L2 transition theory, “y punto”, as they say in Spanish. UG says that all human beings are born with an innate grammar – a fixed set of mental rules that enables children to create and utter sentences they have never heard before. Thus, language learning is faciliated by innate knowledge of a set of abstract principles that characterise the core grammars of all natural languages. This knowledge constrains possible grammar formation in such a way that children do not have to learn those features of the particular language to which they are exposed that are universal, because they know them already. This “boot-strapping” device, sometimes referred to as the LanguageAcquisition Device” (LAD) is the best explanation of how children know so much more about their L1 than can be got from the language they are exposed to. The ‘poverty of the stimulus argument’ is summed up by White:   

Despite the fact that certain properties of language are not explicit in the input, native speakers end up with a complex grammar that goes far beyond the input, resulting in knowledge of grammaticality, ungrammaticality, ambiguity, paraphrase relations, and various subtle and complex phenomena, suggesting that universal principles must mediate acquisition and shape knowledge of language (White 1989: 37).

Note that this refers to L1 acquisition. Those who take a UG view of SLA concentrate on the re-setting of parameters to partly explain how the L2 is learnt.  

Just by the way, I suppose I should deal with Scott’s accusations that UG is “based on made-up and often improbable data” which is “incapable of explaining variability & change”. First, the data pertaining to UG are contained in more than 60 years of research studies, hundreds of thousands of them, the results of which scholars (including UB theorists such as Nick Ellis, Tomasello and Larsen-Freeman) acknowledge as having contributed more to the advancement of science than those motivated by any other linguist in history. Second, that UG is incapable of explaining variability and change is hardly surprising, since it doesn’t attempt to, any more than Darwin’s theory attempts to explain tsunamis. To coin a phrase: It’s a question of domains, dear boy.    

UB  

The usage-based theory of language learning is based on associative learning –  “acquisition of language is exemplar based”. (Ellis, 2002: 143). “A huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances” underlies the fluent use of language. Thus, language learning as “the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language”, and fluent language performance as “the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge” (Ellis, 2002: 173). 

Note that this is part of a general learning theory. Those who take a UB view of SLA see it as affected by L1 learning.  

Summary

To paraphrase Gregg (2003), nativist (UG) theories posit an innate representational system specific to the language faculty, and non-associative mechanisms, as well as associative ones, for bringing that system to bear on input to create an L2 grammar. UB theories deny both the innateness of linguistic representations  and any domain-specific  language learning mechanisms. For UB, input from the environment, plus elementary processes of association, are enough to explain SLA.

Clearing up the muddle about UG

Gregg (2003) discusses four “red herrings” used by those arguing against UG. I’ll paraphrase two of them, because they address Scott’s remarks.

The Argument from Vacuity

The argument is: calling a property ‘innate’ does not solve anything: it simply calls a halt to investigation of the property.

First, innate properties are generally assumed in science  – circulation of the blood is one such property. As for language, the jury is still out. Thus it is question-begging to argue that calling UG innate prevents us from investigating how language is learned.

Second, criticising the ‘innateness hypothesis’, often rests on a caricature of the argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus (POS), viz., ‘Property P cannot be learned; therefore it is innate’. But in fact the POS argument is more nuanced:

1)         An indefinite number of alternative sets of principles are consistent with the regularities found in the primary linguistic data.

2)         The correct set of principles need not be (and typically is not) in any pretheoretic sense simpler or more natural than the alternatives.

3)         The data that would be needed for choosing  among these sets of principles are in many cases not the sort of data that are available to an empiricist learner.

4)         So if children were empiricist learners, they could not reliably arrive at the correct grammar for their language.

5)         Children do reliably arrive at the correct grammar for their language.

6)         Therefore, children are not empiricist learners.

Emergentists need to show that the POS argument for language acquisition is false, by showing that empiricist learning suffices for language acquisition. In other words, they need to show that the stimuli are not impoverished, that the environment is indeed rich enough, and rich in the right ways, to bring about the emergence of linguistic competence (Gregg, 2003, p. 101).

The Argument from Neuroscience

As MacWhinney puts it, ‘Nativism is wrong because it makes untestable assumptions about genetics and unreasonable assumptions about the hard-coding of complex formal rules in neural tissue’ (2000: 728) (Gregg, 2003, p.103).

As Gregg says, the claim that there is an innate UG is a claim about the mind, not about the brain. If brain science could show that it is impossible to instantiate UG in a brain, the claim of an innate UG would clearly fail, but brain science has not shown any such impossibility; indeed, brain science has not yet been able to show how any cognitive capacity is instantiated. Thus, pace Scott Thornbury, to date, neuroscience cannot support any emergentist claim about the development of interlanguages. Furthermore, Scott seems to think that neurological explanations are somehow more ‘real’ or ‘basic’ than cognitive explanations; which is, in Gregg’s opinion (2003, p. 104) “a serious mistake”.

It is not simply that the current state of the art does not yet permit us to propose theories of  language acquisition at the neural level; it is rather that the neural level is likely not ever to be the appropriate level at which to  account for cognitive capacities like language, any more than the physical level is the appropriate level at which to account for the phenomena of economics….  There is no reason whatever for thinking that the neural  level  is now, or ever will be, the level where the best explanation  of language competence or language acquisition is to be found. In short, whether there is  a UG, and if  there is, whether it is  innate, are definitely open questions; but they cannot be answered in the negative merely by appealing to neural implausibility.

UB Theories

Scott has expressed his enthusisam for UB theories for some time now, but he has done little to support this enthusiasm with rational argument. I’ve commented on the limitations of his grasp of the issues in other posts (see, for example, Thornbury on Performance, and Thornbury Part 1 so it’s enough to say here that he fails to adequately address the criticisms of UB theories made by many scholars, including Carroll and Gregg for example. The basic problems that UB theories face are these:

Property theory: UB theory suggests that SLA is explained by the learner’s ability to do distributional analyses and to remember the products of the analyses. So why do they accept the validity of the linguist’s account of grammatical structure? And what bits do they accept? Ellis accepts NOUN, PHRASE STRUCTURE and STRUCTURE- DEPENDENCE, for example. As Gregg comments “Presumably the linguist’s descriptions simply serve to indicate what statistical associations are relevant in a given language, hence what sorts of things need to be shown to ‘emerge’.

Transition Theory: Language is acquired through associative learning, through, what Nick Ellis calls ‘learners’ lifetime analysis of the distributional characteristics of the input’ and the ‘piecemeal learning of thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction  of  regularities’. To borrow from Scott’s screaming protests about claims for UG “Where’s the evidence?” . Well the only evidence is the models of associative learning processes provided by connectionist  networks. But, as Gregg (2003) so persusively demonstrates, these connectionist models provide very little evidence to support the emergentist transition theory. Scott has made no attempt to reply to Gregg’s criticisms. Let me just give one part of Gregg’s argument, the part that deals with the connectionist claim that their models are ‘neurally inspired’.

The use of the term ‘neural network’ to denote connectionist models is perhaps the most successful case of false advertising since the term ‘pro-life’. Virtually no modeller actually makes any specific claims about analogies between the model and the brain, and for good reason: As Marinov says, ‘Connectionist systems, … have contributed essentially no insight into how knowledge is represented in the brain’ (Marinov, 1993: 256) Christiansen and Chater, who are themselves connectionists, put it more strongly: ‘But connectionist nets are not realistic models of the brain . . ., either at the level of individual processing unit, which drastically oversimplifies and knowingly falsifies many features of real neurons, or in terms of network structure, which typically bears no relation to brain architecture’ (1999: 419). In particular, it should be noted that backpropagation, which is the learning algorithm almost universally used in connectionist models of language acquisition is also universally recognized to be a biological impossibility; no brain process known to science corresponds to backpropagation (Smolensky, 1988; Clark, 1993; Stich, 1994; Marcus, 1998b).

I challenge Scott to answer the arguments so clearly laid out in Gregg’s (2003) article.

Finally, I can’t resist a quote from Eubank and Gregg’s (2002) article.

“And of course it is precisely because rules have a deductive structure that one can have instantaneous learning, without the trial  and error involved in connectionist learning.  With the English past tense rule, one can instantly determine the past tense form of “zoop” without any prior experience of that verb, let alone of “zooped” (unlike, say,  Ellis & Schmidt’s model, which could only approach the “correct” plural form for the test item, and only after repeated exposures to the singular form followed by repeated exposures to the plural form, along with back-propagated comparisons).  If all we know is that John zoops wugs, then we know instantaneously that John zoops, that he might have zooped yesterday and may zoop tomorrow, that he is a wug-zooper who engages in wug-zooping, that whereas John zoops, two wug-zoopers zoop, that if he’s a Canadian wug-zooper he’s either a Canadian or a zooper of Canadian wugs (or both), etc.  We know all this without learning it, without even knowing what “wug” and “zoop” mean.  A frequency / regularity account would need to appeal to a whole congeries of associations, between a large number of pairs like “rum-runner/runs rum, piano-tuner/tunes pianos, …”  but not like “harbor-master/masters harbors, pot-boiler/boils pots, kingfisher/fishes kings, …”, or a roughly equal number of pairs like “purple people-eater” meaning purple people or purple eater, etc.”

Follow that!

References

Carroll.S. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amstedam, Benjamins.

Carroll, S. (2002) I-learning. EUROSLA Yearbook 2, 7–28.

Ellis, N. (2002) Fequency effects in language processing. SSLA, 24,2.  

Eubank, L., & Gregg, K. (2002) Nnews flash—hume still dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 237-247.

Gregg, K. R. (1993) Taking explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.

Gregg, K. R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research 19,2 (2003); pp. 95–128

Mike Long: Reply to Carroll’s comments on the Interaction Hypothesis

I’m very grateful to Mike Long for taking the time to wrie a quick response to Carroll’s comments on his Interaction Hypothesis, which I quoted in the latest post on Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory. His email to me is repoduced below, with his permission.

Important issues are raised – the roles of noticing versus “detection”, the reach of negative feedback, and, most importantly, perhaps, the statement “I side with Nick Ellis and the UB (not UG) hordes” – which I’ll try to address, once I’ve stopped sobbing, in Part 4.

Hi, Geoff,

Thank you for the valuable work you do with your blog, and just as important, the fact that it is also usually funny (in a good way).

It has been nice to see Susanne Carroll’s work getting an airing of late. I sent a several-page comment on your Part 3 via the Comment form yesterday, butit apparently disappeared into the ether. As I have a day job, and it’s term paper reading week, what follows is a quick and dirty rehash.

Much of the critique the pair of you leveled against the Interaction Hypothesis (IH) focused on one dimenson only: negotiation for meaning and the negative feedback (NF) it produces. But the IH and negotiation for meaning are a whole lot broader than that.

Genuinely communicative L2 interaction provides opportunities for learners focused on meaning to pick up a new language incidentally, as an unintended by-product of doing something else — communicating through the new language — and often also implicitly, i.e., without awareness. Interacting in the L2 while focused on what is said, learners sometimes perceive new forms or form-meaning-function associations consciously — a process referred to as noticing (Schmidt, 1990, 2010). On other occasions, their focus on communication and attention to the task at hand is such that they will perceive new items in the input unconsciously — a process known as detection (Tomlin & Villa, 1994). Detection is especially important, for as Whong, Gil, & Marsden (2014) point out, implicit learning and (barring some sort of consciousness-raising event)the end-product, implicit knowledge, is what is required for real-time listening and speaking. 

While communicating through the L2, a learner’s attention is likely to be drawn to problematic items by added salience resulting from typical characteristics of meaning-focused exchanges. For instance, NS or more proficient NNS interlocutors will consciously or unconsciously highlight important items, e.g., by pausing briefly before and/or after them, adding stress, repeating them, providing synonyms and informal definitions, moving them to more salient initial or final positions in an utterance through left-dislocation or decomposition, and through comprehension checks, confirmation checks and clarification requests, all triggering a momentary switch of the learner’s focal attention from meaning to linguistic form. In addition, NF — mostly implicit, mostly recasts — can have the same effect, while simultaneously providing whatever positive evidence is needed, whether a missing item or a model of more target-like usage. The same incidental learning process operates when learners read a book or a newspaper, listen to a radio interview or watch a movie. However, whereas those activities involve attempting to understand and learn from static spoken or written input intended for NSs and over which they have no control, face-to-face L2 interaction is dynamic, offering opportunities to negotiate for meaning. The negotiation work increases the likelihood that salience will be added, attention drawn to items uniquely problematic for them, and communicative trouble repaired.

You are both skeptical about learners’ ability to compare representations stored in long-term memory with the positive evidence contained in recasts, in order to “notice the gap”. I would be, too. But the comparison involves short-term, or working, memory (WM), not long-term memory. And why would that be inconceivable? Evidence that it is not only possible, but happens all the time (in L1 and L2) is abundant. For instance, what someone says or writes frequently primes, or triggers, use of the same lexis and syntax in that person’s own, or a listener’s,immediately following speech or writing (see, e.g., Doughty, 2001; McDonough 2006; McDonough & Mackey, 2008).

Then, think of the immediate recall sub-tasks common in language aptitude measures, such as LLAMA D and the n-back task in Hi-Lab. Essentially, learners hear/see a short string of sounds or letters and either have to say which ones in a new sequence they heard or read, or repeat them a few seconds later (n-back is a bit more complex). The same basic idea is employed in countless word-recognition post-tests in incidental learning studies. Everyone can do those tasks — some better than others, which is why they are used as a measure of language aptitude – and I reckon they tap roughly the same ability as that used in learning from recasts. The fact that the learner’s original utterance and a recast it triggers are both meaningful, unlike strings of random letters, sounds or words, can be predicted to make it even easier to hold and compare in short-term memory.

Recasts have seven additional qualities (Long, 1996) that make cognitive comparison and learning even more feasible. They convey needed information about the target language (i) in context, (ii) when listeners and speakers share a joint attentional focus, (iii)whenthe learner is vested in the exchange, (iv) and so is probably motivated and (v) attending. (vi) The fact that learners already have prior comprehension of at least part of the message the recast contains, because the reformulation they hear is of what they just tried to say, frees up attentional resources and facilitates form-function mapping. Indirect support for this idea may lie in the findings of a study of the value of content familiarity. Finally, and crucially, (vii) the contingency of recasts on deviant output means that incorrect and correct utterances are juxtaposed, allowing learners briefly to hold and compare the two versions in working memory (WM). Not convinced? Then considerthe fact that statistical meta-analyses (e.g., Goo, 2019; Li, 2010; Loewen& Sato, 2018) have shown that recasts result in measurable learning, with some evidence that they do so better than modelsand non-contingent speech, on salient targets, at least (Long, Inagaki, & Ortega, 1998).

And, again, it’s not just NF. Negotiation for meaning involves higher than usual frequencies of semantically contingent speech, including repetitions, reformulationsand expansions, sometimes functioning simultaneously as recasts, but more generally (something usually dear to UG-ers’ hearts) as (mostly)comprehensible, so processable, positive evidence usable for learning. Problematic forms are recycled, increasing their salience and the likelihood that they will be perceived by the learner. The positive evidence, moreover, is elaborated, not simplified (except for lower mean length of utterance), so retains the items to which learners need to be exposed if acquisition is to occur.

I side with Nick Ellis and the UB (not UG) hordes. Since learning a new language is far too large and too complex a task to be handled explicitly, and althoh it requires more input and time,implicit learning remains the default learning mechanism for adults:

“Even though many of us go to great lengths to engage in explicit language learning, the bulk of language acquisition is implicit learning from usage. Most knowledge is tacit knowledge; most learning is implicit; the vast majority of our cognitive processing is unconscious” (Ellis &Wulff, 2015, p. 8; and see Ellis &Wulff, 2019).

Sure, there are limitations. Williams (2009) notes, for example, that the scope of implicit learning may not extend to phenomena, such as anaphora, that involve non-adjacent items (Hawkins was arrested, and so were several members of his gang), which may no longer be learnable that way. And I have often pointed to evidence that the capacity for implicit learning, especially instance learning, weakens (not disappears) around age 12 (e.g., Long, 215, pp. 2017). But those are for another time, which, you will by now be relieved to hear, I don’t have now.

According to the Tallying Hypothesis (Ellis, 2002), ensuring that learners’ attention is drawn to learning targets that way, especially to abstract, perceptually non-salient items, can modify entrenched automatic L1 processing routines, thereby altering the way subsequent L2 input is processed implicitly. An initial representation is established in long-term memory and functions as a selective cue priming the learner to attend to and perceive additional instances when processingimplicitly. Ellis identifies what he calls “the general principleof explicit learning in SLA: changing the cues that learners focus on intheir language processing changes what their implicit learning processestune” (Ellis 2005, p. 327). Research is currently under way to determine whether it is possible to achieve the same results by unobtrusive,less interventionist means: enhanced incidental learning (Long, 2015, pp. 30-62, 2017, 2020).

References

Doughty, C. (2001a). Cognitive underpinnings of focus on form. In Robinson, P. (ed.), Cognition and Second Language Instruction (pp. 206-257). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, N. C. (2005). At the interface: Dynamic interactions of explicit and implicit language knowledgeStudies in Second Language Acquisition 27, 2, 305-352.

Ellis, N. C. (2006) Selective attention and transfer phenomena in L2 acquisition: contingency, cue competition, salience, interference, overshadowing, blocking, and perceptual learning. Applied Linguistics 27, 2,164-194.

Ellis, N. C. &Wulff, S. (2015). Usage-based approaches to second language acquisition. In VanPatten, B., & Williams, J. (Eds., Theories in second language acquisition (pp. 75-93). New York: Routledge.

Ellis, N. C. & Wulff, S. (2019). Cognitive approaches to L2 acquisition. In Schwieter, J. W., &Benati​, A. (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Language Learning (pp. 41-61). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Goo, J. M (2019. Interaction in L2 learning. In Schwieter, J. W., & Benati, A. (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of language learning (pp. 233-257). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, S. (2010). The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: A meta-analysis. Language Learning 60, 2, 309-365.

Loewen, S. & Sato, M. (2018). Interaction and instructed second language acquisition. Language Teaching 51, 3, 285-329.

Long, M. H. (2015). Second language acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Long, M. H. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In Ritchie, W. C., &Bahtia, T. K. (eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 413-68). New York: Academic Press.

Long, M. H. (2015). Second language acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Long, M. H. (2017). Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): Geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition 1, 1, 7-44.

Long, M. H. (2020). Optimal input for language learning: genuine, simplified, elaborated, or modified elaborated? Language Teaching 53, 2, 169-182.

Long, M. H., Inagaki, S., & Ortega, L. (1998). The role of implicit negative feedback in SLA: Models and recasts in Japanese and Spanish. Modern Language Journal 82, 3, 357-371.

McDonough, K. (2006). Interaction and syntactic priming: English L2 speakers’ production of dative constructions. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28, 179-207.

McDonough, K., & Mackey, A. (2008). Syntactic priming and ESL question development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 30, 1, 31-47.

Saxton, M. (1997). The contrast theory of negative input. Journal of Child Language 24, 139-161.

Whong, M., Gil, H.-G. and Marsden, E. (2014) Beyond paradigm: the ‘what’ and the‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research 30, 4, 551-568.

Susanne Carroll’s AIT: Part 3

In this third part of my exploration of Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory (AIT), I’ll look at “categorization” and feedback. In what follows I try to speak for Carroll and I apologise for the awful liberties I’ve taken with her texts.  All the quotes come from Carroll (2002), unless otherwise cited.

Categories

A theory of SLA must start from a theory of grammar. When we look at the grammars of natural languages, we note that they differ in their repertoires of categories: words are divided into different segments, and sentences comprise different classes of words and phrases. But how? As a basic example, a noun is not reducible to the symbol ‘N’: word classes consist of sound-meaning correspondences, so a noun is a union of phonetic features, phonological structure, morphosyntactic features, morphological structure, semantic features and conceptual structure. As Jackendoff says, words are correspondences connecting levels of representation.

UG

UG provides the representational primitives of each autonomous level of representation, and UG provides the operations which the parsers can perform. In other words, UG severely constrains the ways that the categories at different levels of representation are unified and project into hierarchical structure.

I-learning

A theory of i-learning explains what happens when a parser fails, and a new constituent or a new procedure must be learned.

In the case of category i-learning, UG provides a basic repertoire of  features in  each autonomous representational system. Features will combine to form complex units at a given level: phonetic features combine to form segments (a timing unit of speech), morphosyntactic features combine to form morphemes (the basic unit of the morphosyntax),and primitive semantic features combine to form complex concepts like Agent, Male, Cause, Consequence, and so on.

But UG is not the whole story: the acquisition of basic units within an integrative processor will reflect various constraints on feature unification within the limits defined by “unification grammars”.

Some of these constraints will presumably also be attributable to UG. What these restrictions actually consist of, however, is an empirical question and our understanding of such issues has come, and will continue to come, largely from cross-linguistic and typological grammatical research.

Having constructed representations, learners then have to identify them as instances of a category. So SLA consists of learning the categories and the correspondence rules which apply to a specific L2. UG provides some correspondence rules which, in first language acquisition, are used by infants to learn the language specific mappings needed for rapid processing of the particularities of the L1 phonology and morphosyntax. These are carried over into SLA, as are all L1 correspondence rules, which leads to transfer problems.

AIT is embedded in a theory of the functional architecture of the language faculty and linked to theories of parsing and production. Autonomous representational systems of language work with  constrained processing modules in working memory. When parsing fails, acquisition mechanisms try to fix the problem. A correspondence failure can only be fixed by a change to a correspondence rule, and an integration problem can only be changed by a change to an integration procedure.

Very importantly, evidence for acquisition comes in the form of mental representations, not from the speech stream, except in the case of i-learning of acoustic patterns of the phonetics of the L2. Carroll explains:

In this respect, this theory differs radically from the Competition Model and from all theories which eschew structural representations in favour of direct mappings between the sound stream and conceptual representations. If correct, it means that simply noting the presence or absence of strings in the speech stream is not going to tell us directly what is in the input to the learning mechanisms.

Lexis

The place of lexis needs special mention. Following Jackendoff, Lexical items have correspondence rules, linking phonological, morphosyntactic and conceptual representations of words.

Since the contents of lexical entries in SLA are known to be a locus of transfer, the contents of lexical entries will constitute a major source of information for the learning mechanisms in dealing with stimuli in the L2.

Carroll says (2001, p. 84) “In SLA, the major “bootstrapping” procedure may well be lexical transfer”. She says this in the context of arguing for the limited effects of UG on SLA, and I wish she’d said more.

Summary

So, a theory of SLA must start with a theory of linguistic knowledge, of mental grammars. Then, it has to explain how a mental grammar is restructured. After that, a theory of linguistic processing must explain how input gets into the system, thereby creating novel learning problems, and finally, a theory of learning must show how novel information can be created to resolve learning problems. I’ve covered all this, however badly, but more remains.

More

On page 31 of Input and Evidence we get a re-formulation of Carroll’s research questions:

I have to say that I see little of relevance in the next 300 pages, but the last three chapters do have a shot at answering them. I don’t think she does a good job of it, but that’s for Part 4. If you’re already exhausted, think how I feel about the task of telling you about it.

We must return again to Carroll’s most central claims (IMHO) that ‘input’ and ‘intake’ are badly defined theoretical constructs which make a bad starting point for any theory of SLA, and that consequent talk of ‘L1 transfer’; ‘noticing’; ‘negotiation of meaning’; and ‘ouput’ are similarly unsatisfactory components of a theory of SLA. The starting point should be stimuli from the environment, not linguistic input (whatever that is), and we must then explain how these stimuli get represented and successfully transformed into developing interlanguages. This demands not just a property theory to describe what is being developed, but a much better model of the learning mechanisms and the reasoning involved than is presently on offer.

A taster

Long’s Interaction Hypothesis states that the role of feedback is to draw the learner’s attention to mismatches between a stimulus and the learner’s output, and that they can learn a grammar on the basis of the “negotiation of meaning.” But what is  meant by these terms? For Carroll, “input” means stimulus, and “output” means what the learner actually says, so the claim is that the learner can compare a representation of their speech to a representation of the speech signal. Why should this help the learner in learning properties of the morphosyntax or vocabulary, since the learner’s problems may be problems of incorrect phonological or morphosyntactic structure? To restructure the mental grammar on the basis of feedback, the learner must be able to construct a representation at the relevant level and compare their  output — at the right level — to that.

It would appear then,…  that the Interaction Hypothesis presupposes that the learner can compare representations of her speech and some previously heard uttefance at the right level of analysis. But this strikes me as highly implausible cognitively speaking. Why should we suppose that learners store in longterm memory their analyses of stimuli at all levels of analysis? Why should we assume that they are storing in longterm memory all levels of analysis of their own speech?… Certainly nothing in current processing theory would lead us to suppose that humans do such things. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that intermediate levels of the analysis of sentences are fleeting, and dependent on the demands of working memory, which is concerned only with constructing a representation of the sort required for the next level of processing up or down. Intermediate levels of analysis of sentences normally never become part of longterm memory. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suppose that the learner has no stored representations at the intermediate levels of analysis either of her own speech or of any stimulus heard before the current “parse moment.” Consequently, he cannot compare his output (at the right level of analysis) to the stimulus in any interesting sense….. Moreover, given the limitations of working memory, negotiations in a conversation cannot literally help the learner to re-parse a given stimulus heard several moments previously. Why not? Because the original stimulus will no longer be in a learner’s working memory by the time the negotiations have occurred. It will have been replaced by the consequences of parsing the last utterance from the NS in the negotiation. I conclude that there is no reason to believe that the negotiation of meaning assists learners in computing an input-output comparison at the right level of representation for grammatical restructuring to occur (Carroll, 2001, p. 291).

Preposterous, right, Mike?

Fun will finally ensue when, in Part 5, I get together with a bunch of well oiled chums in a video conference session to defend Carroll’s insistence on a property theory and a language faculty against the usage based (UB) hordes. Neil McMillan (whose Lacan in Lockdown: reflections from a small patio is eagerly awaited by binocular-wielding graffiti fans in Barcelona); Kevin Gregg (train schedule permitting); and Mike (‘pass the bottle’) Long are among the many who probably won’t take part.

References

Carroll.S. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amstedam, Benjamins.

Carroll, S. (2002) I-learning. EUROSLA Yearbook 2, 7–28.

Gregg, K. R. (1993) Taking explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.