In July 2015, commenting on Steve Brown’s post “Concerning Coursebooks”, Thornbury had this to say:
- If it’s syllabuses that teachers want, these can be fabricated out of existing coursebook syllabuses and printed on a sheet of A4. No violation of copyright is involved since all coursebook syllabuses are clones of one another anyway.. And if it’s a semantic or functional or task-based syllabus they want, they will have to design it themselves anyway (but the exercise could do wonders for in-service development and staff morale).
- If it’s texts that teachers want, they need only do what coursebooks writers do anyway: trawl the internet. At least the texts that they plunder themselves are likely to be more up-to-date than those in even a recently-published coursebook, and can be selected to match their learners’ needs and interests.
- If it’s activities the teachers want, there are any number of excellent resource books available, and a school’s materials budget might be better spent on the complete Cambridge Handbooks series (I declare an interest) than on a truckload of Headway.
- Syllabus. Texts. Activities. Is there anything else a coursebook offers? Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets.
On the other hand, …..
In the same year, thousands of copies of Thornbury and Watkins’ best-selling The CELTA Course were used by teacher trainers and trainees all over the world as their guide through a widely-criticised, ultra-conservative ELT training course dedicated to training teachers to do exactly the opposite of what Thornbury recommends when he’s wearing his Dogme hat. In the CELTA course, coursebooks form an integral part of ELT practice; trainees are actively encouraged to use them in their teaching practice, and no part of either Thornbury’s CELTA books or the training course itself questions using toxic texts like Headway which Thornbury, in some sort of parallel universe, eloquently blames for causing the complete ruin of the ELT profession.
Does the Vicar of Bray come to mind? If you’re a young non-Brit it probably doesn’t, and you’re unlikely to get another analogy from 17th century rural England: running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Both allusions refer to the attempt to hold two contradictory views at the same time, and while this usually leads to disaster, in Thornbury’s case, it’s brought him fame and fortune, and helped him to remain one of the most popular and well-respected figures in ELT for over forty years. Apart from my own occasional pot shots at him, what’s so remarkable about Thornbury is that he can run with hares and hunt with hounds without anybody charging him with duplicity, or at least confusion. Thanks to his singular ability to somehow transcend the confines which affect the rest of us, Thornbury can have lunch in a damp basement near the river with members of a cabal plotting to sabotage the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, and afterwards emerge from the gloom, flick the specks of gunpowder off his sleeve, hail a cab, and finally alight, fresh and immaculate, at Claridges, there to have tea with a nervous group of rival publishers. Washing down the last jam-topped scone with the hotel’s own Tieguanyin tea, Thornbury finally bows to the highest bidder and signs a contract for his new book: Appreciating Raymond Murphy. All in a day’s work.
Who cares if in a comment on one blog Thornbury lambasts coursebooks, while in a different comment on a different blog he staunchly defends Penny Ur’s endorsement of them! If in one presentation he’s the champion of Dogme, while in another he’s advising teachers on the best way to present and practice bits of grammar, well, so what! And if in one book he writes a chapter (with Christine Jacknick) for the Schmidt festschrift, while in another he explains that, pace Schmidt, there’s no need to notice things in the input, because grammar “emerges”, “for free”, then doesn’t that just show what an erudite, eclectic, flexible chap he is! Thornbury has written books on how to teach the present perfect and other books on why teachers shouldn’t do it; he’s claimed that learners benefit from doing written grammar exercises, and that there’s really no need for them; he’s defended the raft of leading teacher trainers who downplay the relevance of academic research, while at the same time giving post-graduate courses on SLA at a radical New York university, where he encourages teachers to critically appraise the work of academics, many of whom he’s on first-name terms with.
The Five Questions for Teacher Trainers
Not surprisingly, perhaps, looking at Thornbury’s published work doesn’t provide clear answers to the 5 questions that I’ve invited teacher trainers to consider. And since he’s already indicated that he sees no point in taking part in my enquiry, I’ll give my own critique of his work, hoping that he might still make some comments. In Part 1, I’ll look at Thornbury’s views of language learning.
In his P is for Poverty of the Stimulus, Thornbury challenges Chomsky’s PoS argument (children know things about language that can’t be inferred from the input they get) by saying:
you have to prove that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input… otherwise it’s an ’empirically-empty’ assertion.
Since it’s logically impossible to prove that X could not have caused Y, Thornbury’s demand is illogical and indicates that he doesn’t understand fundamental aspects of theory construction. In the same discussion Thornbury says
Surely the onus of proof is on the nativists … to show that the stimulus is impoverished?
Again we have the “proof” thing. Thornbury seems unaware that scientific theories are never proved; rather, for as long as they survive tests from empirical studies they remain tentative explanations of the phenomena involved.
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask nativists who endorse Chomsky’s theory to provide evidence that supports it, and in fact more than 60 years of empirical studies have been carried out at linguistics faculties in the best universities in the world to try to establish what young children know. Reacting to my assertion that Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research, Thornbury replied:
“Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research”. What!!? Where? When? Who?
When I mentioned some of the well-known grammaticality judgement studies, Thornbury seemed to think these didn’t count. All of which suggests that Thornbury doesn’t have a good grasp of the theory which he so unconditionally dismisses.
(Just by the way, despite what Thornbury says, I’m not a slavish devotee of UG. I think there are some important weaknesses in Chomsky’s theories (in particular, the allegation that he keeps moving the goalposts to deflect criticism seems justified); I’m not sure UG has a big part to play in SLA theory; and I think the work of Nick Ellis, Tomasello and others on usage-based theories of SLA is very interesting and even promising.)
Thornbury and Emergentism
The question remains: Does Thornbury show that the input stimulus is, pace Chomsky, enough to explain language learning? The answer is: No, he doesn’t. Thornbury has made a number of attempts over the past 15 years to explain his own particular view of emergentism, but these attempts show about as much critical acumen as his attempts to make sense of Chomsky. Here’s what Thornbury says about emergentism on his blog:
The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized. General learning processes explain the rest.
If we generalize the findings beyond the single word level to constructions and then generalize from constructions to grammar, then hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.
In an article he wrote in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called “Slow Release Grammar” Thornbury confidently asserts that
- emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development;
- emergentism explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT;
- emergence is also the key to successful syllabus design.
This is his argument. Emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”.
Language exhibits emergent properties, and there are 2 basic processes by which language “grows and organises itself”. The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases). The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar. It is, says Thornbury, as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.
These 2 processes explain emergence in learning. Thornbury calls on Hoey’s (2005) account of how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing. Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, says Hoey, nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system. Precisely how all this happens, Hoey doesn’t say and Thornbury doesn’t ask – it just happens.
Thornbury starts with Stuart Kauffman’s familiar claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. Thornbury tells us that many formulaic chunks yield little or no generalisable grammar, which must surely impede their wonderous ability to slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess?
Thornbury’s inadequate and mangled account of emergentism claims that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language. His unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to is probably wrong and, in any case, certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory.
We may note that various scholars have been working on emergentist / connectionist / associative learning views, and developing usage-based theories of SLA views for over 30 years now. The first thing we have to do is to leave behind the rantings of Larsen-Freeman that Thornbury finds so persuasive, and then go on to distinguish, as Gregg (2003) does, between, on the one hand, the work of Nick Ellis, MacWhinney, and Tomasello, for example, who claim that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment, and, on the other hand, the work of William O’Grady and his associates, who argue that certain types of innate concepts are required.
Gregg gives this summary of the difference:
“So the lines are drawn: On the one hand, we have .. nativist theories which posit a rich, 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. On the other hand, we have the emergentist position, which denies both the innateness of linguistic representations (Chomsky modularity) and the domain-specificity of language learning mechanisms (Fodor-modularity) (Gregg, 2003: 46).
If we concentrate on the emergentist position, then we come full circle, because any empiricist account of language learning is faced with the poverty of the stimulus argument. Emergentists, by adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where no innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations, are allowed) have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do. Thornbury’s response:
The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way,…
is little more than rather desperate hand-waving. How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate? How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure? How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure – including knowledge of what is not possible?
In a comment much earlier this year, Thornbury gives an impressive list of books that he’s read on emergentism, which at least suggests that he’s got a much better grasp of the issues involved in SLA than this post on his views of language learning implies. I’ve read most of Thornbury’s work, and I haven’t found a single article or chapter in a book, or conference presentation where his views are more carefully and coherently explained. I sincerely hope that he’ll take the trouble to either point us to something he’s already published, or fill the gap.
In Part 2, I’ll look at Thornbury’s views of language teaching.
Ellis, N. C. (2006) Language acquisition and rational contingency learning. Applied Linguistics, 27 (1), 1-24.
Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.
Gregg, K.R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 95.
Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. Psychology Press.