Living in a glass house

A few days ago, Silvana Richardson tweeted

Strong words from Ms. Richardson. But is she in a position to throw such stones? Below are some extracts from her IATEFL 2016 conference plenary. My comments follow the ***s. 

Most SLA researchers assume that Native Speakers make the best teachers.  *** False.

Most SLA researchers view the L1 as “an obstacle”. *** False.

 Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar supports Native Speakerism, is ideologically biased, and has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs.

*** False. In Chomsky’s theory of UG, the term “native speaker” is used to refer to an “ideal” speaker; it’s a construct used in a very carefully-defined domain. Richardson seems unable to distinguish between a theory of linguistic competence and ethnographic studies of language use, where the term “native speaker” is often used to unjustly discriminate against a certain group of teachers. It’s quite common to find Chomsky’s theory so airily misrepresented, but, given his record of fighting social injustice, it’s surely ironic to hear Richardson accuse Chomsky of ideological bias.

Task-based language teaching and the lexical approach thrust a monolingual approach upon the world.  

*** False.  What unites the very different views of proponents of TBLT and Lexical approaches, such as the Willises,  Long,  Nunan, Ellis, Skehan (TBLT), and Walkley & Dellar (Lexical Approach), is their commitment to the fight for equal rights for NNESTs.

If you look at theories of SLA, you find yourself in a dark, narrow, confined cognitivist theoretical space which results in a narrow approach to teaching, learning and teacher education, and to native speakerism, monolingualism and monoculturalism. 

*** False. This  sweeping, unwarranted assertion shows little understanding of SLA research or of the people who do it. For a start, Richardson supports her own views by citing the work of Vivian Cook and Guy Cook, and then, twenty minutes later, she accuses both men of shunning the light. But it’s worse than that – the people Richardson portray working in a nasty, dark tunnel include her heroes! She seems not to appreciate that under the wide umbrella of cognitivists stand the emergentists, including, of course, the wonderful Diane Larsen-Freeman and Scott Thornbury. In fact, cognitivists include academics as diverse as Krashen, Pienemann, Gass, Towell, Hawkins, Doughty, Long, Skehan, Robinson, Pica, Schmidt, White, R. Ellis, Mackay, Brown, Bygate, Chaudron, Foster, Lightbown, Spada, Tomasello, MacWhinney, and Nick Ellis, to name but a few. Richardson’s remarks really don’t bear examination.      

A paradigm shift from “SLA” to “Plurilingual Development” will usher in a new world of ELT practice where NNESTs are no longer discriminated against. 

*** False. Blissfully unaware of her confusion, Richardson steps further into the mire by attributing ideological positions to two  groups inside the cognitivist camp. On one side are those she refers to as “the “cognitivists”. These are the baddies, portrayed as conservative reactionaries doggedly protecting the status quo. On the other side are the emergentists, including Larsen-Freeman. These are the goodies, the liberal vanguard, fighting to bring about the paradigm shift to “Plurilingual Development”.  Two points need making.

First, the most cursory examination of the ideological views of members of the two groups will quickly show that their views on education, social inclusion and politics don’t depend on what explanation of second language learning they favour. Some of the most radical political views are held by those who staunchly defend a generativist theory – including Chomsky himself, of course. The moral high ground doesn’t belong exclusively to those who believe that language learning is best explained by appeal to some elementary version of the power law of practice processing frequently occurring exemplars encountered in the input (sorry, in the affordances).     

Second, there is the question of the relative academic merits of these two groups. A quick way to judge is to watch Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 plenary and then to read as much as you can bear of Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) Complex systems and applied linguistics. I think it’s fair to say that the obscurantist writing and the lack of clarity are notable. and that those familiar with the topics dealt with will also notice the poor standards of scholarship and argumentation displayed. In contrast, if you read Topics 7 and 8 in Cook and Singleton (2014) Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition, I think it’s fair to say that the writing is clear and the scholarship exemplary.    

Apart from regular appearances in the Cambridge English Teacher, a now defunct, promotional arm of Cambridge Assessment English, I can find no published work by Richardson in any applied linguistics or  ELT journal. Richardson rebukes conference organisers and teaching associations for giving under-informed speakers a platform to spread half-baked ideas. Yet she herself continues to use the biggest platforms at the biggest conference to deliver ill-informed and poorly judged opinions on SLA research.  Mind the glass. 

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One thought on “Living in a glass house

  1. Good article – the name struck a chord with me and then I remembered this talk from 2017:

    “Silvana Richardson – Beyond demand high: Making quality learning happen for all.”
    I found it interesting but I am not sure how grounded it is in academia or SLA research.

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