Genius!

Dr. Gianfranco Conti (with largely unacknowledged help from his side kick Steve Smith) is the brilliant scholar and gifted educator responsible for the M.A.R.S.’ E.A.R.S. method for teaching modern languages. The enormous success of Dr. Conti’s method is due to a winning combination of factors:

  • its crystal clear, lock-step, Do-this-then-do-that-and-don’t-even think-of-doing-anything-else methodology;
  • its catchy, easy to follow range of classroom activities, including Drill and Kill, Stultifying Sentence Stealer, Disappearing Time, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Three Blind Mimes, and It’s All Nonsense.
  • the relentless promotion of both Dr. Conti himself and his methodology on platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and websites like The Language Gym.

Dr. Conti’s websites give tons (sic) of extraordinarily detailed information about every single aspect of his sparkling career, with special attention paid to his formidable combination of academic prowess and pedagogic acumen. Thousands of teachers applaud his work; stories abound of fans waiting patiently outside his house, often in pouring rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero as he returns home after a gruelling day’s work at the chalk face. If all the “Thank you, Dr. Conti” testimionials Dr. Conti has received over the years were laid end to end, they would doubtless circumnavigate his wonderous head more than once.

Dr. Conti discusses his MARS-EARS sequence for implementing his Endlessly Repeated Instruction (ERI) method of teaching modern foreign languages (MFLs) in a number of posts, one of which is Patterns First. While the method remains faithful to the time-honoured tradition in mainstream language education of ignoring the tedious distinction made by academics between declarative and procedural knowledge, it stands head and shoulders above the usual PPP methodology by devoting no time at all to students creatively using the L2 for their own chosen communicative purposes. In a typical school term using Dr. Conti’s method, no student ever gets a speaking turn lasting for more than twenty seconds, except right at the end of the course, in the “Spontaneity” phase, where a single student was once recorded speaking, with only occasionally interruptions from the teacher, for over one minute.

Thus, Dr. Conti ensures that “the kids”, as he lovingly calls them, having worked their way through masses of sentence building, drills (expansion work to push output) and carefully guided, focused production of target items, are well-prepared for their end of tem exam which tests what they know about the bits of language they have been so thoroughly taught. They know what this sentence means:

The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.

They know how to pronounce each word. They know what’s wrong with the sentence

The pens of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle .

and with a bit of luck and enough time they know how to compose (“build” as Dr. Conti would say) this sentence

The wheel of my car is on the foot of my screaming daughter.

What they don’t know, of course, is how to use the L2 fluently in order to to take part in spontaneous, real-time, communicative exchanges with other people about things that matter to them. But, as Dr. Conti likes to say, “Less in more”.

Luckily for us, Dr. Conti has recently recorded “an impromptu, unplanned, unscripted summary of the EPI philosophy and principles”.

This tour de force is worth playing over and over again. Among the many remarkable features of the talk, Dr. Conti’s ability to continually recover from contradictions in what he’s saying with all the aplomb of a truly professional salesperson, and his powerful use of the fingers of his two hands. deserve special praise. Note how, in his “Count The Ways” (TM) routine, while the left hand serves to indicate the number of elements involved in the current topic being discussed, the thumb and index finger of his right hand are used to show which among the elements he is focusing on.

Dr. Conti begins by offering a daring interpretation of emergentism. Majestically sweeping aside the finer points of Nick Ellis’ work on emergentism, Dr. Conti suggests that “basically” (a key term in Dr. Conti’s oevre) what Ellis is saying is that language learning consists of getting bombarded with lexical chunks that are all basically the same. Every single situtation the learner finds themselves in is like “an attentional frame to a specific number of chunks”, and what Nick Ellis says (“born out by research, by science”) is that by being bombarded with these chunks that are all basically the same, “a phenomenon called priming happens whereby you are basically primed by this exposure ….. to then at some stage produce them”.

OK? Got that? If you’ve read Nick Ellis’ stuff, you might not recognise Dr. Conti’s description, but rest assured, he’s got a PhD in SLA, so he must be right. Now here comes the truly original twist, the bit that really seals the authority of the maestro.

Having stripped emergentism to the bone, Conti goes on to combine its raw principles with the principles of skills acquisition theory! I mean, how audacious can you get! It goes like this. First you get primed (the basic principle of emergentism), and then, and I quote: the important theory which kicks in after that is that then you’re going to start producing those chunks and you’re going to become fluent through trial and error, through feedback and a lot of practice. So when you have the two theories combined, you have a powerful synergy.

What most mundane scholars see as two completely contradictory theories, Dr. Conti sees as synergy! After a bit of a detour, Dr. Conti returns to these two theories which provide the principles for his method. He repeats that emergentism (usage based theory) gets you primed through massive exposure, and then skills theory gets you to practice so that you reach automaticity. “These two theories are the main tenets of my approach”.

Wow! Isn’t that amazing? As you know, I’m sure, the basic tenet of skills based theory is that learning begins with declarative knowledge, which can then be turned into procedural knowledge through practice. The usual way to describe skills based theory is to say that when you start learning something, you do so through largely explicit processes, after which, through practice and exposure, you move into implicit processes. So you go from declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge and the automatisation this brings. Declarative knowledge involves explicit learning or processes; learners obtain rules explicitly and have some type of conscious awareness of those rules. The automatization of procedural knowledge; learners proceduralise their explicit knowledge, and through suitable practice and use, the behaviour becomes automatic.

But Dr. Conti is, of course aware of the weaknesses of this theory.

  1. First, the lack of an operational definition undermines the various versions of skill acquisition theory that Conti has referred to: there is no agreed operational definition for the constructs “skill”, “practice”, or “automatization”. Partly as a result, but also because of methodological issues (see, for example, Dekeyser, 2007), the theory is under-researched; there is almost no empirical support for it.
  2. Second, millions of people who have emigrated to an English speaking country have learned English without any declarative or metalinguistic knowledge.
  3. Third, skill acquisition theory is in the “strong-interface” camp with regard to the vexed issue of the roles of explicit and implicit learning in SLA. It holds that explicit knowledge is transformed into implicit knowledge through the process of automatization as a result of practice. Many, including perhaps most famously Krashen, dispute this claim, and many more point to the fact that the theory does not take into account the role played by affective factors in the process of learning.  Practice, after all, does not always make perfect.
  4. Fourth, the practice emphasized in this theory is effective only for learning similar tasks: it doesn’t transfer to dissimilar tasks. Therefore, many claim that the theory disregards the role that creative thinking and behaviour plays in SLA.
  5. Fifth, to suggest that the acquisition of all L2 features starts with declarative knowledge is to ignore the fact that a great deal of vocabulary and grammar acquisition in an L2 involves incidental learning where no declarative stage is involved.
  6. Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, skill acquisition theory fails to deal with the sequences of acquisition which have been the subject of hundreds of studies in the last 50 years, all of them supporting the construct of interlanguages.

How to deal with these weaknesses? Only Dr. Conti could hit on bringing emergentist theories to the rescue. Without for a moment revising his method, which so obviously relies almost completely on the explicit teaching of pre-selected items of the L2, Dr. Conti says that priming gets learners ready for the practice bits of skills based pedagogy! So what Dr. Conti has done – as Marx did to a more modest degree with Hegel – is to stand two theories on their heads in such a way that his EPI method rests magically on the principles of two contradictory theories, and the limitations of both theories are surmounted. Needless to say, such is the audacity of this dialectic leap that nobody in the emergentist or skills based theory camps agrees with it. Nick Ellis, for whom language learning is an essentially implicit process, would not easily recognise Dr. Conti’s account of emergentism, and he most certainly would not endorse the MARS EARS sequence. On the other hand, neither Anderson nor DeKeyser would have any truck with Dr. Conti’s seemingly incoherent account of skills based theory. It’s hard to exaggerate the originality of Dr. Conti’s account as outlined in this truly fascinating off the cuff lecture.

Syllabus Design

We must accept that even the genius that is Dr. Conti has his weak spots, and I think his approach to syllabus design (which he refers to under the broader umbrella of curriculum design) needs some attention.

In his post “The seed-planting technique ..”,   Dr. Conti says:

effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design…… A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions.

This amounts to what Breen (1987) calls a “Product” syllabus, what White calls a “Type A” syllabus and what Long (2011 and 2015) calls a “Synthetic” syllabus. The key characteristic of Conti’s “effective curriculum” is that, like all synthetic syllabuses, it concentrates on WHAT is to be learned. Dr. Conti’s syllabus specifies the content – he recommends concentrating on lexical chunks that can be used in the expression of communicative functions – “The Majestic 12” as he calls them. This content is presented and practiced in a pre-determined order, in such a way that planting “seeds” precedes the scheduled main presentation and subsequent recycling. Despite all Dr. Conti’s brilliant intellectual gynmnastics, his syllabus assumes that declarative knowledge is a necessary precursor to procedural knowledge, and second, it assumes that learners learn what teachers teach them, an assumption undermined by all the evidence from interlanguage studies. We know that learners, not teachers, have most control over their language development. As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

Even when presented with, and drilled in, target-language forms and structures, even when errors are routinely corrected, and even when the bits and pieces are “seeded” and recycled in various ways, learners’ acquisition of newly-presented forms and structures is rarely either categorical or complete, and it is thus futile to plan the curriculum of an academic year on the assumption that the course’s “core language items” will be “comprehended/produced effectively” by the end of the year. Acquisition of grammatical structures and sub-systems like negation or relative clause formation is typically gradual, incremental and slow, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and  U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures and vocabulary are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. They master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989).

Conclusion

I hope you rushed quickly through the bit about syllabus design, and that your “take away” will be simple: Such is Dr. Conti’s genius, that, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty he can say what he likes.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ (Carroll, 2009).

There can, surely be no question about who IS the master!

References

Breen, M. (1987) Learner contributions to task design. In C. Candlin and D. Murphy (eds.), Language Learning Tasks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 23-46.

Carroll, L. (2009). Alice through the looking glass. Penguin.

Dekeyser, R. (2007) Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (pp. 97-113). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Long, M. (2011) “Language Teaching”. In Doughty, C. and Long, M. Handbook of Language Teaching. NY Routledge.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. N.Y., Routledge.

Pienemann, M. (1984). Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 6, 2, 186-214.

Pienemann, M. (1989). Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics 10, 1, 52-79.

White, R.V. (1988) The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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