Life on Twitter Part 2

A review I wrote recently of an article by Gerald et. al on Whiteness caused some concern on Twitter. Here are a few of the comments:  

I can’t believe he did it again. And yeah, “Gerald et al.” (Gerald)

White British academic living in Spain fretting about POC having a voice in the TEFL field. The last gasp of empire. He’s irrelevant. (Doctura Daymundra)

You’re right, all garbage. (A.R. Shearer)

Don’t waste your time on him. He’s a human vampire who feeds off the energy and time others expend on dealing with his endless miserable trolling. Been there. Done that. (Dellar)

Don’t. Feed. The. Troll. ( Dellar)

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Gerald says “I can’t believe he did it again”. I take Gerald to mean that I’ve given further evidence that I’m a racist, i.e., antagonistic towards him because he’s a black American. He says I did it “again” because, months ago on Twitter, I said he was talking crap, which he claimed was clear evidence of racism. This time, the evidence is that I refer to “Gerald et. al” in my review, rather than Gerald, Ramjattan and Stillar. When three or more authors write a published article, it’s the convention in APA to cite them as I did; it surely can’t fairly count as evidence of a personal attack, motivated by racism. Just to be clear, I’m not antagonistic towards Gerald because he’s a black American.

As for Dellar’s remarks, I invite you to read my reviews of his work – see the Menu on the right. Can they fairly be dismissed as miserable trolling? Dellar’s repeated explanation for my criticisms is that they’re motivated by repressed lust – I fancy him. If Gerald’s explanation for my criticisms of his published work is that they’re motivated by racial prejudice, then he’s being equally ridiculous.

The review was so troubling to Hampson that he felt the need to sit up half the night and write a long attack on it.

I liked a response to this (I won’t name the author because he’s rightly sick of the whole thing)  

Really? You can’t sleep because of a blog post – and now we need a Twitter pile-on? I’ve just skimmed both articles in question and perhaps maybe there is something, EVEN ONE THING, to be learned from both. Or maybe just write a response on your own blog but ‘I can’t sleep’?

Anyway, Hampson wrote a thread of tweets laying out his reasons for describing the review as “trash”.

Trash Thing One

Ok trash thing one: It’s weird to insist on comment on people’s writing style every time you write a ‘review’ of someone’s work.

As someone with a learning difficulty, reading ‘Stuff like ‘Gerald’s articles give me the impression that his attempts at elegant prose (rarely successful) compensate for lack of scholarship.’ are nasty and would also make me not want to write publicly.

What does he mean by “weird”, I wonder? Supernatural; unearthly, odd, fantastic, ..?  I think he means “nasty”. He states that I do this weird / nasty stuff of commenting on people’s writing style every time I write a review. The statement is false. I’ve done more than 60 reviews on books and articles, and I comment on style in relatively few of them. When I do comment on the style of the text, in many cases, I praise the style. In the cases where I make negative comments, I do so because I think the style has a bad effect on the force and intelligibility of the argument. The works of Harmer and Dellar are examples. I’ve done half a dozen reviews of their books and presentations because both of them are highly influential authors. Their published work is, IMHO, a disgrace, and their style plays a part in the abysmal quality of their work. Just as a counter example, I disagree with Jim Scrivener’s view of ELT, but I think he writes beautifully, and I’ve said so in posts on this blog. As for Gerald’s texts, I see serious stylistic weaknesses. I think he imitates the awful, obscurantist style that’s so evident in the work of socio-cultural academics, and I think it contributes to the impression of poor scholarship and bullshit. That’s my opinion. As with fans of Harmer and Dellar, there will be many who see nothing wrong with Gerald’s style, just as there are millions who see nothing wrong with the way Dan Brown writes.

Furthermore, I’m not aware that Gerald has any learning difficulties, and I’m pretty sure that my comments will not put him off wanting to write publicly. If my comments encourage him to consider the way he writes, well great. If, on the other hand, my comments make him even more determined to write the way he does, so be it. In any case, I reject Hampson’s “Trash Thing One” entirely. Making critical comments on Gerald’s style with little concern for the effects it might have on his self-confidence is, I suggest, not a good reason to calll the article trash.

Trash Thing Two

Trash thing two: The person writing this: – Recently I got called out for my racism against the person their criticising. – Has no lived experience of being a scholar of colour. – Has been repeatedly told to go away by the person their writing about.

And despite all that thought ‘Yeah, it’s probably my place to chip in some thoughts here.’ Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man I guess?

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Note Hampson’s argument: the review is trash because the person who wrote it is trash. The person who wrote it is trash because he’s been accused of racism, is not black himself, and carries himself with the confidence of a medicre white man.

First, I was “called out” for racism by Gerald himself, and his accusation was repeated by Hampson and others. But that doesn’t mean I’m guilty as charged. I deny the charge, and Hampson should recognise that not everybody agrees that Gerald’s accusation is fair and well-founded.

Second, I had no contact with Gerald for months until I commented on his article last week. Gerald did not repeatedly tell me to “go away”. Gerald wants to promote this lie, but it is, nevertheless, a lie.

Third, Hampson’s remark “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man I guess?” speaks for itself.

Trash Thing Three

Trash thing three: Pro tip: If you keep singling out one person in an article for attack and ignore their co-authors, it makes it look like you are only writing the article because that person made you sad on Twitter one time or something.

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I published an abridged version of the article to make it clear that I don’t single out Gerald for attack, or ignore the co-authors. Most of the review deals with the views expressed by all three authors, and I continuously refer to “the authors” and to what “they” said. Hampson’s accusation is false. The suggestion that I only wrote the article because Gerald “made you sad on Twitter one time or something” is also false.

Trash Thing Four

Trash thing four: Getting mad at an article that is part one of three for not covering the entirety of a subject is VERY funny to me. However, it’s also a trash thing to do.

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I didn’t get mad at the article, and I didn’t ignore the fact that it’s part one of three. The authors explained that the three parts would address 1) Classrooms; 2) Training and labor; 3) The industry. I addressed the “Classroom” issues. Pace Hampson’s suggestion that it’s a trash thing to do, in fact t’s quite usual for reviews to be written on Part One of a series of articles. I look forward to Parts 2 and 3; if they clarify the two blurred snapshots of classroom practice offered in Part One, I’ll acknowledge that and respond.   

Trash Thing Five

Trash thing five: If you’re a self described anarchist who lives in a nation state, you don’t get to make ‘You’re anti-academic language, but you have used academic language at points while doing a PhD, CHECKMATE’ arguments. Sorry.

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I’m not sure what being an anarchist and living in a nation state has to do with it, but I didn’t make the argument Hampson attributes to me. I made the point that if Gerald says that we must banish “Standardized English” from ELT, then he should confront the problem of the mismatch between this injunction and the way he himself, as “a rare Black voice in the field” uses English in his published work. And I also suggest that the article is weak (“thin soup”) because the three authors don’t give enough attention to the problem that they choose to focus on namely Standardized English. As I say , unless a more thorough attempt is made to address the issue of what non Standardized English entails, and how it can be taught, all the rhetoric is mere hand waving.

To return to the issue of the mismatch. Gerald himself recognizes the problem. In a reply to a question by me, he says in the Comments section:

there IS a legitimate discussion to be had about the fact that we do tend to use standardized English in our own writing, and how that can reify the same structures. I don’t believe you are making that point in good faith, but what to do about the fact that others are less familiar with unstandardized English is a genuine complexity worth exploring. Not in this piece, though maybe in the final installment later in the year. 

And in a reply to Mura he says:

“I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”.

Note, also, that while I questioned this reply (which I consider disingenuous), I also said:

Just in case you misinterpret my comments above, I make them in good faith.

First, I’m keen to understand your argument, and I don’t think you make it clearly. Examples of classroom exchanges using alternatives to standardized English would help, as would discussion of whether there are any limits to an “anything goes” attitude, and if so, what they are. Obviously, we need to ensure mutual intelligibility.

Secondly, I’d really like to see a version of this article written in a voice that you haven’t been forced to adopt. I appreciate it’s difficult, that you probably wouldn’t get it published in any “respected academic journal” that you have every right to be heard in such journals, etc., but it would be informative. The question at the end of my first comment, above, was not intended to be “dismissive”, quite the opposite, in fact.

I’m very tempted to make a few comments about Hampson’s Twitter presence – the motivation for his “defence of the wronged”; his ethics; his style, even – but I’ll refrain.

A Review of “After Whiteness”, Abridged.

Given the objections to my comments on Gerald’s style in the original version, I offer this abridged version which leaves them out. I think I should be allowed to make the comments I made without being accused of writing trash, of being a troll, and, inevitably, of being a racist, and I’m not bowing to the pressure of those who make these accusations. But by leaving out the “offensive” bits, I hope to make it clear that the bulk of my criticisms are aimed at the weaknesses of the article itself, and that the review is not intended as a personal attack on Gerald.

The article, by Gerald, et. al (2021) is the first part of “a vision of a possible future for English language teaching” and it discusses how English language teaching (ELT) might be practiced if Whiteness were to be decentered.

The authors explain that “Whiteness is centered in the teaching of the English language, and the ELT field serves as an arm of racist and capitalist oppression while claiming it as a force for positive change, with detrimental implications for students and educators of color”. Not a lot is said in the article to support this preliminary assertion, but it is dealt with, to some extent anyway, in an article by Gerald (2019), who cites the work of Bell (1995); Bourdieu (2005); Canagarajah (1999), Bonfiglio, (2002), and Phillipson (1992), among others, to help him argue that English is the language of capitalist power, used to support a neoliberal ideology which sustains the status quo. ELT professionals promise non-whites, the racialized, that they can save themselves from the “precarity and pain endemic to powerlessness” by learning “Standardized English”, i.e., a manner of using English which white people use. The promise is an empty one, since whiteness is an ideology that depends upon exclusion, and thus the best that students can hope for is, as Gerald et. al put it in this article, is “to pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness without full equity”.

I recommend these further texts: Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas (2009), Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000), Skutnabb-Kangas & Cummins 1988), and Skutnabb-Kangas et. al (1995), and that the authors go into more depth about precisely how they are using the construct of Whiteness. In as far as I understand their use of the construct, I agree that it’s an issue that deserves to be more widely discussed and I agree that radical change is required to deal with it.  

The main part of the article is devoted to answering the question “What would ELT look like after Whiteness had been decentered?”. To do this, they set out to “re-envision” the classroom and current ELT practice. They insist that the “entry point” to this new vision is the dismissal of linguistic prescriptivism “(i.e., the idea that grammar and language should be corrected and regulated)”, and the adoption of “counterprescriptivism”.

In a post-Whiteness version of ELT, racialized students should be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect. Meaning-making is ultimately a negotiation of power, and if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction. This would be a deeply post-structural way to approach language teaching, but part of dismantling Whiteness is dissolving artificial and coercive hierarchies, and sharing corrective power between both teachers and students is one valuable way to ensure Whiteness remains decentered.

They go on to provide “select snapshots” of what counterprescriptivism might look like. The problem is that the “snapshots” are extremely blurred. First up is the suggestion that, since ELT must stop framing standardized English as the only desirable form of the language, it follows that teachers should be “direct” about what they’re teaching.

If we began to call ourselves “standardized English teachers,” we would then have the choice to consciously teach not just the language but also the features of its standardization and the decisions behind why certain types of languaging are valued more highly than others. We could also choose not to teach standardized English and instead teach the varieties surrounding a school’s location, comparing the equally valuable differences. For example, a school near where Gerald lives in New York could teach the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English.

Let’s agree that we should not, in the ideal future of ELT practice that the authors envisage, choose to teach standardized English. Let’s suppose instead that the school near where Gerald lives in New York teaches the New York versions of African American English and Dominican English. What would that look like? Well, it would “relegate standardized English to a decentered role within the larger ecosystem of the field while elevating other forms of the language”, by encouraging students “to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process”.

OK, but what would it look like? We don’t expect a detailed description, but surely we have the right to expect a clear, well-focused snapshot. A sample lesson perhaps, or an outline syllabus, or something that would indicate the radical differences that are claimed to ensue. What would be taught? How? What does the teacher (following a radically changed syllabus, one supposes) do to encourage students to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process? Nothing is suggested; instead we are told that if the school near where Gerald lives in New York taught the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English (whatever that might involve) “ideologies that tether Whiteness to a standardized form of the English language” would be recognized as “nothing more than attempts to standardize Whiteness itself”.

The second snapshot involves “rethinking Intelligibility”. In the re-visioned ELT world, teachers would relax their expectations about how students should use the language. For example, regarding pronunciation, if students learn the varieties of English of where they live, they’ll appreciate that “deficient-sounding” features of pronunciation are actually common and thus do not need to be changed in order to ensure successful oral communication. Moreover, teachers would help students to focus on “critical listening”, so that students appreciate that “certain racialized accents are not inherently unintelligible, but rather are made unintelligible by ears conditioned by ideologies of White supremacy”.

And that’s it; that’s the second snapshot and the end of the article, apart from a short final paragraph.

Discussion

“Thin soup” is how I’d describe this article. It begins:

From the canon to hiring practices to the classroom, we would be speaking about an entirely different field of English language teaching (ELT) if Whiteness were no longer centered, and although we are years of hard work away from this possibility, any calls for radical change are well served by pointing toward a possible future, and as such it is valuable to entertain the idea”.

The pointers this article gives towards the ideal future ELT that the authors have in mind consist of two blurred and poorly described “snapshots”, more notable for their rhetoric than for their substance. Two particular issues need addressing.

First, how, in a post-Whiteness version of ELT, can racialized students be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect? What does it mean to say that if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction? All of us interested in radical change to current ELT practice accept the need to revise the “what” of English language teaching, so as to move beyond “Standardized English”. The question is what do we put it in its place? What knowledge of the grammar, lexis and pronunciation of English should we teach? As many local varieties as possible? A “formal” (Standardized) and “informal” (local) variety? What? This boils down to a question of the limitations of an “Anything goes” approach: what are the limitations on this splendid injunction? What do we do to ensure that people using English as a lingua franca enjoy easy, mutually intelligible communication with each other? Seen through the lens of a raciolinguist, how do we reform the current version of English so as to rid it of Whiteness? Without proper attention to these questions, all the stuff in this article is little more than hand waving.

Second, how does Gerald – in his own words “a rare Black voice in the field” – reconcile the way he uses English in his “published scholarship” with his insistence that standardized English, the language of the oppressor, must be banished from ELT? In a reply to a question from Mura Nava on Twitter, who asked Gerald about this mismatch, Gerald acknowledged the problem, and said:

“I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”.

In my opinion, Gerald needs to tackle the problem by paying more attention to what version of English those involved in ELT should use. It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think this article gets very far in answering it.    

References

Bell, D. (1995). Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory? University of Illinois Law Review, 893–910.

Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the Rise of Standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bourdieu, P. (2005). Language and symbolic violence. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, A. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gerald, J.P.B. (2020). Worth the Risk: Towards Decentring Whiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44-54. Retrieved from: https://ojs-o.library.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/345

Gerald, J.P.B, Ramjattan, V.A., &  Stillar, S. (2021).After Whiteness. Language  Magazine, May 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/after-whiteness/#comment-637475

Hesse, B. (2016). Counter-Racial Formation Theory. In Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation, P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods (eds.), vii–x. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Phillipson, R. (1988). Linguicism: structures and ideologies in linguistic imperialism. In J. Cummins, J., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle. Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

 Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2009). The politics and policies of language and language teaching. In Long, M. H., & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 26-41). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sekimoto, S., and Brown, C. (2016). “A Phenomenology of the Racialized Tongue: Embodiment, language, and the bodies that speak.” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 5(2), 101–122.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or world diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Cummins, J. (eds.) (1988). Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Rannut, M. (1995). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

A Review of “After Whiteness” by Gerald, et. al 2021.

 

The article is the first part of “a vision of a possible future for English language teaching” and it discusses how English language teaching (ELT) might be practiced if Whiteness were to be decentered.

The authors explain that “Whiteness is centered in the teaching of the English language, and the ELT field serves as an arm of racist and capitalist oppression while claiming it as a force for positive change, with detrimental implications for students and educators of color”. Not a lot is said in the article to support this preliminary assertion, but it is dealt with, to some extent anyway, in an article by Gerald (2019), who cites the work of Bell (1995); Bourdieu (2005); Canagarajah (1999), Bonfiglio, (2002), and Phillipson (1992), among others, to help him argue that English is the language of capitalist power, used to support a neoliberal ideology which sustains the status quo. Given this premise, Gerald argues that ELT professionals promise non-whites, the racialized, that they can save themselves from the “precarity and pain endemic to powerlessness” by learning “Standardized English”, i.e., a manner of using English which white people use. The promise is an empty one, since whiteness is an ideology that depends upon exclusion, and thus the best that students can hope for is, as Gerald et. al put it in this article, “to pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness without full equity”.

While I think Gerald has managed to find a good position for himself in the field of raciolinguistics by focusing on his chosen construct of “whiteness”, his argument seems to me to be still embryonic and sketchy. Gerald’s articles give me the impression that his attempts at elegant prose (rarely successful) compensate for lack of scholarship. There’s a lack of substantial content, a tendency to showy froth, in the texts. Compare them with the work of Phillipson himself, and those of Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas (2009), Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000), Skutnabb-Kangas & Cummins 1988), and Skutnabb-Kangas et. al (1995), for example. Still, I agree with Gerald’s position, as far as I understand it. I agree that it’s an issue that deserves to be more widely discussed and I agree that radical change is required to deal with it.   

The main part of the article is devoted to answering the question “What would ELT look like after Whiteness had been decentered?”. To do this, the authors set out to “re-envision” the classroom and current ELT practice. They insist that the “entry point” to this new vision is the dismissal of linguistic prescriptivism “(i.e., the idea that grammar and language should be corrected and regulated)”, and the adoption of “counterprescriptivism”.

In a post-Whiteness version of ELT, racialized students should be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect. Meaning-making is ultimately a negotiation of power, and if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction. This would be a deeply post-structural way to approach language teaching, but part of dismantling Whiteness is dissolving artificial and coercive hierarchies, and sharing corrective power between both teachers and students is one valuable way to ensure Whiteness remains decentered.

They go on to provide “select snapshots” of what counterprescriptivism might look like. The problem is that the “snapshots” are extremely blurred.

First up is the suggestion that, since ELT must stop framing standardized English as the only desirable form of the language, it follows that teachers should be “direct” about what they’re teaching.

If we began to call ourselves “standardized English teachers,” we would then have the choice to consciously teach not just the language but also the features of its standardization and the decisions behind why certain types of languaging are valued more highly than others. We could also choose not to teach standardized English and instead teach the varieties surrounding a school’s location, comparing the equally valuable differences. For example, a school near where Gerald lives in New York could teach the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English.

Let’s agree that we should not, in the ideal future of ELT practice that the authors envisage, choose to teach standardized English. Let’s suppose instead that the school near where Gerald lives in New York teaches the New York versions of African American English and Dominican English. What would that look like? Well, it would “relegate standardized English to a decentered role within the larger ecosystem of the field while elevating other forms of the language”, by encouraging students “to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process”.

OK, but what would it look like? We shouldn’t expect a detailed description, but surely we have the right to expect a clear, well-focused snapshot. A sample lesson perhaps, or an outline syllabus, or something that would indicate the radical differences that are claimed to ensue. What would be taught? How? What does the teacher do (following a radically changed syllabus, one supposes) to encourage students to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process? Nothing is suggested; instead we are told that if the school near where Gerald lives in New York taught the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English (whatever that might involve) “ideologies that tether Whiteness to a standardized form of the English language” would be recognized as “nothing more than attempts to standardize Whiteness itself”.

The second snapshot involves “rethinking Intelligibility”. In the re-visioned ELT world, teachers would relax their expectations about how students should use the language. For example, regarding pronunciation, if students learn the varieties of English of where they live, they’ll appreciate that “deficient-sounding” features of pronunciation are actually common and thus do not need to be changed in order to ensure successful oral communication. Moreover, teachers would help students to focus on “critical listening”, so that students appreciate that “certain racialized accents are not inherently unintelligible, but rather are made unintelligible by ears conditioned by ideologies of White supremacy”.

And that’s it; that’s the second snapshot and the end of the article, apart from a short final paragraph.

Discussion

“Thin soup” is how I’d describe this article. It begins:

“From the canon to hiring practices to the classroom, we would be speaking about an entirely different field of English language teaching (ELT) if Whiteness were no longer centered, and although we are years of hard work away from this possibility, any calls for radical change are well served by pointing toward a possible future, and as such it is valuable to entertain the idea”.

But the pointers this article gives towards the ideal future ELT consist of two blurred and poorly described “snapshots”, more notable for their rhetoric than for their substance.

Two particular issues need addressing.

First, how, in a post-Whiteness version of ELT, can racialized students be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect? What does it mean to say that if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction? All of us interested in radical change to current ELT practice accept the need to revise the “what” of English language teaching, so as to move beyond “Standardized English”. The question is: ‘What do we put it in its place?’. What knowledge of the grammar, lexis and pronunciation of English should we teach? Should we teach as many local varieties as possible? Or maybe a “formal” (Standardized) and “informal” (local) variety? What? What are the limitations on the splendid injunction “Anything goes”? What do we do to ensure that people using English as a lingua franca enjoy easy, mutually intelligible communication with each other? Seen through the lens of a raciolinguist, how do we reform the current version of English so as to rid it of Whiteness? Without proper attention to these questions, all the stuff in this article is little more than hand waving.

Second, how does Gerald – in his own words “a rare Black voice in the field” – reconcile the way he uses English in his “published scholarship” with his insistence that standardized English be banished from ELT? Gerald’s published articles, both of them, use a highly stylized version of Standardized English which has all the hallmarks of the preferred style of academics who adopt a socio-cultural framework: “plain English” it most certainly is not. Does Gerald, I wonder, recognize the irony of referring to racialized students as those who, at best, can “pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness”? Does he not come across as one of those awful revolutionaries who knows what’s best for the rest? On Twitter, Mura Nava asked Gerald about this mismatch. Gerald acknowledged the problem, and said:

“I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”.

“Sometimes”? “However you can”? Really? It strikes me that Gerald consistently and deliberately chooses to drive to the protest not “however you can”, but rather in a gaudy stretch limo, which, just maybe, is unfit for purpose.      

References         

Bell, D. (1995). Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory? University of Illinois Law Review, vol.1995. 893–910.

Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the Rise of Standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bourdieu, P. (2005). Language and symbolic violence. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, A. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gerald, J. P. B. (2020). “Worth the Risk: Towards decentring whiteness in English language teaching.” BC TEAL Journal, 5(1), 44–54. https://doi.org/10.14288/bctj.v5i1.345

Gerald, J.P.B, Ramjattan, V.A., &  Stillar, S. (2021).After Whiteness. Language n Magazine, May 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/after-whiteness/#comment-637475

Hesse, B. (2016). Counter-Racial Formation Theory. In Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation, P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods (eds.), vii–x. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Phillipson, R. (1988). Linguicism: structures and ideologies in linguistic imperialism. In J. Cummins, J., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle. Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

 Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2009). The politics and policies of language and language teaching. In Long, M. H., & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 26-41). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sekimoto, S., and Brown, C. (2016). A Phenomenology of the Racialized Tongue: Embodiment, language, and the bodies that speak. Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 5, 2, 101–122.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or world diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Cummins, J. (eds.) (1988). Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Rannut, M. (1995). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Memory and Teaching an L2

Memory: What Every Language Teacher Should Know is an attempt to persuade  teachers of an L2 that the best way to teach is by presenting and then practicing carefully selected bits of the language using Delayed Dictation, Drill and Skill, Sentence Stealer, Disappearing Text, Sentence Builders, Shadow reading, Blind Mimes, Rhyming Pairs, Zero Prep Retrieval Starters, Match Up, Spot the Nonsense, Spot the Error, Sentence Puzzles, the Keyword Method, Sentence Chaos, and the MARS-EARS sequencing of lessons.

The book gives an inadequate and incomplete discussion of how memory affects second language learning; it over-emphasises the importance of explicit teaching and is likely to encourage teachers to believe that the Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) approach is supported by evidence from cognitive science and from evidence from research into SLA. In this review, I begin with a summary of the book and then discuss the authors’ underlying view of language and second language learning. The Notes in brackets are my annotations.

Chapter 1 begins by describing some key terms.

Implicit learning is ‘learning without awareness’. It’s how children pick up their first language(s), with no intention to learn. It’s unconscious. It’s also the most powerful process in second language acquisition. In contrast, explicit learning happens consciously, with intention.

The result of implicit learning is implicit or procedural knowledge – knowing how to do something without necessarily being able to explain it. In contrast, the result of explicit learning is explicit or declarative knowledge – being able to describe what you know, for example being able to say that we usually form the plural in English by adding an ‘s’.

Explicit knowledge develops differently and, although it’s a hotly debated issue, some researchers (for example DeKeyser, 1995), and most teachers, believe that with enough practice, explicit knowledge can become implicit. (Note: Most SLA researchers reject this view.)

The focus in the book is partly on explicit (conscious) learning.

So, what is memory?

The brain records, very quickly, all the information it is bombarded with in a sensory register. This is a sort of ultra-short term memory for each of the five senses. This initially encoded information is sub-conscious. But when we pay conscious attention to something, it is transferred from the sensory register into memory.

Working (or short term) memory holds the information in mind, unwanted information is filtered out so as to allow us to focus on what is worth processing. This allows us to process information more efficiently.  

Long-term memory, on the other hand, is like a huge warehouse where you can access all the things you know about the world, whether it be the capital of Spain, the price of a litre of milk or the meaning of the fact that French adjectives agree with nouns.

Memory can be seen is as a large, leaky bottle with a very narrow neck and huge body. Working memory is the neck which only a small amount of liquid (information) can enter at a time (Baddeley, 2000). If you pour liquid into it too fast much will be lost. The implications of this are clear enough. We need to be really careful to limit the amount of new language presented and practised, especially with beginners, in order for it to pass through the neck of the bottle. (Note: It doesn’t take long for the authors to make their view of language teaching clear: teaching consists of presenting and practicing language. Those who reject basing teaching on implementing a synthetic syllabus reject this view. What’s more, the (false) implication, right from the start, is that language acquisition depends crucially on input passing through working memory.)    

Working memory is defined as:

those mechanisms or processes that are involved in the control, regulation and active maintenance of task-relevant information in the service of complex cognition, including novel as well as familiar, skilled tasks” (Miyake and Shah, 1999, p.450).

We only use working memory when we process new information or carry out tasks consciously. When we perform routine tasks or process familiar information, we use subconscious processes which by-pass working memory. Long-term memory plays an integral role in working memory. Think of a complex, dynamic two-way relationship between working and long-term memory. (Note: the authors acknowledge here that not all language learning relies on the processing of information in working memory. However, the book as a whole gives the strong impression, in my opinion, that SLA relies on the processing of information in working memory – of getting input through the very narrow neck of the bottle. Such an argument is plain wrong.)

The term automaticity comes from a skill acquisition model of learning proposed by John Anderson. The idea is that, with practice, knowledge can be become automatically retrievable without having to think about it (Anderson, 1982). This means that, when we perform a complex task, the brain can bypass working memory, calling on automatised knowledge from long-term memory. So the main point is this: working memory capacity is very limited and language learners, especially beginners, don’t have much long-term memory knowledge to help them deal with incoming language. Work focused on automaticity can speed up retrieval and lighten the load on working memory. (Note:  Anderson’s ACT theory is almost impossible to test empirically and is rejected by most SLA research scholars.)

Every operation the brain performs when decoding a message takes place in working memory. Take vocabulary learning: any rehearsal we do when trying to commit vocabulary to long-term memory (for example, repeating aloud) is performed in working memory, which temporarily holds that information for as long as we rehearse it. In speaking and writing, all the operations needed to put ideas into words, all the while monitoring for accuracy, happen in working memory too.

As new information is noticed, it interacts with all sorts of information held in long-term memory (phonological, lexical, grammatical and semantic). The new information is processed, combined with pre-known information and creates new memories. It’s a highly complex, fast process, in constant flux.

The limited capacity of the Phonological Loop means that a novice second language learner can hold fewer words in working memory than in their first language as they pronounce the words more slowly. The more rapidly a second language speaker can utter a word or phrase, the less space it takes in working memory. So the more you know, and the more fluently you can speak, the easier the job becomes for working memory. This means that teachers need to carefully control the amount and difficulty level of language that students hear and read. (Note: it means no such thing. Not everything, by a very long stretch, we learn about the L2 passes through working memory.)  

For memory, students need to hear lots of comprehensible target language. The more you know and can say fluently, the less space is taken up in working memory. Particular attention is needed to deal with discrepancies between the phonotactics of different languages and to ensure learners get regular practice hearing and using utterances beyond the single word level.

Chapter 5 discusses Visual Space Memory, and I’ll leave it out, but note that the authors fail to discuss the advantages of multi-modal texts.

Chapter 6 is on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). CLT is based on the limitations of working memory. Given these limitations, the argument is that new information presented to working memory can soon overload it. Sweller’s model of cognitive load claims that there are 3 types of load involved when processing new information: intrinsic, extraneous and germane (Sweller, 1988).

Intrinsic load = how many new, interacting things a student has to do to simultaneously in order to complete a task.

Extraneous load = demands placed on students by the teacher through the way they choose resources, present information or design teaching activities.

Germane Load= the load needed to build knowledge schemas in long-term memory and increase learning. In the case of language teaching, it refers to the process of linking new information with information already stored in long-term memory in order to create new schemas (for example, chunks of language). So when learning a new verb tense, you may call on knowledge of an existing tense. Germane load can be seen as a measure of the extra load imposed by the teaching activity which supports learning. It is where metacognitive strategies come into play; where students are aware of their thinking processes and able to adapt new information accordingly. In sum, you could say it’s where the real learning happens! (Note: you could, but it isn’t. See Discussion, below)

There follow lots of sections which are, not surprisingly, to do with explicit teaching. Examples are:

  • the information store principle;
  • the borrowing and reorganising principle;
  • the randomness-as-genesis principle;
  • the narrow limits of change principle;
  • the environmental organizing and linking principle.

The chapter goes on to look at “Factors affecting cognitive load”, and there are a lot of them, including the “Worked Example Effect”, which is well-discussed in the literature. The way the authors use it is, I think, a good indication of their whole approach. Just as in maths a teacher might work through a problem on the board to show how it is solved, they say, a language teacher can work through how to solve a translation by applying grammatical knowledge. In a two- way process, suggestions can be sought, questions asked, prompts provided and explanations offered. Sentence builders (the bright star in the Smith and Conti teaching almanac, also known as substitution tables) can be used as part of the process. Other effects discussed include

  • the modality effect,
  • the transient information effect,
  • the temporal congruity effect,
  • the segmentation effect,
  • the pre-training effect,
  • the variability effect.

As if this weren’t enough, the next chapter s devoted to considering in more detail teaching hints for managing cognitive load when teaching students new information that is processed in working memory. Sections include:

  • Building phonological memory;
  • The skilled use of questioning;
  • Working step by step;
  • Preventing divided attention;
  • The role of comprehensible input;
  • Chunking the input, including the use of sentence builder frames and knowledge organisers;
  • Learnability and processability;
  • Preventing inattentional blindness;
  • Metacognitive strategies;
  • Managing cognitive load in Task-Based Language Teaching;
  • Cognitive fatigue.

Finally, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction are applied to language learning. (Note: These give a good indication of the authors’ inclination towards imparting declarative knowledge, as if they were teaching any other subject in a school curriculum, as if learning an L2 were the same as learning Geography, for example. It’s all about declarative knowledge.)  

Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

1.         Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.

2.         Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.

3.         Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.

4.         Provide models.

5.         Guide student practice.

6.         Check for student understanding.

7.         Obtain a high success rate.

8.         Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.

9.         Require and monitor independent practice.

10.       Engage students in weekly and monthly review.

Chapter 8 deals with long term memory.  

If we don’t pay attention to information, it is not consciously available, so it can’t enter working memory at all and cannot pass into long-term memory by that route. To reiterate, however, some of the information we don’t pay attention to may potentially pass directly into long-term memory through implicit (unconscious) learning. (Note: it is not that some of the information we don’t pay attention to “may potentially” pass directly into long-term memory, but rather that most of the process of becoming a competent user of an L2 consists of implicit learning. I will return to this vital point later.)

Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt, 1990; 2001) claims that attention is crucial for input to become intake. What is noticed becomes intake. Intake cannot happen without some level of awareness. It’s worth noting that there remains a good deal of debate about what ‘noticing’ actually means and that students seem to be able to pick up new language without appearing to have noticed it at all (implicit learning). As researcher Lourdes Ortega puts it, “the jury is still out on the question of whether learning can happen without attention” (Ortega, 2013, p. 96). (Note: Ortega acknowledges that this is not true. Schmidt admitted that learning can and does happen without attention. Nick Ellis, who the authors are fond of quoting when it suits them, 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” Ellis, 2005).

Even if you pay attention to something and notice it you may not end up storing it properly in memory. As far as language teaching is concerned, language has to be transferred from working memory to long-term memory. For this to happen a process of maintenance rehearsal is needed – reviewing material over and over again. (Note: this a truism, based on a false assumption. Only if teaching (wrongly!) concentrates on declarative knowledge, does what is taught (explicitly) have to be transferred from working memory to long term memory.)  

The Schmidt Noticing Hypothesis claims we usually need to notice patterns in the language to internalise them. Research suggests that students can also pick up patterns implicitly. Students find it very hard to focus on the form and meaning of language at the same time. We cannot assume students will notice patterns unless we get students to look for them or point them out. Input can be manipulated to encourage students to notice patterns. On balance it seems that listening to music with lyrics while studying is distracting, but research supplies mixed messages on this subject. For memories to become more permanent, maintenance rehearsal is needed. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is a clear reminder of how quickly students can forget language. Regular distributed practice is usually needed for memories to stick. (Note: this comes close to distilling all that’s wrong with the whole book. It’s a classic example of covering all bases while insisting on an erroneous argument, namely that concentrating on the limitations of working memory is the key to successful second language learning.)

Chapter 9: Declarative and Procedural Knowledge

Nick Ellis (2017) points out that implicit and explicit learning are distinct processes; humans have separate implicit and explicit memory systems; there are different types of knowledge of and about language; these are stored in different areas of the brain. This ties in with what cognitive psychologists call declarative memory and procedural memory. Broadly speaking, explicit learning tends to produce declarative knowledge (‘knowing that’, for example, knowing the endings of a verb), while implicit learning tends to produce procedural knowledge (‘knowing how’ – being able to use those verb endings without having to think about it).

The relationship between explicit/declarative and implicit/ procedural knowledge may not be simple. One question is whether, in second language learning, declarative knowledge can become procedural. In the literature about SLA, the term interface is used to denote the potential barrier between declarative and procedural learning. Researchers disagree about the extent to which the interface can be crossed, with most believing that it can, under certain conditions, for example, N. Ellis (2005) and Ullman (2006). Our own belief is that by combining explicit teaching with repeated implicit exposure, students do gradually internalise language patterns.

Priming This brings us to a really important concept for language learning: priming. Speaking our first language at normal speed seems pretty effortless. We’re able to do this because every time we utter a word or phrase we are sub-consciously associating it with previous and possible future words or phrases. Our vast experience with the language gives us a huge range of possibilities since we’ve heard or read a myriad of possible combinations. So when we’re about to utter the next word or phrase, in a fraction of a second (around 50 milliseconds to be precise), we subconsciously choose the right one from the range of possibilities. This subconscious process of words affecting the following ones is called priming. One word or phrase primes the next. (Note: this is a bizarre account of priming. I’ll discuss it later.)

There are two main types of priming which have powerful learning effects: Perceptual priming and conceptual priming. Priming is known to activate the brain areas in the cortex associated with the thing being primed. So (Note: “So”? Really???) priming the word transport causes all the areas of the brain associated with transport to become active for a brief moment. This extra bit of activity makes it easier for additional information to be activated fully. (Note: Truly bizarre!)  

Manipulating the language input is likely to lead students to use and remember structures more successfully. That’s why it’s a good idea to repeatedly use high frequency grammatical patterns in the expectation that students will pick them up both in the short and long term. This can be done, for example, by means of sentence builders, question-answer sequences or audio-lingual style drills, as well as flooding input language with the patterns you want students to pick up.

We have seen that priming means repeating the presentation of something affects the way it’s processed a second time. If students are frequently exposed to a repertoire of chunked language it is more likely that one word, phrase or sentence will prime the next, allowing fluency to develop. In time-poor classroom settings, to achieve the amount of recycling needed for priming effects to develop, it’s wise to limit the amount of language input. You might like to think of it this way: at the start you have a small snowball of language. Over time, as new language is added, the snowball gets larger and larger as you add new language to the existing repertoire.

There are two types of learning happening in language lessons, implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious). The more comprehensible language that students hear and read, the more chance there is for implicit learning to occur. Priming is a type of implicit learning where previous learning events affect those in the future, or one word or pattern influences the next. (Note: the authors concede that priming is implicit learning – nothing to do with working memory.)  

It is sometimes said, therefore, that language learners have an in-built syllabus which affects what they can and can’t easily acquire. But this is a much debated and messy area of research and more recently doubt has been cast on the extent to which natural orders apply in second language acquisition (discussed in Kwon, 2005). Perhaps other factors such as frequency, inherent difficulty of grammar and differences between the first and second language come into play (see below). Others have pointed out that the social context may have an effect on sequence of acquisition, for example whether the language being learned is in a formal classroom or in other social settings (Ellis, 2015). However, it is safe to say one thing: teaching can only have at best a partial effect on the order in which learners acquire grammar. Remember that by acquire we mean possess the internalized (automatised) ability to use grammar, not just explain it. In other words the grammatical system needs to be in procedural long-term memory and this takes time. In sum, whether students are immune to the order in which you teach grammar or not, it’s important to have a sense of whether students are developmentally ready to acquire new grammar. (Note: this concession actually challenges the main argument of the book. Furthermore, I’ve never seen such a poor treatment of interlanguage development. )

Pienemann’s Processability Theory

The basic idea underlying second language acquisition researcher Manfred Pienemann’s Processability Theory is that at any stage of development a learner can produce and comprehend only those second language linguistic forms which the current state of the ‘language processor’ in the brain can handle. A student may be ready to acquire a new structure, or not ready. Knowing if a student is ready or not for a structure is therefore hard to gauge and, in the end, comes down to the teacher’s knowledge of each class and each student. In reality, because the range of natural aptitude and achievement in any class is considerable, deciding when to move on is bound to be a compromise because a traditional grammatical syllabus fails to take account of a student’s current state of second language development, you have to select the most important structures, supplement the text book and build in more practice. (Note: Another crass misrepresentation of a scholar’s work. I’ll say more in the discussion.)

To get around the difficulty of internalising grammar, some researchers, writers and teachers (including ourselves) suggest that combining vocabulary and grammar through a chunking approach makes learning easier, particularly for students learning a language in school settings. As a reminder, this is termed a lexicogrammatical approach (combining lexis – vocabulary – with grammar) to provide learners with lots of ready- made language chunks which they can learn and manipulate communicatively.

Surprise drives learning. Rescorla and Wagner hypothesised that the brain learns only if it perceives a gap between what it predicts and what it receives (cognitive conflict). (Note: this is an inadequate treatment of the important matter of parsing, which I’ll discuss below.) Long’s Interaction Hypothesis claims we need to test our utterances with other speakers to get feedback and to notice when we make mistakes in order to improve. When a student makes a mistake they are trying out a hypothesis. Corrective feedback tells them if it was right.

Allowing students to make errors is more productive than creating the conditions where errors are avoided at all costs (as in the behaviourist model). Deliberately using errors in input is a productive practice for language teachers, but needs careful timing and implementation. Recasts and prompts are two ways to provide feedback. The latter may be more effective, notably with beginners. Research is unclear about the timing of error feedback, but experience suggests it’s best to focus on only a very few major errors at one time. Although feedback can improve memory, language teachers can easily overestimate the value of correcting errors and may spend too much time doing so.

A selection of grammatical structures has to be made, sequenced in some coherent way, but this doesn’t necessarily mean organising your whole curriculum around an ordered sequence. Research offers little support for a curriculum based on ‘the grammar point of the day’ (a so-called synthetic syllabus). As we previously explained, students become developmentally ready to acquire grammar at different points. In addition, although teachers may find grammar fascinating, this is not necessarily the case for our students. One way around this, as we have mentioned before, is to incorporate grammar and vocabulary through a lexicogrammatical approach. This means presenting and practising language in communicative chunks in a way which is more appealing to students and corresponds better with how memory works. In a lexicogrammatical approach the grammar emerges from the language chunks used in communication. Grammatical points are explained and practised once students have had repeated receptive exposure through flooded input.

If learning a new language is largely a natural, unconscious, implicit process then it’s clear that our main role is to provide language input, allow learners to interact with it, nature will take its course and long-term memory will grow. On the other hand, if learning is a conscious process involving working memory, one where declarative knowledge becomes procedural, then teaching has to take this into account. Our own belief is that, in school settings, both learning routes are necessary to maximise both implicit and explicit learning. (Note: this sums up the “have your cake and eat it” argumentation that characterises the whole book.)

Finally, some motherhood statements conclude the book.

  • Make sure students receive as much meaningful, stimulating input as possible. Make sure students have lots of opportunities to practise orally, Use a balanced mixture of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.
  • Promote independent learning outside the classroom.
  • Select and sequence the vocabulary and grammar you expose students to. Do not overload them with too much new language at once. Focus on high frequency language.
  • Be prepared to explain how the language works, but don’t spend too much time on this.
  • Aim to enhance proficiency – the ability to independently use the language promptly in real situations.
  • Use listening and reading activities to model good language use rather than test; focus on the process, not the product.
  • Be prepared to judiciously and sensitively correct students and get them to respond to feedback. Research suggests negative feedback can improve acquisition.
  • Translation (both ways) can play a useful role, but if you do too much you may neglect general language input.
  • Make sensible and selective use of digital technology to enhance exposure and practice.
  • Place a significant focus on the second language culture.

Discussion

Here’s what I say in my blog:

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.

Now, while the book under discussion covers its back, so to speak, by recognizing the importance of implicit learning, its message is clear: explicit teaching of bits of language and their underlying grammar is the name of the game, and thus, considerations of the limitations of working memory are vital. Hence the overriding importance given to the discussion of cognitive load. And hence so much reliance on all the stuff, the awful jargon-ridden, anacronym-clogged  stuff, that characterises Conti’s confident “Here’s the Way to Do It” prescriptions that he goes round the world promoting. The book sends a clear message to readers: follow Conti and the MARS-EARS approach to teaching.

Conti’s approach is wrong. I’ve discussed his approach elsewhere, and I’ve argued in several posts that Long’s TBLT approach is better. As McLaughlin (1990) says, a cognitive description of second language learning provides a partial account and needs to be linked to linguistic theories of second language acquisition. “By itself, for example, the cognitive perspective cannot explain such linguistic constraints as are implied in markedness theory or that may result from linguistic universals. These specifically linguistic considerations are not addressed by an approach that sees learning a second language in terms of the acquisition of a complex cognitive skill” (p. 126).  

An important weakness of the book is how it deals – or fails to deal – with the constructs of input and intake. Smith and Conti talk about input going through working memory and into long term memory. But what is “input”? Without bothering much to define input, everybody agrees that “comprehensible input” is the key term. And what is comprehensible input? It’s that part of the language which the learner hears or reads and comprehends! This, of course, begs the question of what “the language they understand” consists of. In fact, input is noise, or stuff that hits the retina when you read, plus stuff you feel in your gut, and so on. So here’s the crucial point: we don’t get language from the environment, we get sensory stimuli. Jumping the gun a bit, when Schmidt claims that input becomes intake as the result of being “noticed” he uses three constructs that make up a circular argument. Sensory input from the external environment does not include nformation about the formal properties of a language which can be either ignored or noticed. You cannot notice from input that “went” is the irregular past tense form of the verb to go. Something already in your mnd has to do something quite special for that to happen

What you do, of course, is infer things from sensory stimului. The question is: What helps you make these inferences?  The two big contenders for an answer to this question are Chomsky’s UG theory and usage-based theories, perhaps articulated best these days by Nick Ellis. Personally, I think that William O’Grady’s theory of SLA and Suzanne Carroll’s theory of SLA are both much better than those that rely entirely on UG or on emergentism, but let’s keep it simple. Chomsky says that language learning relies on the workings of a special module of the human mind. Human beings are born with an innate capacity to make sense of the stimuli they get from the environment. This innate ability enables humans to make sense of stimuli thanks to a module of mind devoted to parsing all the stimuli we call language, informed by principles that underly all languages, plus parameters that further refine the principles. So we don’t really learn languages, any more than we learn how to use our lungs – we just grow into proficient users. Note: we’re talking about L1 acquisition. Chomsky didn’t really care that much about developing a complete theory of anything. What he was interested in was describing the underlying grammar that unifies all human languages; a truly magnificent task which has had extraordinarily widespread practical results.  The most powerful argument in favour of Chomsky’s view is the “Poverty of the stimulus” argument: children know more about their L1 than can be explained by an appeal to their encounters with the language they’ve been exposed to. Given the knowledge children show of their L1, which could not have come from their exposure to it, we conclude that the knowledge they demonstrate is innate. This is called “inference to the best explanation” (see Hacking for the best discussion) and I’ve yet to see a good reply to it.

On the other hand, there are various theories, these days put under the umbrella of “usage-based” theories, that explain all language learning as the result of much more general, very simple, operations of the mind. The most extreme of these theories wants to return to true empiricist principles, where any suggestion of a mind is outlawed. This “behaviorism revisited” view has been dolled up in various ways, most fancifully by Larsen-Freeman, who somehow manages to keep a straight face while explaining how flocks of birds and bits of broccoli support her new view of SLA. Such is Larsen-Freeman’s clout, or maybe, such is his gullibility, that my hero, Scott Thornbury, was heard for a while almost parroting this “chaos-theory” nonsense. Scott talked of how Descartes got uncomfortably stuck in a non-existent bit of himself, how the corporal body leans (or was it “sways”?) naturally towards the present perfect when talking of things present, how a proper appreciation of the definite article and two-letter prepositions can slowly release the whole rich grammar of English, and other mystic flights of thought.

The usage-based school is more reasonably represented by Nick Ellis, and I’m dismayed to see that he has such enormous support these days. Nick (I use his first name only to avoid confusion with Rod Ellis, whose own position is as clumsily ambiguous as always) makes a necessarily complicated case (I mean that there’s no simple case to be made for it) for his view that we should see language as one more tool in an evolving set of skills that has emerged in our attempts to communicate with each other. Language is not just a tool for social interaction. How about your innermost emotional musings, the way you think and talk to yourself, your half remembered thoughts when you wake up from a torrid dream, or the unwritten thoughts of your granny, or Socrates or Wittgenstein, for example?  Silly examples, but language is not, pace Holliday and the rest, only a tool for communication. I agree with Pinker that you don’t need language to think, but language is more than a tool for communication. Furthermore, Nick Ellis has still not given any good reply to Gregg’s (2003) resounding criticism. “Emergentists have so far failed to take into account, let alone defeat, standard Poverty of the Stimulus arguments for ‘special nativism’, and have equally failed to show how language competence could ‘emerge’.”

Whatever theory of SLA you fancy, they all agree on one thing: language learning is mostly implicit: it’s a question of learning by doing and letting whatever processes of the mind you want to hold responsible take their course. My own view is that the stimulii that make up the L2 are parsed by various processors which are tuned to the L1. When the parsers hit a problem, various interventions occur, trying to solve the various parts of the problem. Teachers explaining things can help, but what they can’t do is give their students procedural knowledge by telling them about the language. It follows that teachers should find out what their students need to DO with the L2 and then help them do it through scaffolded practice. That’s my view, and it’s why I advocate a TBLT approach and criticise General English Coursebooks.

Smith and Conti ‘s book fails to discuss the vexed, but essential question of the roles of explicit and implicit learning of a second language. It suggests to teachers that declarative knowledge about the L2 can be converted into procedural knowledge of how to use the L2 by careful attention to cognitive load. It fails to discuss the way that LTM stores linguistic information, ignores the evidence that suggests the fundamental division between declarative and procedural knowledge, and ignores the evidence that learners develop their own idiosyncratic interlanguage in a way that is impervious to explicit teaching. It serves the purpose of promoting teaching practices that do almost nothing to reform the classic PPP approach that blights current L2 teaching practice.

Notes:

  1. I promised to talk about Smith & Conti’s use of priming and didn’t do so. See this post for a discussion
  2. As to Pienemann’s work, I disuss it in this post, one of the SLA series of posts
  3. Cognitive load is narrowly discussed in this book. It’s an interesting subject, poorly dealt with in the book, which only looks at its effects on presenting bits of language and the effects on working memory. Much more interesting, IMHO, are the discussions of cognitive load when applied to tasks in a TBLT syllabus. Long (2015) insists that cognitive load should refer to the demands of pedagogic tasks, which ask students to do things with the language in order to achieve an identified target task, like giving a presentation, or writing a report, for example, So it’s the complexity of the task, not its putative linguistic complexity, that is the organising principle of the syllabus. I think he’s absolutely right. We should sequence pedagogic tasks by slowly increasing their cognitive demands, and these demands have to do with their effects on CAF – the complexity, accuracy and fluency of production. Long inclined towards Robinson’s (2005; 2007) complicated theory of task compexity (which assumes that learners will respond to the increasing demands of successively more demading tasks unhindered by restrictions of working memory), but later agreed more with Skehan’s (1998; 2003) “trade-off” view, which is based on considerations of the limitations of working memory. Smith and Conti’s book touches on these issues, but doesn’t discuss them well. The diferences in the postions of Robinson and Skehan, when talking about the way communicative tasks should be sequenced, is very interesting. I think Skehan’s right to say that Robinson’s theory is fanciful, I agree with Skehan about trade offs, but I think Skehan is wrong when he sides with Willis, emphasising the importance of explicit teaching. All very interesting stuff, none of it properly discussed in the book under review. I predict that the authors, if they respond to this review, will point to that bit of the book which gives a table of task types (open / closed, etc.) and their different demands. If they do, let them tell us more than the book does.

References

Anderson, J. R. (1982). Acquisition of cognitive skill. Psychological Review, 89(4), 369–406.

Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research, 23, 5, 603-632.

Carroll, S. (2000). Input and evidence: The raw materials of second language. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of B.F. Skinner Verbal behavior. Language 35, 26–8.

DeKeyser, R. (1995). Learning Second Language Grammar Rules: An Experiment With a Miniature Linguistic System. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 17(3), 379-410

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

Ellis, N. (2019). Essentials of a Theory of Language Cognition. The Modern Language Journal, 103 (Supplement 2019).

Ellis, N. C. (2013). Second language acquisition. In Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar (pp. 365-378), G. Trousdale & T. Hoffmann (Eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

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

Ellis, R. (2015). Researching Acquisition Sequences: Idealization and De‐idealization in SLA. Language Learning, 65, 181-209.

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash–Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 237-24.

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

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

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

O’Grady, W. (2005) How children learn language. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Ortega, L. (2013). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. London: Routledge.

Pienemann, M. (1998). Language processing and second language development: Processability theory. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Robinson, P. (2005). Cognitive complexity and task sequencing: studies in a componential framework for second language task design. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 43, 1-32.

Robinson, P. (2007). Task complexity, theory of mind, and intentional reasoning: effects on L2 speech production, interaction, uptake and perceptions of task difficulty. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 45, 3, 193-213.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction. Research-Based Strategies that All Teachers Should Know. American Educator.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.

Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction, 3-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skehan, P. (2003). Task-based instruction, Language Teaching, 36, 1-14.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12,2, 257-285.

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

ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018). Introduction: A snapshot of thirty-five years of instructed second language acquisition. Language Teaching Research, 23, 4, 393-402.

Heart and Parcel

Heart and Parcel was founded in 2015 by Clare Courtney and Karolina Koścień with the aim of supporting people ​learning English in their local communities and “forging connections by developing English language and communication skills through the medium of food”. They run a variety of projects “which use food and cooking as a way for participants to gather together, connect and to share their past stories, experiences and lives with others, whilst practising and developing their English language skills”.

An Example

One of their most popular courses is “From Home to Home”, an online course which teaches English by giving a series of cooking classes. The “Main Class”, Cooking and English, is given every week, followed, two days later, by a “Post-class Discussion Class”, where students practice their English with other students and qualified teachers. “Extra Study” is provided by “Homework” (vocabulary and grammar exercises about the food and recipe from the main class) and a “WhatsApp Discussion Group” (share recipes, videos, photos of food and communicate in English with other students and qualified teachers).

More Good Stuff

Additionally, Heart and Parcel run fundraising public food events such as supper clubs, markets, catering, and private workshops. They also publish a collaborative cookbook “working with participants to share recipes and stories from their communities, cultures and lives”.

And it doesn’t stop there. They explore “learning opportunities through food” by looking at budgeting, healthy meals, using food for social change, employability and community cohesion through communal eating. As Clare told me, “Most importantly, we have found that building connections and networking has been wholly beneficial for the learners, being exposed to different settings, contexts with us (our learners can volunteer with us to do catering events, market stall cookalongs, presentations) thus creating further opportunities to meet people who are more within their interests, line of work or study”.  They are also committed to “learner progression through to paid positions in our project and the opportunity to teach and to develop the skills of newer learners who enter our programme.”

I won’t bother to say why I think this is such an inspirational project because I think it speaks for itself. It will be described and discussed in the forthcoming book on ELT by Mike Long and me, which I’ve mentioned a few times already. The best thing you can do is visit the website.

My thanks to Clare for taking the time to tell me about the thinking behind the project and how it’s developing.

The effects of multimodal input on second language learning

There’s a sudden buzz in SLA research – reports of studies on multimodal input abound, and a special issue of the Studies in SLA journal (42, 3, 2020) is a good example.  Another is the special issue of The Language Learning Journal (47, 2019). Below is a quick summary of the Introduction to the SSLA special issue. I’ve done little more than pick out bits of the text and strip them of the references, which are, of course, essential in giving support to the claims made. If you don’t have access to the journal, get in touch with me for any of the articles you want to read.

MULTIMODAL INPUT

Mayer’s (2014) cognitive theory of multimedia learning states that learning is better when information is processed in spoken as well as written mode because learners make mental connections between the aural and visual information provided there is temporal proximity. Examples in the domain of language learning are

  • storybooks with pictures read aloud,
  • audiovisual input,
  • subtitled audiovisual input,
  • captioned audiovisual input,
  • glossed audiovisual input.

What these types of input have in common is the combination of pictorial information (static or dynamic) and verbal input (spoken and/or written). Most of these input types combine not two but three sources of input:

  1. pictorial information,
  2. written verbal information in captions or subtitles, or in written text, and
  3. aural verbal input.

It could be argued that language learners might experience cognitive overload when engaging with both pictorial and written information in addition to aural input. However, eye-tracking research has demonstrated that language learners are able to process both pictorial and written verbal information on the condition that they are familiar with the script of the foreign language.

In addition to imagery, there are other advantages inherent in multimodal input and audiovisual input in particular. Learners need fewer words to understand TV programs compared to books. Webb and Rodgers (2009a, 2009b) have put forward knowledge of the 3,000 most frequent word families and proper nouns to reach 95% coverage of the input. However, the lexical coverage figures for TV viewing have recently been found to be lower, so the lexical demands are not as high as for reading (knowledge of the 4,000 most frequent word families for adequate comprehension and 8,000 word families for detailed comprehension. Rodgers and Webb (2011) also established that words are repeated more often in TV programs than in reading, especially in related TV programs, which is beneficial for vocabulary learning. Another advantage is the wide availability of audiovisual input using the Internet and streaming platforms. It can, thus, easily provide language learners with large amounts of authentic language input (Webb, 2015). Finally, language learners are motivated to watch L2 television, as has been well documented in surveys on language learners’ engagement with the L2 outside of the school.

LANGUAGE LEARNING FROM MULTIMODAL INPUT

Previous research into language learning from multimodal input has focused on three main areas: comprehension, vocabulary learning, and, to a lesser extent, grammar learning. A consistent finding in this area is that audiovisual input is beneficial for comprehension, in particular when learners have access to captions. Captions assist comprehension by helping to break down speech into words and thus facilitating listening and reading comprehension. Crucially, a unique support offered to learners’ comprehension by multimodal input is imagery. Research into audiovisual input has shown that it can work as a compensatory mechanism especially for low-proficiency learners.

The bulk of research into multimodal input has focused on vocabulary learning. A seminal study on the effect of TV viewing on vocabulary learning is Neuman and Koskinen’s 1992 study. They were among the first to stress the potential of audiovisual input for vocabulary learning. It was not until 2009 that the field of SLA started to pay more attention to audiovisual input. Two key studies were the corpus studies by Webb and Rodgers (2009a, 2009b), which showed the lexical demands of different types of audiovisual input. They argued that in addition to reading, audiovisual input may also be a valuable source of input for language learners. Since then, the field of SLA has witnessed a steady increase in the number of studies investigating vocabulary learning from audiovisual input. While most  research into audiovisual input focused on the efficacy of captions, fewer studies  focused on noncaptioned and nonsubtitled audiovisual input. Research has also moved from using short, educational clips to using full-length TV programs.  Finally, in addition to studying the effectiveness of multimodal input for vocabulary learning, research has also started to study language learners’ processing of multimodal input (e.g., looking patterns of captions or pictures) by means of eye-tracking. Together, there seems to be robust evidence that language learners can indeed pick up unfamiliar words from multimodal input and that the provision of captions has the potential to increase the learning gains.

Research into the potential of multimodal input has been gaining traction, but the number of studies is still limited and mainly confined to vocabulary learning. Now that research into multimodal input is starting to broaden its focus to different aspects of learning as well as its research techniques, the present issue provides an up-to-date account of research in this area with a view to include innovative work and a range of approaches.

The special issue pursues new avenues in research into multimodal input by focusing on pronunciation, perception and segmentation skills, grammar, multiword units, and comprehension. In addition, it extends previous eye-tracking by investigating the effects of underresearched pedagogic interventions on learners’ processing of target items, target structures, and text. The studies nicely complement each other in their research methodologies and participant profiles. The special issue comprises six empirical studies and one concluding commentary.

  • Different types of input (TV viewing with and without L1 or L2 subtitles, reading-while-listening, reading, listening);
  • Different types of captioning (unenhanced, enhanced, no captioning);
  • Different components of language learning (single words, formulaic sequences, comprehension, grammar, pronunciation);
  • Different mediating learner- and item-related factors (e.g., working memory, prior vocabulary knowledge, frequency of occurrence);
  • Different learning conditions (incidental learning, intentional learning, experimental and classroom-based) and time conditions (short video clips, full-length TV programs, extensive viewing);
  • Different research tools (eye-tracking, productive and receptive vocabulary tests, comprehension tests).

I should say that I’ve excluded the parts on grammar learning. Here’s an extract:

Research into grammar learning through multimodal input is very scarce. More recent studies involving captions and grammar in longer treatments have provided evidence of positive benefits for L2 grammar development in adults, especially when captions are textually enhanced. However, results have not been similarly positive for all target structures, suggesting the influence of other factors such as the structure-specific saliency of a grammar token.

This sudden surge of interest in multimodal input is obviously, in part anyway, a response to the growth of on-line teaching forced on us by the Covid 19 pandemic. To me, it looks like a very promising development, particularly as a possible answer to the question of how to tackle the need to encourage inductive “chunk” learning.

Problems in SLA: Is Emergentism the answer to them?

Mike Long’s (2007) book Problems in SLA is divided into three parts: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Part One

In chapter 1, “Second Language Acquisition Theories”, Long reviews some of the many approaches to theory construction in SLA and suggests that the plethora of SLA theories obstructs progress. In chapter 2, Long suggests that culling is required, and he uses Laudan’s “problem-solving” framework (e.g., Laudan, 1996) as the basis for an evaluation process. Briefly, theories can be evaluated by asking how many empirical problems they explain, giving priority to problems of greater significance, or weight. Long suggests that among the weightiest problems in SLA are age differences, individual variation, cross-linguistic influence, autonomous interlanguage syntax, and interlanguage variation.

Part Two 

Chapter 3 deals with “Age Differences and the Sensitive Periods Controversy in SLA”. Why do the vast majority of adults fail to achieve native-like proficiency in a second language? Long argues that maturational constraints, or “sensitive periods” explains this problem. Chapter 4 deals with recasts. As we know, recasts are a controversial issue, but they play an important role in Long’s focus on form. Long gives his usual careful review of the literature on research so far and concludes that recasts facilitate acquisition “without interrupting the flow of conversation and participants’ focus on message content” (p. 94).

Part Three

Chapter 5 “Texts, Tasks and the Advanced Learner”, discusses Long’s version of TBLT. Long claims that his TBLT is superior to “the traditional grammatical syllabus and accompanying methodology, or what I call “focus on forms” (p. 121) because it respects, rather than contradicts, robust findings in SLA. Long gives particular attention to the methodological principles of “focus on form” (reactive attention to form while attention is on communication), and “elaborated input” (use elaborated rather than simplified texts). Finally, chapter 6, “SLA: Breaking the Siege”, responds to three “broad accusations made against SLA research in recent years”. The charges are “sociolinguistics naiveté, modernism, and irrelevance for language teaching”. Long finishes with suggestions on how the siege might be broken.

Discussion 

The book packs a powerful punch. The references section is impressive (as usual); chapters 3, 4, and 5 are still very informative; and chapters 1, 2, and 6 are still a cogently argued case for a critical rationalist approach to SLA research and its application to ELT. A slight niggle is that Long’s discussion of theory construction and evaluation in chapters 1 and 2 is not entirely consistent with the rest of the book. There’s a possible conflict between chapters 3 and 4  – the claim that SLA is maturationally constrained (a view usually associated with “nativist” theories) sits uneasily with the claims made for recasts – and the absence of any mention of the interaction hypothesis adds a bit more doubt about exactly what Long himself regards as the best theory of SLA. Such doubts are dealt with in his (2015) book Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching.

 Chapter 3 describes “A Cognitive-Interactionist Theory of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (ISLA”. Note that this is a theory of Instructed SLA, where, Long says, “necessity and sufficiency are less important than efficiency. Provision of negative feedback, for example, might eventually turn out not to be a relevant factor in a theory of SLA, as argued persuasively by Schwartz (1993), but its empirical track record, to date, as a facilitator of rate and, arguably, level of ultimate attainment makes it a legitimate component – in fact, a key component – of a theory of ISLA”.  Long claims that his “embryonic” theory addresses empirical problems concerning (i) success and failure in adult SLA, (ii) processes in IL development, and (iii) effects and non-effects of instruction. The explanation is based on an emergentist, or usage-based (UB) theory of language acquisition:

A plausible usage-based account of (L1 and L2) language acquisition (see, e.g., N.C. Ellis 2007a,b, 2008c, 2012; Goldberg & Casenhiser 2008; Robinson & Ellis 2008; Tomasello 2003), with implicit learning playing a major role, begins with initially chunk-learned constructions being acquired during receptive or productive communication, the greater processability of the more frequent ones suggesting a strong role for associative learning from usage. Based on their frequency in the constructions, exemplar-based regularities and prototypical morphological, syntactic, and other patterns – [Noun stem-PL], [Base verb form-Past], [Adj Noun], [Aux Adv Verb], and so on – are then induced and abstracted away from the original chunk-learned cases, forming the basis for attraction, i.e., recognition of the same rule-like patterns in new cases (feed-fed, lead-led, sink-sank-sunk, drink-drank-drunk, etc.), and for creative language use (Long, 2015, pp 48-49).

I personally don’t find Ellis’ usage-based account plausible, and I still can’t quite get used to the fact that Long went along with it.  I console myself with the fact that Long didn’t join the Douglas Fir group, and that he retained his commitment to the importance of sensitive periods and interlanguage development. Furthermore, warts and all, I think Long’s book on TBLT is the best book on ELT ever written. Having said all that, I want to go back to Long’s concern for theory construction in SLA and suggest that they don’t justify his siding with Nick Ellis “and the UB (not UG) hordes”.

Laudan’s aim was to reply to criticism of Popper’s “naïve” falsification criterion. He tried to improve on the work of Lakatos (who had the same aim of defending Popper’s falsification criteron) by suggesting, firstly, that science is to do with problem-solving, and secondly, that science makes progress by evolving research traditions. This concern with research traditions is at the heart of Laudan’s endeavor, and I don’t think Long sufficiently recognizes its importance. Laundan talks about research traditions in science; Long wants to talk about theories of SLA. In my opinion, Laudan gives a poor account of research traditions in science, and Long makes poor use of Laudan’s criteria for theory evaluation.

Laudan says that the overall problem-solving effectiveness of a theory is determined by assessing the number and importance of empirical problems which the theory solves and deducting therefrom the number and importance of the anomalies and conceptual problems which the theory generates (Laudan, 1978: 68). In a later work, Laudan (1996) develops his “problem-solving” approach and offers a taxonomy.  He suggests, first, that we separate empirical from conceptual problems, and that as far as empirical problems are concerned, we distinguish between “potential problems, solved problems and anomalous problems.” ‘Potential problems’ constitute what we take to be the case about the world, but for which there is as yet no explanation. ‘Solved problems’ are that class of putatively germane claims about the world which have been solved by some viable theory or another.  ‘Anomalous problems’ are actual problems which rival theories solve but which are not solved by the theory in question (Laudan, 1996: 79). As for conceptual problems, Laudan lists four problems that can affect any theory.

Laudan claims that this “taxonomy” helps in the relative assessment of rival theories, while remaining faithful to the view that many different theories in a given domain might well have different things to offer the research effort. Laudan argues that it is rational to choose the most progressive research tradition, where “most progressive” means the maximum problem-solving effectiveness.  Note first that Laudan refers to the most progressive research tradition, not theory. But the main problem is how we assess the problem-solving effectiveness of rival research traditions. In the end, we will be forced to compare different theories belonging to different research traditions, and then, how does one count the number of empirical problems solved by a theory?  For example, is the “problem of the poverty of the stimulus” to be counted as one problem or several?  In principle the number of problems could be infinite. And how are we to assign different weightings to theories? How much weight should we give to Schmidt”s Noticing Hypothesis, and how much to Long’s Interaction Hypothesis, for example? Laudan’s inability to suggest how we might go about enumerating the seven types of problems in his taxonomy that are dealt with by any given research tradition (itself not a clearly-defined term), or how these problems might then be weighted, seems a fatal weakness in his account.

Even if we ignore this weakness, I don’t think Long makes a persuasive case for the UB research tradition he favours. In the field of linguistics, the nativist, UG-led research tradition has an impressive record; I can’t think of any way that the UB theories of N.C. Ellis, Goldberg & Casenhiser, Robinson & Ellis, and Tomasello can be made to score higher than the UG-based theories of Chomsky (1959), White (1989), Carroll (2001), and Hawkins (2001), for example. I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog against the emergentist view, usually citing Eubank and Gregg (2002) and Gregg (2003) Let me just summarise one point Gregg makes here.

For emergentists, SLA is a matter of associative learning: on the basis of sufficiently frequent pairings of two elements in the environment, one abstracts to a general association between the two elements. The environment provides all the necessary cues for these associations to form. Gregg (2003) gives this example from Ellis: ‘in the input sentence “The boy loves the parrots,” the cues are: preverbal positioning (boy before loves), verb agreement morphology (loves agrees in number with boy rather than parrots), sentence initial positioning and the use of the article the)’ (1998: 653). Gregg asks ‘In what sense are these ‘cues’ cues, and in what sense does the environment provide them?’ The environment can only provide perceptual information, for example, the sounds of the utterance  and the order in which they are made. Thus, in order for ‘boy before loves’ to be a cue that subject comes before verb, the learner must already have the concepts SUBJECT and VERB. According to Ellis, if SUBJECT is one of the learner’s concepts, that concept must emerge from the input. But how can it?  How can the learner come to know about subjects or agreement in English? What ‘cues’ are there are in the environment for us to learn the concept SUBJECT so that later on we can use that concept to abstract SVO from other input sentences? As Gregg (2003, p. 120) puts it:

Not only is it unclear how ‘preverbal position’ could be associated with ‘clausal subject’ or ‘agent of verb’, it is also not clear that these should be associated (Gibson, 1992): For instance, in sentences like ‘The mother of the boy loves the parrots’ or ‘The policeman who followed the boy loves the parrots,’ ‘the boy’ is preverbal but is neither subject nor agent. In short, there is no reason to think that ‘comes before the verb’ is going to be useful information for a learner or a hearer, in the absence of knowledge of syntactic structure. But once again, the emergentist owes us an explanation of how syntactic structure can be induced from perceptual information in the input.

Likewise, it does not make sense to say that learners “notice” formal aspects of the language from the input – grammar cannot, by definition, be “noticed” from perceptual information in the environment.

I don’t doubt that Mike would have made short work of these criticisms had I managed to put them to him. I recently asked him if we could discuss Chapter 3 on Skype, but he was already too ill.  While there are, in my opinion, almost insurmountable problems for an empiricist, usage-based theory of language learning to overcome, and while it follows that I don’t think Long resolves them, in his (2015) book SLA & TBLT, Long uses Laudan’s “Problems and Explanations” framework to address four problems, rather than present any full theory of SLA.  He does so with his usual scholrship, and he is absolutely clear about the most important issue facing us when it comes to designing courses of English for speakers of other languages: learning a new language is “far too large and too complex a task to be handled explicitly” …. “implicit learning remains the default learning mechanism for adults”.  You can see his quote in context in this post:  Mike Long: Reply to Carroll’s comments on the Interaction Hypothesis. 

References 

Carroll, S. (2000). Input and evidence: The raw materials of second language. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of B.F. Skinner Verbal behavior. Language 35, 26–8.

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash–Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 237-24.

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

Hawkins, R. (2001). Second language syntax: A generative introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Laudan, L. (1978) Progress and its problems: Towards a theory of scientific growth. University of California Press.

Laudan, L. (1996)  Beyond positivism and relativism: Theory, method, and evidence. Oxford and New York: Westview Press.

White, L. (1989). Universal Grammar and second language acquisition. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Mike Long

Mike died on Sunday morning. He will be greatly missed by the applied linguistics academic community, by the anarcho-syndicalist movement, by his wide circle of friends all over the world, and by the hundreds, including me, who owe their academic careers to his generous help.

Over a period of more than forty years, Mike had a massive influence on developments in psycholinguistics, instructed SLA, and TBLT. His CV is testament to his contributions to the field; it includes a huge volume of published material, progressive editorial work and teaching that changed the lives of so many. Mike was a brilliant, meticulous, scrupulously honest academic, who had a lifelong commitment to “L’education Integrale”, as he called it in his book SLA and Task-based Language Teaching. He begins Chapter 4: “Education of all kinds, not just TBLT … serves either to reserve or challenge the status quo, and so is a political act, whether teachers and learners realize it or not”.  Mike combined the highest standards of intellectual rigor with a sustained fight against the status quo. He was a regular contributor to the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, joined campaigns and picket lines fighting for the rights of intellectual workers, and made many donations  to support the anarchist movement.

Mike was a dangerous man to sit next to, in a conference plenary, a committee meeting, a seminar, wherever eruptions of laughter were frowned on. His stage-whispered asides were often just too funny to keep the laughter in, and even in restaurants, I was once asked by waiters to keep the noise down, as Mike, crying with laughter himself, told one of his funny stories. He was a delight to be with, and I’m glad that he was so fond of Cataluña, which he visited as often as he could. He and his partner Cathy Doughty called their son Jordi, his favorite football team was FC Barcelona, he loved Priorat wines, and we often went up to the cemetery in Montjuic to pay our respects to Buenaventura Durruti and his fallen comrades.

Among lots of projects he gave his support to, Mike helped Neil McMillan and I put together a teacher education course on TBLT. He thoroughly approved of the SLB Cooperative, so he happily gave us advice and materials, recorded presentations, and took part in webinars with participants on the course.

Mike and I were in the middle of writing a book about the ELT industry when he got the sudden news of his illness. He spent the last few months of his life working on the book, and, helped by Cathy, we got nine of the fourteen chapters more or less done. Cathy and I will now try to finish it.

Mike was the best teacher I ever had, and a wonderful, generous friend. I’ll miss him terribly.

P.S. There’s a great website here in honour of Mike: IN MEMORY | Mike Long (wixsite.com 

Life on Twitter

I closed my Twitter account a few months ago because I felt Twitter was mostly a waste of time. An exchange with JB Gerard, where he accused me of racism, was the trigger I needed. I opened another account under the name of Benny28908382 to watch what was happening. On Feb 18th., I “broke cover” and joined in the discussions. I replied to a tweet by ELT’s super salesman, Dr Gianfranco Conti (international keynote speaker, professional development provider, winner of the 2015 Times Educational Supplement egg and spoon race, etc., etc.) who made one of his typically crass pronouncements about SLA. Here it is, with what followed.

Part One

Discussion

Note the slide into personal attack, and I recognise that I provoked it. But my remarks were not meant as an attack on Tim; I was talking to Tim as a scholar, and I referred to what I saw as his lack of scholarship on this occasion. My interest was in questioning Conti’s confident edict, and I was surprised at Tim’s responses. Neither of us gave the best expression of our views, but anyway, we hadn’t, till the last bit, lost sight of the preposterous claim of Dr. Conti. We were talking about different theories of SLA. I find Tim an interesting man to talk to, or at least, I did, and I was certainly not treating him as an idiot. I see (or rather, I saw) Tim as someone who needs encouragement to study more. It would be in, IMHO, a waste of talent if Tim satisfied himself with what he’s learned so far about the fashionable usage-based view of SLA, and failed to delve deeper. My suggestion that he needed to read more was honestly well-intentioned, but I accept that three of my replies were a bit harsh.

On we go.

Part 2 

Discussion

Note how Tim dodges the issue. “I’m more talking about using an L2 than learning it”, he says. We were talking about learning an L2, were we not! And note that Tim’s final tweet shows a poor understanding of unconscious learning. Well never mind, Tweets are dashed off, and we can’t expect the same rigour found in texts where the author has time to express themself more clearly.

The Fall out 

The above exchange led to this, the following day:

Discussion

See what’s happened? Tim discovers that Benny is Geoff, and that’s enough for him to turn things into an attack on Geoff, all discussion of SLA long forgotten. The real content, what little there was of it, has been lost. Never mind that Conti’s original statement is wrong; never mind that Tim can’t explain working memory, never mind that efficacious ELT is at stake. No. The important thing now, for Tim, is to show that Geoff’s opinions are as nothing compared to the offence he gives to good people like himself, he the perfect representative of the good folk who make up the wonderful community of Twitter ELT.

Tim, cute, charming Tim, the darling of the rainbow warriors, the apotheosis of the young whelp and mediocre dancer, responds to “being treated like an idiot” by a typical Twitter hatchet job that shows a shameful disregard for the truth. In a way that would make hardened Daily Mail journalists cringe, he concocts a story aimed at discrediting me. Tim quite falsely states that I closed my Twitter account because I’d been revealed as a racist and that I later opened a scockpuppet account with the intention of being abrasive to people I don’t like. He accuses me of malpractice, and of manipulating social media in my fiendish drive to continue making “incredibly rude”, “obnoxious” attacks on carefully-selected targets.

Tim’s response to our exchange is that of a preening, self-righteous prig. He brings the dregs with him. Among messages of support, Hugh Dellar, with his usual, ironic disdain for context, suggests that the real cause of my criticisms of him is repressed lust, while Stirling Bannock (not his real name), vows never to read a word I say. May they all be happy together.

Dellar on Grammar

Dellar’s latest blog post is Part Nine of his views on ELT. It’s called Part Nine: the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!

I’ll summarise it and then suggest that

1. Most mistakes in the oral and written production of students of English as an L2 are to do with grammar

2. Dellar’s view of how people learn English as an L2 is badly-informed and incoherent

3. Dellar’s approach to teaching English as an L2 is mistaken.

Summary of Dellar’s blog post

When he was younger, Dellar believed that the root cause of student error was essentially grammatical. It took him “quite some time” to realise that since students only did tasks that focused on the production of grammatical structures, it was unsuprising that their errors were grammatical. Dellar comments that “to extrapolate out from such experiences and to then believe that mistakes are mostly down to grammar is a fallacy of the highest order”.

To become more aware of the real issues that students face when learning English, Dellar says that teachers need to change tack and focus on tasks which require the production of language outside the narrow confines of what are essentially grammar drills of varying kinds.  Unfortunately, during these “freer slots”, teachers still pick up on grammar. “This is what we’re most trained to focus on, and the way most of us are still trained to perceive error, and old habits die hard”.

Dellar then discusses how he and his co-author and colleague, Andrew Walkley started using Vocaroo (an online audio recorder) to record fifty chunks / collocations and send the link to all ther students. “They’d then write them down as best they could, like a dictation; we’d send the original list and students would then write examples of how they think they might actually use each item – or hear each being used. These were emailed over and we’d correct them, comment on them, etc.”.  To their dismay, Dellar and Walkley found that words that they felt they had “explained well, given extra examples of, nailed, as it were”, would come back “half digested, or garbled, or in utterly alien contexts with bizarre co-text”.

Dellar explains these disappointing results as follows:

What is really going on is that the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old; meanings in the broadest sense are largely understood, but contexts of use not yet clearly grasped.

He goes on:

This should not surprise, of course. The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.

It also tempers the expectation one should have of the power and value of correction. I’m under no illusion that the detailed comments and extensive correction / recasting I carry out on student efforts (see below) will somehow magically result in correct and fluent use henceforth. Rather, I see my work here simply as further efforts to prime and to draw attention to glitches, misconceptions, perennial misuses and so on; in short, I am merely a condensed and rather more focused part of the priming process.

What else you realise is the sheer futility of trying to explain much error through the filter of grammar. Take the first sentence shown below – The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago. What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here? Point out that if we’re using AFTER when talking about something that happened three years ago, we’d generally use the past simple, so if we want to use the present perfect, it’d be better to use SINCE? If we’re talking about flooding, it’s usually uncountable and thus kill the A? Even if you were to do this, you’d still be left with: The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, which still sounds very stilted and forced. Often, the only real solution to the morass of oddness these sentences throw one into is rather severe reworking, with options sometimes given, questions sometimes asked, and explanations often proffered.

Dellar concludes that when we’re teaching new vocabulary, we need to pay careful attention to “how well we’re priming students”. Limiting instruction and feedback to single ways of saying things, or short ungrammaticalised chunks / collocations gives students little chance of “really coming to terms with the ways in which new items are typically used with previously learned grammar and vocabulary, or the kinds of (often fairly limited) contexts in which items are used”.

Dellar finishes his blog post with this:

Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely preferable to cure.

And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!

Discussion

Let’s start with language errors made by L2 learners. Dellar ignores the work done by researchers on this subject.

We can begin with contrastive analysis research, notably Fries (1945), which suggested that errors are the result of transfer from the L1. Then came research in the 60s which showed that errors were not simply explained by L1 transfer; the same errors were commonly made by all language learners, regardless of their L1. Corder’s (1967) seminal work argued that errors were indications of learners’ attempts to figure out an underlying rule-governed system. Corder distinguished between errors and mistakes: mistakes are slips of the tongue and not systematic, whereas errors are indications of an as yet non-native-like, but nevertheless, systematic, rule-based grammar. Here, Corder is suggesting that learning an L2 is a cognitive process, not a mindless (sic – for behaviourists, the construct of mind is anathema) process of responding to stimulus from the environment), where learners work with their own ideas about the L2, which slowly approximate to a native speaker model. This “interlanguage development” theory received its first full expression in Selinker’s (1972) paper, which argues that L2 learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Selinker uses the word “grammar”, as do all applied linguistic scholars, to refer to the system and structure of a language, concentrating on syntax, but including morphology, phonology and semantics.

Dellar claims that “the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!”. He is, quite simply, wrong, as thousands of studies attest. Errors in the output of learners of English as an L2 are usually categorized in terms of lexical, grammatical, phrasing, and pragmatic errors, with punctuation added when looking at written texts. There is not a single study that I know of on this subject which doesn’t give grammatical errors as the most frequent type of error. Here’s an example.

MacDonald (2016) found from an examination of written texts in English of Spanish university students that grammar errors made up the majority of errors.

Dellar’s view of language learning

I’ve dealt with Dellar’s view of language learning in a separate post,  so let me focus here on his use of “priming” as an explanation of how people learn an L2. There are, at the moment, two rival, (and incompatible) views of second language acquisition (SLA). The first is that it’s a cognitive process involving the development of interlanguage, helped by innate knowledge of how language works. The second is that learning an L2 is the same as learning anything else, including the L1: it’s a learning process caused by responding to stimuli in the environment. This is a modern version of behaviorism and it’s motivated by a modern type of empiricism: language use emerges from social interaction, and only very basic statistical operations in the mind, based on the power law principle, are enough to explain how people learn an L2. These usage-based theories come in various forms and are referred to under the umbrella term “emergentism”. I think the best exponent of this view is Nick Ellis.

Priming is mostly associated with emergentist theories of SLA; it stresses frequency effects. But it’s complicated. How does priming occur? Is it unconscious? Is Schmidt’s “Noticing” construct compatible with the construct of priming? In his blog post, Dellar says:

What is really going on is that the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old

While that’s not what anybody who argues for an interlanguage development view of SLA would claim (new language doesn’t get “awkwardly welded onto the old”), it sounds as if Dellar is suggesting that learners do develop an increasingly sophisticated model of the target language. If he is, then this clashes with his insistence that priming is what explains SLA. Dellar says

The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.

First, pace Dellar, “encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context” is not a necessary condition for learning a language, as the daily inventive output of English users makes clear. Millions of times a day, fluent users of English as an L2 use combinations of items that they’ve NEVER encountered before, not even once. If Dellar wants to adopt a strictly “priming”, usage-based view of SLA, then he has to explain this. As Eubank and Gregg (2003) say:  “…. it is precisely because rules have a deductive structure that one can have instantaneous learning… With the English past tense rule, one can instantly determine the past tense form of “zoop” without any prior experience of that verb…….. 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”.

Second, Dellar wants to explain failure to learn “new items” of the L2 by appeal to insufficient priming. But that is not how a great many scholars (including Eubank and Gregg, of course, and a legion of others) would explain it, and it’s not how those in the emergentist camp would explain it either. Dellar says that learning depends on priming, without explaining what priming refers to. Elsewhere, Dellar has said that he uses the construct “priming” to refer to lexical priming, not structural or syntactic primimg, and that he bases himself on Hoey’s 2005 book. Hoey says that priming amounts to this: “every time we use a word, and every time we encounter it anew, the experience either reinforces the priming by confirming an existing association between the word and its co-texts and contexts, or it weakens the priming, if we encounter a word in unfamiliar contexts” (Hoey, 2005).  Note that there is absolutely no way that such a statement can be tested by appeal to empirical evidence; Hoey’s theory is circular. Until the construct of “priming” is operationally defined in such a way that statements about it are open to empirical refutation, it remains a mysterious construct that people like Dellar can use as they want. Furthermore, Dellar fails to explain how his insistence that ELT should focus on the explicit teaching of lexical chunks can be reconciled with Hoey’s insistence that lexical primimg is a pscholinguistic phenomenon that refers to implcit, unconscious learning.

ELT 

Which brings us to the third matter: Dellar’s approach to teaching. We get a glimpse of it when he talks of “the sheer futility” of explaining error “through the filter of grammar”. Using the example of a student who wrote

The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago

he asks “What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here?” and proceeds to lampoon the advice such grammar hounds might offer. He concludes that their answer

The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago

“still sounds very stilted and forced”, and he suggests that the text needs “rather severe reworking”, no doubt so as to include some of his beloved lexical chunks. Well, The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, sounds OK to me, and reading Dellar’s own work is enough to raise serious questions about his ability to judge the coherence and cohesion of written texts. In any case, I think most students would benefit more from the recast Dellar thinks the grammar hounds would arrive at, than from Dellar’s own feedback, as evidenced in the examples he provides. What, one wonders, is the effect on a student of that kind of feedback? How does such severe reworking get welded on to the student’s current model of English? Dellar pours scorn on conventional grammar teaching, but his attempts to incorporate his own “bottom-up grammar” into his lexical approach are bewildering – see this recording    

Dellar’s preoccupation with the importance of lexical chunks informs his view of ELT. “Don’t teach grammar, teach lexical chunks” is the message. Rather than appreciate the fact that language learning is essentially a matter of implicit learning, and that any type of synthetic syllabus, be it grammar based or lexical chunk based, is fatally flawed, Dellar insists, like nobody else in the commercial field of ELT, that explicit teaching (of lexical chunks in context) should drive language learning. He talks about the problems he had in his attempts to teach students 50 lexical chunks a week, but what did he learn? Not that it’s an impossible task to teach learners the tens of thousands of lexical chunks native speakers use, nor even that there are principled ways of reducing the number. No, all he learnt was that the lexical chunks need to be embedded in context.

Dellar’s lexical chunks, served up every few days on his website, now number well over 200. What informs inclusion in this motley collection? And how are they all to be sufficiently “primed” so as to form part of the learner’s procedural knowledge of English?

For a fuller assessment of Dellar’s views of ELT, see separate posts, here, and here,

Finally, what about Dellar’s conclusion?

Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely preferable to cure.

And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!

But is prevention better than cure when it comes to ELT?  Should teachers strive to prevent their students from making mistakes, rather than helping them to learn from mistakes? And, in the unlikely event that you reply “Yes, they should”, then what’s the preventive medicine? Learning by heart fifty randomly selected lexical chunks, along with contexts, every week?

 

References

Corder, S. P. (1967). The Significance of Learners’ Errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5, 161-170.

Eubank, L., & Gregg, K. (2002). NEWS FLASH—HUME STILL DEAD. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 237-247.

Fries, C. C. (1945). Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. Oxford: OUP.

MacDonald, P. (2016) “We All Make Mistakes!”. Analysing an Error-coded Corpus of Spanish University Students’ Written English, in Complutense Journal of English Studies, 24, 103-129.

Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10, 209-241.