Language Acquisition

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Language Acquisition


"Eclectic", remarks Atkinson (1988, p. 42), "is one of the buzz words in TEFL at present,
in part due to the realization that for the foreseeable future good language teaching is
likely to continue to be based more on common sense, insights drawn from classroom
experience, informed discussion among teachers, etc., than on any monolithic model of
second language acquisition or all-embracing theory of learning . . . ". One problem with
this position is that your "common sense" and your "insights" are apt to be different from
mine. Another is that "discussion among teachers", though valuable, is often a futile
exercise in the blind leading the blind. No one with some knowledge of pedagogy and
psychology would advocate a "monolithic model" of anything in teaching today. However,
unless one has some theoretical foundation to one's knowledge, one cannot construct a
methodology of anything--including of foreign language teaching. The aim of this paper is
to examine rudimentarily such foundation, and to propose an eclectic approach to teaching
English to speakers of other languages.

Learning theories and TEFL
"It appears counterproductive to dissect language in the same way that biology students
might dissect a frog" (Maurice 1987, p. 9). Learners do not expect curriculum designers
and teachers to dissect language on the basis of pure linguistic science, but they do
expect them to dissect language on the basis of applied linguistics and psycholinguistics
to the extent that such analyses throw light on how language is applied and on who will do
the applying. The foci, then, are on teaching methodology and learning capacity, rather
than on the intricate works of linguisticians. Notes that teachers, moreover, need a
functional dose of anthropology, sociology, and cybernetics if they are to grow as
professionals. It does not hurt, of course, if they know more than one language and have
been in close contact with other cultures.

Now "discussions on teaching methods tend to be plagued by overgeneralizations both with
respect to the way they are classified and with respect to the way they are evaluated"
(MacKenzie, Eraut, & Jones 1972, p. 124). When one compares pedagogical methods, some
startling facts come to light. One, for example, is that methods vacillate between a
behavioral approach which considers the learner as a programmable mechanical device, and a
humanistic (or pseudo-humanistic) approach which is undisciplined and considers the
learner as a malleable self-directed positively motivated and intelligent social and
cultural unit. Talk about monolithism!

Two curricula and methodologies are essentially teacher-centered or pre-determined
curriculum-centered, as opposed to being learner-centered. They are developed on the basis
of a linear and group-addressed program, rather than on a semi-linear or even random
program derived from individual learners' feedback. They illustrate the traditional
top-dictated organization structure of pre-democratic societies, business management, and
state education. Yet, "language is a social as well as an individual phenomenon . . . It
mirrors the culture . . . is culturally acquired" (Finocchiaro & Bonomo 1973, p. 1).

Three, in practice, student's overt behaviors are observed and measured, whereas covert
behaviors are ignored or lightly passed over or deplored . . . when perceived or intimated
by those whose job it is to help modify behavior. To behaviorism, overt behavior is the
very subject-matter of psychology, precisely because one can observe it, measure it, and
shape it. It is an atomistic theory for which reflexes and the conditioned reflex are the
basic units. The trouble is that the human being, though composed of atoms, is a complex
system all parts of which are dynamically interrelated. "Atomism is in essence an
analytical doctrine. It regards observable forms in nature not as intrinsic wholes but as
aggregates" (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1974, p. 2/346). Educators, unfortunately, are not
in a position to embrace an atomistic view, because they do not have the tools to
identify, analyze, and modify all the overt behaviors which lead to learning or not
learning--all the more the covert ones. It makes sense, therefore, that they hew closely
to holistic theories which explain the parts (known and unknown) in terms of the whole.
The learner is a whole organism, not an aggregate of parts, and the whole may or may not
be greater than the sum of its parts.

Functionally, the learner is little concerned with surface structures (unless his goal is
exclusively to pass a traditional State examination, or he is studying linguistics).
Rather, he is eager to negotiate meanings, that is, to interface meaningfully with deep
structures. Structural linguistics' prime concern is the production of "a catalogue of the
linguistic elements of a language, and a statement of the positions in which they occur"
(McArthur 1992, p. 991), but it fails to refer to meaning--the substance of communication.
Even generative grammar focuses on form at the expense of meaning: it is concerned with
membership in sets of grammatical sentences (cfr Chomsky). It took the communicative shift
of the 1980s in Europe and North America, with its emphasis on the cognitive-code
approach, to reject behaviorism and the audiolingual and direct methods. Thus,
structuralism, with its exclusive concern with form, gave way to the communicative
methods, with their stress on meaning negotiation.

The Strategies
"In response to the perceived weaknesses of both structural and notional/functional
syllabuses in producing communicatively competent speakers, the current literature
stresses the importance of providing language learners with more opportunities to interact
directly with the target language and to acquire it by using it rather than to learn it by
studying it" (Taylor 1987, p. 45). The Council of Europe Languages Projects, initiated in
1971, concentrated on the needs of learners, and provided contents for syllabi intended to
serve as bases for a Europe-wide scheme (notional/functional approach). In this scheme,
some items were to be learned Productively, some receptively. Language, it stated, should
center on the learner, be relevant to the learner's life, not remote academic goals, be
part of permanent education, be based on participatory democracy, and be communicative. As
is often the case with grandiose projects (particularly, of course, political ones),
ideals turn somewhat sour when practice shows them to be at loggerheads with vested
interests or ingrained traditions. Furthermore, to express themselves in terms of certain
notions and functions was to limit learners to threshold levels of a watered-down
structural approach, but structural all the same. In this case, the tradition of
structural linguistics has been hard to displace, with mixed results in applying a
communicative and fully functional approach. It seems as if there is no way out: to learn
a language is to learn to communicate creatively, comprehensibly, however laborious the

Being learner-centered, in the communicative approach "we take the students' communicative
attempts in the target language as the starting-off point for our instruction, rather than
the rules or the structure of the language" (Taylor 1987, p. 57). Thus, the modern
approach is to holistic functional learnerĀ¬centered communicative methods. Does this mean
that the structural school is doomed? Increasingly, teachers--if not linguists--are
finding that there is something to be learned, adopted, and adapted from both extreme
approaches--structural and communicative. Rogers (1983) already had remarked that "The
goal of education is the facilitation of change and learning." Change has dynamic
structure; structure has both atomistic and holistic aspects. If language-learning is
specific behavior modification-Ā¬change, it perforce must consider atomistic structure and
analysis. At the same time, if language-learning is holistic apprehension of cognitive,
affective, social, and cultural codes, it must also deal with holistic concerns. In other
words, language cannot be learned without learning form and acquiring meaning, if only
because there is no substance without form--though the reverse can be true: the
medium--McLuhan notwithstanding--is not always the message. Form is best learned through
structural methods, because intrinsically it has no meaning, because by definition form is
structure. Meaning, on the other hand, is best learned through communicative methods
because by definition it is communication, it is substance carried through the
carrier-wave of form--the medium. Hence, the need for eclecticism in language learning and
teaching. Hence, the inadequacy and paucity of either structural methods or communicative
methods on their own.

Keeping in mind this learned-centered approach, one needs also consider the medium of
instruction. A key role--that of facilitator of learning--is that of the teacher. The
trouble with teachers, and their principal asset, is that they too are whole persons,
individual dynamic entities interacting with the environment, as any other organic form
does. A teacher's style of teaching is as much his or her prerogative as a learner's style
of learning. It is the teacher's expression of his or her personality and belief system.
There is no reason to try and change this condition . . . unless it is clearly out of
place in education. The way to judge a teacher is not by the method he or she uses, but by
the results he or she obtains. If results are poor, the teacher will have to justify the
methodological approach, or change it, or leave. "Perhaps the best method varies from one
teacher to another, but only in the sense that it is best for each teacher to operate with
his or her own sense of plausibility at any given time" (Prahbu 1990, p. 175).

Possibly central to any theory of methodology is what Phillips (1981) calls the four
principles of EST methodology, viz. (1) reality control; (2) non-triviality; (3)
authenticity; and (4) tolerance of errors. If there is no one methodological approach to
foreign language learning and teaching, there is no one method which necessarily and
significantly enhances or impedes learning for all learners. But there are methods, though
successful with a majority of learners, which fail with individual learners--not through
flaws in the method, but through inappropriateness for an individual's style of learning.
The variables are too many to confine learning/teaching to any one method for groups as
well as for individuals.

Let us now comment briefly on some currently used methods, listing their pros and cons in light of an eclectic approach.
The Methods
The Grammar-Translation Method (also called the classical Method) has as its fundamental
purpose reading classical literature ("good books representing the best in our culture")
which it considers superior to the spoken language. Communication is not its goal. The
primary skills it develops are reading and writing. The teacher is the authority. No
errors are tolerated. Native language equivalents exist for all target language words.
Comparative analytical techniques facilitate learning. Form precedes meaning and,
therefore, is learned first. Deductive application of explicit grammatical rules are the
way to learn structure, and structure must be foremost in the mind of learners.
Audiolingual techniques (such as rote memorization and drill) are preferred for learning
verb conjugations and other grammatical paradigms.

Clearly, the method is restricted to learning how to read and write. Phonology is of
little or no concern. So is communication. Though not a method of choice if communication
is the goal, there are teachers who use translation successfully: they feel it teaches
structure and disciplines the mind, while ensuring accuracy, if not fluency of
comprehension and expression. Writing, moreover, adds the kinesthetic sense to listening,
speaking, and reading, and doubtlessly constitutes a valuable reinforcer for all sensory

The Direct Method proscribes translation. Meaning is connected directly with the target
language. Reading is taught from the outset of instruction, together with speaking.
Language is speech, and it exists only in a specific cultural context. Referents are
associated with the target language. First language use is taboo. The teacher demonstrates
rather than explains or translates, thus enhancing referent-meaning connections. Students
are to think in the target language early on. Language is communication; therefore,
students communicate in the classroom. Phonology is fundamental: pronunciation is taught
from the very outset of instruction. Self-correction places the onus of learning on the
learner. Conversation is authentic and the major medium of instruction. Grammar is learned
inductively. Writing is developed parallel with other language skills. Curricula are based
on topics or situations rather than on linguistic structures.

If time is of the essence and the goal is restricted to basic functional communication
(as, for example, in total immersion instruction), then the Direct Method may be
indicated. Its audiolingual stress, however, does limit it to simple communication--such
as "tourist" English. On the other hand, its insistence on teaching all skills
simultaneously and on contextually centered conversation is an asset to any approach.

The Audiolingual Method is a modified form of the Direct Method--or is it the reverse? It
inherited its techniques from advances in descriptive linguistics and behavioral
psychology. Language forms exist only in context. Every language has its idiosyncratic
system and, therefore, should be taught as a unique entity. The teacher constitutes the
role model for language competency and proficiency and for the target culture. Language is
habit formation. Errors produce bad habits and therefore must be always and immediately
corrected. Language is to communicate. Speech is structured with a finite number of
patterns. Positive reinforcement includes overlearning, i.e. the creation of automatic
responses. The primary objective of language learning is learning structural patterns;
vocabulary comes later. Second language is learned the same way as first language.
Linguistic rules are induced. Speech is basic; writing/reading is a derivative. Language
is culturally conditioned.

Essentially behavioristic, the Audiolingual Method is very limited in its methodology and
in its behavioral objectives. Even as in the Direct Method, drill and memorization may
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