Free Web Hosting Provider - Web Hosting - E-commerce - High Speed Internet - Free Web Page
Search the Web

LANGUAGE LEARNING AND TEACHING


Becoming bilingual is a way of life. Your whole person is affected as you struggle to reach beyond the confines of your first language and into a new language, a new culture, a new way of thinking, feeling, and acting. Second language learning is not a set of easy steps that can be programmed in a quick do-it-yourself kit.
The teaching process is the facilitation of learning, in which you can "teach" a foriegn language successfully if, among other things, you know something about learns or fails to learn a second language. Where does a teacher begin the quest for an understanding of the principles of foreign learning and teaching? By asking some questions.

  • Who? Who does the learning and teaching?
  • What? No simpler question is one that probes the nature of the subject matter itself. What is communication? What is language?
  • How How does learning take place? How can person can ensure success in language learning?
  • When When does second language learning take place?
  • Where Are the learners attempting to acquire the second language within the cultural and linguistic milieu of the second language - that is , in a "second" language situation in the technical sese of the term?
  • Why Finally, the most encompassing of all questions: Why are learners attempting to acquire the second language?

These questions have been asked, in very golbal terms, to give you an inkling of the diversity of issues involved in the quest for understanding the principles of language learning and teaching. And while you cannot hope to find final answers to all the questions, you can begin to achieve some tentative answers as you move through the chapters of this book and additional information which we added to these pages. Thomas Kuhn(1970) referred to "normal science" as a process of puzzle solving in which part of the task of the scientist, in this case the teacher, is to discover the pieces, and then to fit the pieces together. Many of the pieces of the language learning puzzle are not yet discovered, and the careful defining of the questions will lead to finding those pieces.

Language

To persume to define langugae adequately would be folly. A definiton is really condensed version of a theory, and a theory is simply - or not so simply - an extended definition. Consider the following definitons of language found in dictionaries nad introductory textbooks:

  • Language is a system of arbitrary, vocal symbols which permit all people in a given culture, or other people who have learned the system of that culture, to communicate or interact (Finocchario 1964:8)
  • Language is a system of communication by sound, operating through the organs of speech and hearing, among members of a given community, and using vocal symbols possessing arbitrary conventional meanings (Pei 1966:141)
  • Language is any set or symbols of linguistic symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another (Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1966:806).
  • Language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication (Wardhaugh 1972:3).
  • [Language is] any means, vocal or other, of expressing or communicating feeling or thought ... a system of conventionalized signs, especially words or gestures having fixed meanings. (Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language 1934:1390).
  • [Language is] a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings (Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 1961:1270)
Still other common definitions found in introductory textbooks on linguistics include the concepts of :
  1. the generativity or creativity of language
  2. the persumed primacy of speech over writing
  3. the universality of language among human beings

Many of the significant characteristics of language are capsulized in these defintions. Some of the controversies about the nature of language are also illustrated through the limitations that are implied in certain definitons.

A consolidation of the definitions of language yields the following composite definition:

  1. Language is systematic and generative.
  2. Language is a set of arbitrary symbols.
  3. Those symbols are primarily vocal, but may also be visual.
  4. The symbols have conventionalized meanings to which they refer.
  5. Language is used for communication.
  6. Language operates in a speech community or culture.
  7. Language is essentially human, although possibly not limited to humans.
  8. Language is acquired by all people in much the same way - language and language learning both have universal characteristics.
Enormous fields and subfields, year-long university courses, are suggested in each of the eight categories. Consider some of these possible areas:
  1. Explicit and formal accounts of the system of language on several possible levels (most commonly syntactic, semantic, and phonological).
  2. The symbolic nature of language; the relationship between language and reality; the philosophy of language; the history of language.
  3. Phonetics; phonology; writing systems; kinesics; proxemics; and other "paralinguistic" features of language.
  4. Semantic; language and cognition; psycholinguistics.
  5. Communication systems; speaker-hearer interaction; sentence processing.
  6. Dialectology; sociolinguistics; language and culture; bilingualism and second language acquisition.
  7. Human language and nonhuman communication; the physiology of language.
  8. Language universals; first language acquisition.

Can foreign language teachers effectively teach a language if they do not know, even generally, something about the relationship between language and cognition, writing systems, nonverbal communication, sociolinguistics, and first language acquisition, just to name a few items at random?
The TESOL(Teachres of English to Speakers of Other Languages) oraganiztion, in its Guidelines for the Certification and Preparation of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in the United States (1975), cited the necessity for the teacher to "understand the nature of language, the fact of language varieties - social, regional, and functional, the structure and development of the English language system".

Learning and Teaching

What is learning and what is teaching and how do they interact?
A search in contemporary dictionaries reveals that learning is "acquiring or getting of knowledge of a subject or a skill by study, experience, or instruction." A more specialized definiton might read as follows: "Learning, is relatively permanent change in behavioral tendency and is the result of reinforced practice"(Kimble and Garmezy 1963:133). Teaching may be defined as "showing or helping someone to learn how to do something, giving instructions, guiding in the study of something, providing with knowledge, causing to know or understand."
Breaking down the components of the definition of learning, we can extract, as we did with language, domains of research and inquiry:

  1. Learning is acquiring or "getting."
  2. Learning is retention of information or skill.
  3. Retention implies storage systems, memory, cognitive organization.
  4. Learning involves active, conscious focus on and acting upon events outside or inside the organism.
  5. Learning is relatively permanent but subject to forgetting.
  6. Learning involves some form of practice, perhaps reinforced practice.
  7. Learning is a change in behavior.

Teaching cannot be defined apart from learning. Nathan Gage (1964:269) noted that "to satisfy the practical demands of education, theories of learning must be 'stood on their head' so as to yield theories of teaching." Teaching is guiding and facilitating learning, enabling the learner to learn, setting the conditions for learning. If, like B.F. Skinner, you look at learning as a process of operant conditioning through a carefully paced program of reinforcement, you will teach accordingly. If you view second language learning basically as a deductive rather than an inductive process, you will probably to choose present copious rules and paradigms to your students rather than let them "discover" those rules inductively.
Jerome Bruner (1966b:40-41) noted that a theory of instruction should specify the following features:

  1. The experiences which most effectively implant in the individual a predisposition toward learning,
  2. The ways in which a body of knowledge should be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by learner
  3. The most effective sequences in which to present the materials to be learned
  4. The nature and pacing rewards and punshiments in the process of learning and teaching.

Trends in Linguistics and Psychology

While the general definitions of language, learning, and teaching offered here might meet with the approval of most linguists, psychologists, and educators, you can find point of vast disagreemnet upon a little probing of the components of each definition. For example, is language a "set of habits" or a "system of internalized rules"? Differing viewpoints emerge from equally knowledgeable linguists and psychologists.

Yet with all the possible disagreements among linguists and among psychologists, the two disciplines themselves are not that far apart. A historical glance back through the last few decades of linguistic and psychological research reveals some rather striking parallels in the philosophies and approaches of the two disciplines. Psychologists in the 1940s and 1950s were perdominantly committed to a behavioristic mode of thinking - or even "neo-behavioristic" - while more recent decades have brought increasing attention to cognitive psychology.

In 1940s and 1950s the structural, or descriptive schools of linguistics, with its advocates - Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir, Charles Hockett, Charles Fries, and others - prided itself in a rigorous application of the scientific principle of observation of human languages. The linguist's task, according to the structuralist, was to describe human led to the unchecked rush of linguists to the far reaches of the earth to write grammars of exotic languages. Freeman Twaddell(1935:57) stated this principle in perhaps its most extreme terms. "Whatever our attitude toward mind, spirit, soul, etc., as realities, we must agree that the scientist proceeds as though there were no such things, as though all his information were acquired through processes of his physiological nervous system. Insofar as he occupies himself with physical, nonmaterial forces, the scientist is not scientist. The scientific method is quite simply the convention that mind does not exist..." Such attitudes prevail in Skinner's thought, particularly in Verbal Behavior (1957), in which he says that any notion of "idea" or "meaning" is explanatory fiction, and that the speaker is merely the locus of verbal behavior, not the cause. Charles Osgood reinstated meaning in verbal behavior, explaning it as a representational mediation process," but still did not depart from a generally nonmentalistic view of language.

In 1960s the generative-transformational school of linguistics emerged through the influence of Noam Chomsky. What Chomsky was tring to show is that language (not language) cannot be scrutinized simply in terms of observable stimuli and responses or the volumes of raw data gathered by field linguistis. The generative linguist is interested not only in describing language or achieving the level of descriptive adequacy but also in arriving at an explanatory level of adequacy in the study of language - that is, a "principled basis, independent of any particular language, for the selection of the descriptively adequate grammar of each language" (Chomsky 1964:63)

The "scientific method" was rigorously adhered to, and therefore such concepts as consciouness and intuition were reagrded as "mentalistic," illegitimate domains of inquiry. The unreliability of observation of states of consciousness, thinking, concept of formation, or the acquisiton of knowledge made such topics impossible to examine in a behavorisitc framework. Typical behavioristic models were classical and operant conditioning, rote verbal learning, instrumental learning, and discrimination learning. You are familiar with the classical experiments with Pavlov's dogand Skinner's boxes - these too typify the position that organisms can be conditioned to respond in desired ways, given the correct degree and scheduling of reinforcement.

Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, take a contrasting theoritical stance. Meaning, understanding, and knowing are significant data for psychological study. Instead of focusing rather mechanistically on stimulus-response connections, cognitivits try to discover psychological principles of organization and functioning. David Ausubel (1965:4) noted:"From the standpoint of cognitive theorists, that attempt to ignore conscious states or to reduce congnition to mediational processes reflective of implicit behavior not only removes from the field of psychology what is most worth of studying but also dangerously oversimplifies highly complex psychological phonomena." By using a rationalistic approach instead of a strictly empirical approach, cognitive psychologists, like generative linguists, have sought to discover underlying motivatons and deeper structures of human behavior; going beyond descriptive to explanatory power has taken on utmost importance.

Table 1-1 summarizes concepts and approaches germane to each of the two polarized theories that have been presented here. The table may help to pinpoint certain broad ideas that are associated with the respective positions.

TABLE 1-1 Linguistic-Psychological Parallels

SCHOOLS OF PSYCHOLOGY

SCHOOLS OF LINGUISTICS CHARACTERISTICS
Behavioristic Structural




Descriptive

Repetiton and reinforcement

Learning, conditioning

Stimulus - response

Publicly observable responses

Empiricism

Scientific method

Performance

Surface structure

Description - "what"

Cognitive Generative




Transformational

Analysis and insight

Acquisition and insight

Acquisition, innateness

States of consciousness

Rationalism

Process

Mentalism, intuition

Competence

Deep structure

Explanation - "why"

Applied Linguistics

Applied linguistics has been considered a subset of linguistics for several decades, and it has been interpreted to mean the applications of linguistics principles or theories to certain more or less practical matters ( Brown 1976b, Kaplan, et al. 1981). Second language teaching amd teaching of reading, composition, and language arts in the native language are typical areas of practical application. In studies of phonetics, nonverbal, communication, and semantics, dialectology, first language acquisition, the psychology of language, and second language acquisition, there is much that is theoritical - that is, much that bears on seeking an extended definition of language. Some might argue that the devising of explicit and formal accounts of linguistica systems is surely theoretcal; however, semantics, speaker-hearer interaction, and communication system are important in any consideration of the nature of the linguistic system.

Reacting to the common British usage of the term "applied linguistics" (in which case the term is almost synonymous with "language teaching"), Corder (1973:10) differentiated applied lingusitics and language teaching, and went on to note that "the applied linguist is a consumer, or user, not a producer, of theories." Psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, once very clearly considered to be "applied" areas, now just as clearly overlap both the applied and theoretical domains.

Theory and Methods

Teaching methods are the application of theoretical finding and positions. They may be thought of as "theories in practice."

Albert Marckwardt (1972:5) saw these "changing winds and shifting sands" as a cyclical pattern in which a new paradigm (to use Kuhn's term) of teaching methodology emerged about every quarter of a century, with each new method breaking from the old but at the same time taking with it some of the positive aspects of the previous paradigm. One of the best examples of the cyclical nature of methods is seen in the revolutionary Audiolingual Method (ALM) of the late 1940s and 1950s. The ALM borrowed tenets from its predecessor by almost half a century, the Direct Method, While breaking away entirely from the Grammar-Translation paradigm. Whithin a short time, however, ALM critics were advocating more attention to rules and to the "cognitive code" of language, which, to some, smacked of a return to Grammar Translation! Shifting sands indeed.

PANDULUM SYNDROME

The same era has seen linguists searching ever more deeply for the ansewrs to the nature of communication and communicative competence and for explanations of the interactive process of language. The language teaching profession has responded to these theoritical trends with methods that stress the importance of self-esteem, of students cooperatively learning together, of developing individual strategies for success, and above all of focusing on the communicative process is language learning.

In The Classroom: The Grammar Translation Method

Latin was taught by means of what has been called the Classical Method: focus on grammatical rules, memorization of vocabulary and of various declensions and conjugations, translation of texts, doing written exercise. Languages were not being taught primarily to learn oral/aural communication but to learn for the sake of being "scholarly" or, in some instances, for gaining a reading proficiency in a foreign language.

In the 19th century the Classical Methods came to be known as the Grammar Translation Method. Prator and Celce-Murcia (1979:3) list the major characteristics of Grammar Translation:

  1. Classes are taught in the mother tongue, with little active use of the target language.
  2. Much vocabulary is taught in the form of lists of isolated words.
  3. Long elaborate explanations of the intricacies of grammar are given.
  4. Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words.
  5. Reading of difficult classical texts in begun early.
  6. Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercise in grammatical analysis.
  7. Often the only drills are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue.
  8. Little or no attention is given to pronunciation.

It is remarkable, in one sense, that this method has been so stalwart among many competing models. It does virtually nothing to enhance a student's communicative ability in the language. It is "remembered with distaste by thousands of school learners, for whom foreign language learning meant a tedious experience of memorizing endless lists of unusable grammar rules and vocabulary and attempting to produce perfect translation of slited or literary prose" ( Richards and Rodgers 1986:4). However, in another sense, one can understand why Grammar Translation is so popular. It requires few specialized skills on the part of teachers. Test of grammar rules and of translations are easy to construct and can be objectively scored. Many standardaized tests of foreign languages still do not attempt to tap into communicative abilities, so students have little motivations to go beyond grammar analogies, translations, and rote exercise. And it is sometimes successful in leading a student toward a reading knowledge of a second language. But, as Richards and Rodgers (1986:5) point out, "it has no advocates, it is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a psychology, or educational theory."

Back to Title