My presentation in Part 1 argued that ELT should break the bad habit of relying on coursebooks. In response to comments, I offer here a bit more about interlanguage. My thanks to Alessandro Grimaldi for his paper which I’ve used to help me write this.
U-shaped learning behaviour is one of the patterns observed in the development of interlanguages. I should say at once that “interlanguage” is a theoretical construct, not a fact. While interlanguage as a construct has proved useful in developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct itself needs developing, and the theory which it is part of is incomplete, and possibly false. Any good theory must allow that empirical observations can be made which will falsify it, but, so far, interlanguage theory has stood up to a number of such challenges quite well. Part of the support for the theory comes from observations of U-shaped behaviour in SLA, which indicate that learners’ interlanguage development is not linear. The same data can be used to show that the approach taken by all coursebooks which present and practice a sequence of discrete, formal aspects of the English language, on the assumption that these will be learned in the linear order that they’re presented, is wrong
An example of U-shaped behaviour is this:
The example here is from a study in the 70s. Another example comes from morphological development, specifically, the development of English irregular past forms, such as came, went, broke, which are supplanted by rule-governed, but deviant past forms: comed, goed, breaked. In time, these new forms are themselves replaced by the irregular forms that appeared in the initial stage.
This U-shaped learning curve is observed in learning the lexicon, too. Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, not just their canonical meaning. While learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. The suggestion of cognitive theory of SLA is that only by passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, can they climb back up the U-shaped curve. To add to the example of “feet” above, there’s the example of the noun ‘shop.’ Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I bought a pastry at the coffee shop yesterday.” Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).
The re-organisation of new information as learners move along the U-shaped curve is a characteristic of interlanguage development. Associated with this restructuring is the construct of automaticity. Language acquisition can be seen as a complex cognitive skill where as your skill level in a domain increases, the amount of attention you need to perform generally decreases . The basis of processing theories of SLA is that we have limited resources when it comes to processing information and so the more we can make the process automatic, the more processing capacity we free up for other work. Active attention requires more mental work, and thus, developing the skill of fluent language use involves making more and more of it automatic, so that no active attention is required. This is what I was referring to in my presentation when I compared learning a language to learning to drive a car. Through practice, language skills go from a ‘controlled process’ in which great attention and conscious effort is needed to an ‘automatic process’. Such a process is mediated through constant restructuring of the interlanguage along the U-shaped development curve.
Automaticity can be said to occur when associative connections between a certain kind of input and some output pattern occurs. For instance, in this exchange:
Speaker 1: Morning.
Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?
Speaker 1: Fine, and you?
Speaker 2: Fine.
the speakers, in most situations, don’t actively think about what they’re saying. In the same way, second language learners’ learn new language through use of controlled processes, which become automatic, and in turn free up controlled processes which can then be directed to new forms. Segalowitz applies this idea to a wide variety of skills when he says:
”Automatizing certain aspects of performance in order to free up attentional resources is fundamental to skilled performance in a number of areas because it allows performers to allocate their limited capacities to where they are most needed. That is, to a large extent, fluent performance in such areas as music or reading (e.g. performing particular runs or arpeggios on the piano; word recognition) involves being able to carry out certain activities with little or no investment of psychological resources (memory capacity, limited attentional capacity).”
We must now add to the hypothesis that learners are constantly restructuring their language as they move through the stages of the U-shaped learning curve the hypothesis of a fixed order of acquisition of parts of English, which I referred to in my presentation. I won’t repeat all that again, but I should make it clear that we don’t know very much about this fixed order – and even if we did, this wouldn’t mean that we were in a position to prescribe an order ofr presentation of structures or lexis in a syllabus. The research into SLA so far has only scratched the surface: most of the work remains to be done. But at least we know enough to say that learners don’t learn English in the way assumed by a coursebook series such as Headway. My argument is that coursebooks demonstrate a common underlying view of how language should be presented and practiced. This view rests on 4 false assumptions about proceduralisation, accumulation, teachability, and the product syllabus.
Needless to say, but say it I must, my arguments are no more than that, and I invite rational discussion of them. In his most recent response to these arguments Dellar says coursebooks are different from each other and teachers use coursebooks in different ways. This fails to address the issues. Much more interesting is Laura’s question “What can realistically be done as an alternative to using textbooks?” I’ll try to answer that very soon.
Carlucci, L. and Case, J. (2013) On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning. Topics.