What good is relativism?


Scott Thornbury (2008) asks “What good is SLA Theory?” . This is a question beloved of populists, all of whom agree that it’s of no use to anyone, except the rarefied crackpots who dream it up. Thornbury sets the tone of his own populist piece by saying that most teachers display a general ignorance of, and indifference to, SLA theory, due to “the visceral distrust that most practitioners feel towards ivory-tower theorising”.  If he’d said that most English language teachers have an ingrained distrust of academic research into language learning, we might have asked him for some evidence to support the assertion, but who can question that ivory tower theorists are not to be trusted? Note how Thornbury, who teaches a post-graduate course on theories of SLA at a New York university, and who has published many articles in serious, peer-reviewed journals, smears academics with the “ivory tower” brush, while himself sidling up to the hard-working, down to earth sceptics who read the English Teaching Professional magazine

Thornbury gives a brief sketch of 4 types of SLA theory and then gives 4 reasons why “knowledge of theory” is a good thing for teachers. But you can tell that his heart’s not in it.  He knows perfectly well that “knowledge” of the theories of SLA he mentions is of absolutely no use to anybody unless those theories are properly scrutinised and evaluated, but, rather than attempt any such evaluation, Thornbury prefers to devote the article to reassuring everybody that there’s no need to take SLA theories too seriously.

To help him drive home this anti-intellectual message, Thornbury turns to “SLA heavyweight” John H Schumann. Most SLA scholars regard the extreme relativist position Schumann adopts in his 1983 article as almost comically preposterous, while his acculturation theory is about as “heavyweight” as Dan Brown’s theory of the Holy Grail.  But anyway, judge for yourself.  Schumann (1983) suggests that theory construction in SLA should be regarded not as a scientific task, but as a creative endeavour, like painting. Rather than submitting rival theories of SLA to careful scrutiny, looking for coherence, logical consistency and empirical adequacy, for example, Schumann suggests that competing theories of SLA should be evaluated in the same way that one might evaluate different paintings.

“When SLA is regarded as art not science, Krashen’s and McLaughlin’s views can coexist as two different paintings of the language learning experience… Viewers can choose between the two on an aesthetic basis favouring the painting which they find phenomenologically  true to their experience.”

Thornbury seems to admire this suggestion. He comments:

“This is why metaphors have such power. We tend to be well disposed to a theory if its dominant imagery chimes with our own values and beliefs. If we are inclined to think of learning as the meeting of minds, for example, an image such as the Zone of Proximal Delevopment is more likely to attract us than the image of a black box.”

Schumann’s paper was an early salvo in what, 10 years later, turned into a spirited war between academics who adopted a relativist epistemology; and those who held to a rationalist epistemology. The war is still waging, and, typically enough, Thornbury stays well clear of the front line, while maintaining friendly relations with both camps. But let’s be clear: relativism, even though not often taken to the extreme that Schumann does, is actually taken seriously by many academics, including Larsen-Freeman and sometimes (depending on how the wind’s blowing) by Thornbury himself. Rational criteria for the evaluation of rival theories of SLA, including logical consistency and the weighing of empirical evidence, are abandoned in favour of the “thick description” of different “stories” or “narratives”,  all of them deemed to have as much merit as each other. Relativists suggest that trying to explain SLA in the way that rationalists (or “positivists” as they like to call them) do is no more than “science envy”, and basically a waste of time. Which is actually the gist of Thornbury’s argument in the 2008 article discussed here.

In response to this relativist position, let me quote Larry Laudan, who says

“The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is—second only to American political campaigns—the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time.”


Thornbury asks “What good is SLA theory?” without making any attempt to critically evaluate the rival theories he outlines. But then, why should he? After all, if you adopt a relativist stance, then no theory is right, none is of much importance, so why bother to sort them out? Instead of going to all that unnecessary trouble, all you have to do is take a quick look at Thornbury’s little summary in Table 1 and choose the theory that grabs you, or rather, choose the “dominant metaphor” which best chimes with your own values and beliefs. And if you can’t be bothered to check out which theory goes best with your values and beliefs, then why not use some other, equally arbitrary subjective criterion? You could toss a coin, or stare intently at a piece of toast, or ask Jeremy Harmer.

“What good is SLA theory?” is actually a very stupid question. It’s as if “SLA theory” were some sort of uncountable noun, like toothpaste. What good is toothpaste? It doesn’t actually make much difference to brushing your teeth. But “SLA theory” is not uncountable; some SLA theories are very bad, and some are very good, and consequently, we need to agree on criteria for evaluating them so as to concentrate on what we can learn from the best theories. Instead of pandering to the misinformed view that SLA theories are equally unscientific, equally based on metaphors, equally relative in their appeal, Thornbury could have used the space he had in the journal to examine – however “lightly”- the relative merits of the theories he discusses, and the usefulness to teachers of the best theories.  He could have mentioned some of the findings of psycholinguistic research into the influence of the L1; age differences and sensitive periods; error correction; incomplete trajectories; explicit and implicit learning, and much besides. He could have mentioned one or two of the most influential current hypotheses about SLA, for example that instruction can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development.

He could have also pointed out that those adopting a relativist epistemology have achieved very little; that Larsen-Freeman’s exploration of complexity theory has achieved precisely nothing; that his own attempts to use emergentism to conjure up “grammar for free” have been equally woeful; and that the relativists he supports are more responsible than anyone else for the popular view that academics sit in an ivory tower writing unintelligible articles packed with obscurantist jargon for publication in journals that only they bother to read.


Laudan, L. (1990) Science and Relativism: Dialogues on the Philosophy of Science. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Schumann, J. H. (2003) Art and Science in SLA research. Language Learning, 33, 409 – 75.


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