Serious Questions


After the fun of the Eleven Questions, here are my suggestion for serious ones.

1. Does a theory of SLA need a property theory?

In other words: In order to give a full explanation of SLA, must we provide a theory of the properties acquired? Kevin Gregg insists that we do, and after many years fighting him, I think he’s right. The trouble is, the only theory to address the question is Chomsky’s, and I really don’t think it’s of much use. So here’s our first serious question: how do we name the properties of the “L” in SLA?

2. What is “motivation”?

Dörnyei and his collaborators (particularly Ushioda) have taken us into new territory, but what can we make of the key construct “motivation”? All Dörnyei’s work seemed until very recently to respect a rationalist ontology and epistemology; everything he did seemed rigorous. But in the last few years we’ve been invited to subscribe to a theory of motivation which is mumbo jumbo. What’s all this pseudo-existential new crap about identity and different selves about? The big question remains: How can we pin down constructs like “motivation” and “aptitude” in sociolinguistics in order to better study them?

3. What is “English”?

Jenkins leads the way, Crystal remains constant in his catholic approach, but lots of questions remain. How would English as a Lingua Franca actually work? How would it be taught?

4. How should EFL/ESL be taught?

CLT just doesn’t do as a reply, now does it! There’s Dogme, of course, but, good as it’s been to provoke discussion, it’s thin soup. It tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is the worst mistake innovators make. Since the original manifesto, Scott’s done a clever sequence of side-steps in reply to criticism, but the original impact has been lost and all that remains is the rather bland appeal to a return to the obvious principles of humanistic teaching. The answer to this essential question needs, I think, a fresh approach based on individual learning.

5. What are the essential principles of CLT?

Well this is just a sub-section of Q4, and it’s preceded by my opinion that the model of classes of language students is mistaken.

But anyway: go on: name them. That students talk a lot? That the teacher’s role is coordinator? That task-based activities form the core syllabus? It’s such a fuzzy area and it all needs clarifying. We have some good texts (though I can’t think of any written in the last 4 years or any better than Breen, 1984) but, if we are to continue with classes, we need to pin these essential principles down so that they can be shoved in the face of government officials and the local toads who carry out their orders. We need to say “THIS is CLT and here’s the curriculum (including assessment procedures) which embodies it”. Don’t tell me about the double-speak which passes for such guidelines in South East Asia, particularly in mainland China and Japan; I’m talking about essential principles which can be used to guide us and also as evidence against those schools and governments who pay lip-service to CLT but yet flout its implementation. It would make a good Ph.D. thesis, and I’d be happy to help anybody brave enough to take it on.

David Nunan, that rich man who never sleeps, that hugely influential figure in ELT, takes the view that in S.E. Asia local cultures must be respected, that we can’t rush things, that the teacher’s role needs to be slowly changed, and all that political bullshit. Amazon proudly announces: “Nunan’s textbook series “Go For It!” is the largest selling textbook series in the world with sales exceeding 2.5 billion copies”. Look at them. They represent the best that money can manufacture; they rival some cheap cookbook in their banality; they offend the discerning teacher; they offend critical acumen. And they make their publisher and author millions, of course. Surely all materials would be better if they were locally produced. It can be done.

6. What’s the role of lexical chunks in explaining SLA and teaching EFL/ESL?

Hugh Dellar does some good work here, but he overdoes it. First, he overvalues Michael Lewis’ contribution to this area, which is, in my opinion, appalling. When Lewis worked with Jimmy, they wrote one of the best books ever on English grammar. Left to his own devices, Lewis, with a chip on his shoulder bigger than a vulture (the result of being rightly ignored by publishers and academics alike), pursues in his book The Lexical Approach an oversimplified case with cherry-picked “evidence” and a general polemic which is a disgrace to academic norms and an absurdly over-reaching classroom methodology. It’s bollocks. Michael Hoey and lots of others (notably those involved in the COBUILD project) have good things to say. The real masters at thinking about this issue were, of course, Nattinger and Carrico. It’s like when I say that Breen (1984) has the best argument ever put forward for syllabus design; in terms of lexical chunks, Nattinger and Carrico nailed it, way back then. Essentially, Nattinger and Carrico introduce us to formulaic language and the search for it’s implications goes on.

7. What’s the role of reading in ELT?

Still the most underestimated area of ELT. From all the research I’ve read, extensive reading is VERY important. Teachers should, IMHO, insist that all their students read massively (TAVI) and, through class plans and syllabus design, make sure it happens.

8. What is the role of Discourse Studies in post-graduate studies of TESOL?

Why are students subjected to this inflated, pseudo-scientific nonsense? What good has ever come of such studies – what has ever been learned?

9. Why are non-native English speakers discriminated against all over the damn world, and why does the British Council not condemn this practice?

10. Why are teachers in the ELT community not protected against exploitation?

11. What can we do to put a stop to discrimination and exploitation in our profession?

Two days ago I wrote a post answering this question which I quickly deleted because it was sentimental rubbish. Today, let me just say this: organise at the local level and please tell me what you’re doing.

Final Comment

I think we’re at a time when individualised learning of a second language by adults can take over from the work now done by language schools. I won’t elaborate here, but I’d appreciate responses.

I wrote this in reply to a question by Secret Dos
Sorry for delay in replying properly to your comments.

1. First, property theories. I’ve taken bits from my book (Jordan, 2003) to deal with this here.

In discussions about theories of SLA, Gregg (1993) takes the acquisition of L2 competence, in the Chomskian sense of the term, to be the domain of a theory of SLA. To explain SLA in this limited sense, Gregg says two different types of theory are required: a transition theory and a property theory. (The terms were coined by Cummins (1983)). A transition theory asks questions of the form Why does system S change states from S-1 to S-2? Why does water expand when it freezes? A property theory, on the other hand, does not deal with causes and effects, it deals with the question “What is it for system S to have property P?”

One way of constructing a property theory is to carry out a functional analysis – an analysis of S is constructed that explains S’s possession of P by an appeal to the properties of S’s components and their mode of organisation. Flow charts or exploded views of complex machinery are examples. Gregg argues that theories of generative grammar can be seen as property theories: complex grammatical knowledge is broken down into the interaction of less complex, “ultimately mindless”, principles and rules. Meanwhile, to explain the acquisition of the knowledge thus described, we need a transition theory. Thus, the two questions to be answered by a theory of SLA are:

1. How is L2 knowledge instantiated in the mind/brain?
2. How does L2 knowledge come to be acquired?

In his 1996 article, Gregg again insists that a theory of SLA is a theory of linguistic competence, and explores the nature of L2 competence. To explain L2 competence, Gregg argues that we need a property theory to explain the “logical problem” of SLA, which is, similarly to the logical problem of L1 acquisition, that L2 learners achieve a competence which goes well beyond the input they receive. There are two varieties of property theories: modular (UG) and non-modular. The two main non-modular approaches to L2 competence are O’Grady’s language acquisition theory (1987, 1996), and connectionism (see Gasser, 1990 and Chapter 7). Gregg says that there is little evidence yet to support either view.

We are left with theories of UG. Gregg uses a theological analogy to describe different UG approaches to L2. UG “deists” say that UG is essential for L1 development but has no role in L2 development, just as God created the universe, set things going, and then retired. “Theists”, on the other hand, say that UG is immanent in language use and L1 acquisition, so also participates in L2 acquisition, just as some argue in theology that God is everywhere. (Non-modular approaches can be seen as forms of atheism.) Whether one adopts a deist or theist approach, the domain of the theory is limited: it says nothing about foreign accent, L1-related errors, or indeed anything outside the confines of the “core grammar” dealt with by UG. This narrowing of the theoretical domain is, says Gregg, “a result devoutly to be wished” – those advocating a “communicative competence” approach, like the morpheme-acquisition researchers, have, according to Gregg, found themselves in difficult situations for lack of a theoretical foundation for interpreting empirical data.

Gregg gives some examples of the difference between deism and theism. The principle of Subjacency is irrelevant to languages without wh-movement, and so the question arises: will the principle of Subjacency constrain the learner of an L2 with wh-movement whose L1 does not have wh-movement? Theists say yes, Deists say no. Similarly, with binary parameters (pro-drop, or agreement), if L1 and L2 have different settings, the Theist will expect the parameter to be “reset” for the L2, while the Deist will not.

I hope that’s enough to give you an idea of what Gregg is referring to and why he insists on its importance. In my book, and in a subsequent article, I challenged Gregg’s view (his reply to my article was a typically-elegant hatchet job), but I now think that he’s right to demand a property theory, although I don’t agree with his answer, i.e. UG.

You say: “If language is a socially constructed tool that allows us to mediate our interaction within any given time and space, then it seems highly unlikely that we are going to find That Which Is To Be Acquired solely within the skull of any particular individual. This is why I am fascinated by the possibilities that the metaphor of embodied cognition opens up to us”. I rather think that “That Which is To Be Acquired” is to be found in the individual mind, but I find the new work on embodied cognition very interesting, and not actually a challenge to some versions of a mentalist view.

2. You, like Jessica and others, have a higher regard for Dörnyei’s new theory than I do, but, anyway, I like your comments about Dörnyei not having gone far enough, and I agree that most constructs involving “the self” lead to theories which are profoundly wrong.

3,4,5. Great comments; absolutely nothing that I don’t agree with you about, and very well put!

6. I personally think that SLA is not really a question of memorising lexical chunks. The new work being done in various areas – most of it pushed by new developments in cognitive science – seem to me to suggest that Susan Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory is on the right track. I will get together a post on this.

7. I agree!

So, thanks again, You, and I look forward to following your great blog in 2014.

Very best wishes,

Geoff .

Carroll, S. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amsterdam, Benjamins.
Cummins, R. (1983) The Nature of Psychological Explanation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gregg, K. R. (1993) “Taking explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom”.
Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.
Gregg, K. R. (1996) “The logical and developmental problems of second language
acquisition”. In Ritchie, W.C. and Bhatia, T.K. (eds.) Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press.
Gregg, K.R. (2005) “A response to Jordan’s (2004) ‘Explanatory Adequacy and Theories
of Second Language Acquisition’”. Applied Linguistics, 26/1: 121–124.
Jordan, G. (2003) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.
Jordan, G. (2004) ‘Explanatory adequacy and theories of SLA,’ Applied Linguistics 25/4: 539–43.

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